New Labour 20 years on: assessing the legacy of the Tony Blair years

On the trail in 1997. PA Archive/PA Images

On the 20th anniversary of one of Labour’s greatest victories, party members are, to say the least, conflicted about the governments made possible by the election held on May 1 1997. The virtues of Labour’s longest uninterrupted period in office, based on an unprecedented three back-to-back victories (two of which produced its biggest ever House of Commons majorities) are not exactly being shouted from the rooftops.

For Jeremy Corbyn, 1997 is the stuff of nightmares: and those members who re-elected him leader in 2016 clearly agree. To them, the election is a morality tale, a political version of the Faustian legend. It represents the moment Tony Blair sold Labour’s socialist soul for the sake of a few votes. “Blairite”, to them, is a term of abuse, and Corbyn the ultimate anti-Blairite – a figure who remained true to his principles during the dark days of New Labour.

For these few hundred thousand Labour members, it is the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the failure to completely reverse two decades of Thatcherism that most rankles. Until the term is decontaminated, any figure tarred by the Blairite brush will never lead the party. But for millions of voters, David Cameron’s spurious accusation that Labour was responsible for the austerity following the 2008 financial crisis, because it “maxed out” the national credit card, resonates the most. And until Labour can successfully challenge that perception, it will find it hard to win another general election.

Without a trace?

For a government that supposedly won office thanks to its ability to spin any message to its advantage, the one that began in 1997 has a paradoxically poor reputation. Yet, when its achievements are soberly assessed it does not look so bad. Labour went into the election committed to five key pledges: to tackle crime, improve public services, maintain the top rate of tax and reduce youth unemployment. When appraised by Channel 4 News in 2007 these pledges were found to have been largely achieved. Similarly, Polly Toynbee and David Walker’s 2010 audit concluded that, as the party’s campaign song promised, under Labour things really did get better for most Britons.

Labour’s 1997 campaign.

The disparity between Labour’s record and its reputation motivated me to curate an exhibition at the People’s History Museum to give visitors the chance to think about the reasons for the creation of New Labour, the alternatives open to the party, the nature of the 1997 campaign and of its consequences. One exhibition is however not going to transform how everybody thinks: what historians refer to as “cultural memory” is constituted by diverse influences. But we do need to start thinking more clearly about this important moment in Britain’s democratic history.

Certainly the government elected in 1997 has left little by which it might be remembered. Unlike Clement Attlee’s 1945 administration, the one led by Blair has left no obvious institutional mark. There is no equivalent of the National Health Service. Even Harold Wilson’s troubled governments of the 1960s built the Open University. Blair did, albeit reluctantly, introduce devolution to Scotland and Wales. But given the measure was meant to kill off support for independence, this cannot be said to have been a roaring success – and those who have most benefited from devolution seem least willing to thank him for it.

Nor did the government lay down a distinct policy agenda with long-term consequences. If Attlee is associated with nationalisation and Margaret Thatcher with privatisation, Blair’s Third Way was accused of being too statist by the right and overly obsessed with the market by the left. Labour in power did pursue policies no Conservative government would have – notably the reduction in child poverty and the Sure Start programme for disadvantaged pre-schoolers. But after 2010 Conservative austerity put paid to them. Similarly, improvements in health and education have now been reversed.

Nor did Labour bring about a lasting value change. As measured by the British Social Attitudes survey, between 1997 and 2010, sentiment about taxation and redistribution actually became more right-wing. In contrast Blair did restore trust in politics in the wake of Conservative difficulties over sleaze. As measured by Ipsos MORI, trust in politicians rose from 15% in 1997 to 23% two years later. But this did not last beyond the 2008 expenses scandal.

People in the dark

The government elected in 1997 benefited Britain, but the changes it engineered were tentative and temporary: Blair did not radically transform, but modestly improved. Thanks to Conservative austerity, you’d be forgiven for thinking that 1997 never happened. So if you want to properly understand the impact of the election, the devil is deep in the detail – one place where many in Blair’s own party do not wish to look.

That poster. Dolores Luxedo, CC BY-NC-SA

Although he won the 1994 Labour leadership contest with 57% of votes, most members had serious misgivings about Tony Blair. The left-wing shadow cabinet minister Claire Short even publicly attacked her leader and his allies as “people in the dark”, prepared to obtain power at any price. So impressed was the Conservative party they put Short’s comments on their infamous 1996 Demon Eyes poster, which showed Blair as the Devil. Meant to raise doubts in wavering Tory voters’ minds the Labour leader would say anything to win their support, it is an image which now grips the imagination of those probably taking the party to one of its biggest ever election defeats.

If the anti-Blair gets his anti-1997, we will have to wait and see if that forces Labour members to change their minds about what happened on May 1 20 years ago.