Have things got bet­ter un­der Blair?

He promised that things could only get bet­ter. But af­ter 10 years, did Tony Blair live up to his prom­ises? Kent Mes­sen­ger Group po­lit­i­cal ed­i­tor Paul Francis de­liv­ers his ver­dict

Kentish Express Ashford & District - - OPINION -

WHEN Tony Blair strode con­fi­dently into 10 Down­ing Street on May 1, 1997, it was on the back of a prom­ise to the Bri­tish peo­ple that things could only get bet­ter.

For many, the youngest Prime Min­is­ter in a cen­tury rep­re­sented a wel­come breath of fresh air af­ter 18 years of un­bro­ken Con­ser­va­tive rule, giv­ing the coun­try a re­newed spirit of op­ti­mism.

He was, pol­i­tics aside, hard to dis­like – had a young fam­ily, he played the gui­tar, was good at self-dep­re­cat­ing jokes. He might even have known how much a pint of milk was.

He cer­tainly seemed to be in tune with “or­di­nary” peo­ple in a way the de­feated Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment was not.

Un­like other Labour lead­ers, he care­fully avoided fright­en­ing the vot­ers of mid­dle Eng­land with threats of tax hikes. He rarely men­tioned so­cial­ism, pre­fer­ring phrases like “so­cial jus­tice.”

In­stead, the “New Labour” brand was con­stantly – and, at least in the early days, suc­cess­fully – in­voked. Yet even with the Tories mired in ob­scure ar­gu­ments over Europe and ap­par­ently un­end­ing sleaze scan­dals, it was still a shock when Labour snatched eight of the Con­ser­va­tive-held seats in the county.

Seem­ingly im­preg­nable Tory ma­jori­ties in Kent con­stituen­cies that had for decades been “true blue” were over­turned with stag­ger­ing ease. It was a land­slide ap­pear­ing to sig­nal a seis­mic shift in the po­lit­i­cal land­scape.

The fact that Labour has held on to all those seats at three suc­ces­sive elec­tions re­flected Blair’s pop­u­lar ap­peal in pre­vi­ously “no-go” ter­ri­tory.

It has be­come com­mon to com­plain Blair lacked a clear ide­ol­ogy. That over­looks the fact many were dis­il­lu­sioned with the un­com­pro­mis­ing na­ture of Thatcherism and were con­tent to elect a Prime Min­is­ter who stuck his first pol­icy pledges on some­thing that looked like a su­per­mar­ket loy­alty card.

So, how is it that 10 years on, he is about to leave of­fice with his poll rat­ings on the slide and an elec­torate with de­cid­edly mixed views about his decade run­ning the coun­try?

In­evitably, his de­ci­sion to go to war with Iraq looms large over this un­pop­u­lar­ity.

But a sim­pler ex­pla­na­tion might be that his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer is just fol­low­ing the nor­mal tra­jec­tory of most lead­ers of the coun­try.

His de­ci­sion to an­nounce that he would not lead Labour at an­other elec­tion was an un­suc­cess­ful, and with hind­sight ham­fisted, at­tempt to pre-empt the down­turn in for­tunes he knew was com­ing.

For many, when the fi­nal ac­count sheet is drawn up, Blair will be in the deficit col­umn.

It is un­fair but is what hap­pens to most po­lit­i­cal lead­ers.

There have been achieve­ments and, sig­nif­i­cantly, his gov­ern­ment has presided over a pe­riod of sus­tained eco­nomic sta­bil­ity and growth, even if the polls sug­gest many now feel worse off than in 1997.

But you will be hard-pressed to find peo­ple who be­lieve the NHS has got bet­ter. And many live in fear of crime.

Ac­cu­sa­tions are made that schools have dumbed down; class­room stan­dards are poorer and that be­hav­iour among young peo­ple is worse. Res­i­dents com­plain the Asbo gen­er­a­tion blights their lives.

Some of the facts flatly con­tra­dict this. Spend­ing on the NHS has in­creased from £34bil­lion in 1997 to £94bil­lion this year.

Spend­ing per school pupil has dou­bled to £5,000. Over­all, crime has fallen, with par­tic­u­larly steep falls in bur­glar­ies al­though vi­o­lent crime has risen.

So, it would be wrong to say there have been no pluses.

Things did get bet­ter – but not ev­ery­thing got bet­ter, es­pe­cially in pub­lic ser­vices, where he has dis­cov­ered that sim­ply plough­ing more money is not a guar­an­tee of im­prov­ing stan­dards.

One of the big­gest black marks against Blair’s decade in power is his fail­ure to re­store the pub­lic’s trust in politi­cians.

The ob­ses­sion with spin and per­fect­ing the right sound­bite has had a cor­ro­sive ef­fect on some­one who once claimed to be a “straight kind of guy” and pledged his gov­ern­ment would be “whiter than white”.

The sleaze charge sheet is as damn­ing as it was for the Con­ser­va­tives, with the on-go­ing po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion into al­le­ga­tions of “cash for hon­ours” top of the list. Restor­ing the good name of pol­i­tics will be a job for some­one else.

So what is his great­est achieve­ment? Per­haps we need to look not to Labour but the Con­ser­va­tives.

Blair has helped frac­ture the tra­di­tional po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions of left and right and com­pelled his main ri­val to shift tack in a way which would have been unimag­in­able 10 years ago.

Af­ter three suc­ces­sive de­feats, the Con­ser­va­tives now es­pouse many of the same poli­cies as Labour.

David Cameron, a party leader in the Blair mould, talks as much about the need to in­vest in pub­lic ser­vices and help the less for­tu­nate in so­ci­ety as he does about his party’s com­mit­ment to tax cuts.

It is the ul­ti­mate po­lit­i­cal com­pli­ment. In time, it might also prove to be Blair’s defin­ing legacy.

Pic­ture: John Ward­ley

An elec­tion rally at Chilston Manor, near Ash­ford, just two months be­fore storm­ing to power

How we re­ported the Labour land­slide of 1997 in Kent To­day

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