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
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.
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