From The Sunday Times
April 11, 2010
Gordon Brown and Tony Blair were not behind our better Britain
Britain has been transformed since Labour came to power in 1997, yet the changes in our health and wealth and how we work and play have been driven by ordinary people
‘Thiiiiiiiings can only get better.” They sang it over and over on May 2, 1997, when Tony Blair took to the stage at the Festival Hall on London’s South Bank and declared: “We’ve done it. A new dawn has broken.”
D:Ream’s song was new Labour’s official theme tune and the unofficial anthem of a new generation of voters who hoped that this time things really would be different. Richard Adams, then a student from Peterborough aged 21, was there on the concourse outside the Festival Hall that bright morning. He had just voted in his first election and his party had won big. “That day, I — everyone — thought anything was possible,” he recalls.
If you stand on those concrete-grey paving stones today, there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful. For one, the paving stones are not concrete any more. They’re a rather natty slate. In fact, the whole of the South Bank has been transformed from a dreary symbol of “old Britain” — a deserted, brutish 1970s strip, where the food was bad and the coffee worse — into a model of what a stylish, modern capital city should be.
There is the best modern architecture — the London Eye, Tate Modern and the (formerly) wobbly bridge. The restaurants serve newly fashionable British cuisine. Drama and music at the National Theatre and the revamped Festival Hall have never been stronger. Across the Thames, the gilded palaces of Westminster and the City of London bookend a view that is every bit as optimistic as Manhattan’s. But today Adams is glum. It is those bookends that are the problem. “Westminster and the City of London have spectacularly screwed up,” he says.
Ask anyone, from the south bank of the Thames to the north bank of the Clyde, whether our traditional power bases helped to make things better in the past 13 years of Labour rule and most people will say no — and probably something a lot ruder. David Starkey, the historian, says this government is ending “as Labour governments always do, with devaluation, a financial crisis and a budgetary crisis. We’re back to 1979, to 1951”.
But the curious thing is, for all our political and financial woes, few of us want to live like we did before new Labour. A YouGov poll for The Sunday Times reveals that despite the economic upheaval of the past couple of years, one in two of us thinks “life has got better for me personally” since 1997. We have changed, each of us, and we like what we’ve become.
How is this possible when politicians turned out to be, in David Cameron’s words, “sleazy pigs”; when a chancellor, now prime minister, who claimed to have abolished boom and bust presided over the biggest boom and bust ever; and when the so-called whizzo-brains in the City forgot the basic laws of economics and left us with a bill none of us can pay?
The answer is people power. We did change for the better in the new Labour years but mostly we did it for ourselves. Individuals, often outsiders and rank amateurs, transformed the nation for good in more profound ways than the politicians or money men ever could. If there really was a “third way”, the man and woman in the street — you and me — were it.
Take politics. It was a young journalist living in east London who was responsible for the most jarring domestic political development of the new Labour years. Heather Brooke’s five-year campaign to use the Freedom of Information Act to force MPs to publish their expenses led to the eventual leak to The Daily Telegraph of MPs’ full expenses claims.
Brooke, author of The Silent State, did more to rid us of a corrupt, anachronistic and unjust system of governance than anyone and, if there is a hero of our troubled political times, it is her. Looking back, she says: “The scandal of MPs’ expenses is not a one-off. It stems from a disturbing belief held by public servants that they are our masters. Well, we’ve had enough of that mentality. Our expectations have changed.”
Ordinary people transformed politics beyond Westminster, too. Red-nosed, pink-jacketed huntsmen joined gypsies and farmers to fight for the rights of those living in the countryside for the first time since the feudal past. How Blair must regret the Hunting Act. It took more parliamentary time than any other bill in 15 years and, by the time it finally became law, there were so many loopholes that most hunts continue almost unmolested today.
Clive Aslet, who has reported on rural Britain for 20 years as editor of Country Life, says: “A new sort of political power has emerged in the shires and beyond. The Countryside Alliance has proved extraordinarily effective in mobilising people who hitherto would rather have eaten their wellies than go on political marches, let alone take on the state.”
It was the ordinary man and woman in the suburbs and the villages who fought to improve education. More of us want to set up our own schools and, if the Tories win on May 6, we will get the chance; 300 groups of parents, teachers and others have signed up to the New Schools Network, an organisation set up to implement the Tories’ plans for Swedish-style “free schools”, independent of local authority control. Like it or not, it was also ordinary people who gave the far right its electoral breakthrough when the BNP won its first seats in the European parliament last year.
The more people power grew under new Labour, the more mistakes the government made, weakening its authority. The decision to ignore strong public opposition and go to war in Iraq on evidence that was flimsy at best, non-existent at worst, fatally hobbled Blair. Iraq also ignited a battle between the West and radical Islam, at just the time when many in the West had dared to hope for a future without a global enemy after the defeat of fascism and communism. So much for a new kind of foreign policy.
As chancellor, Gordon Brown failed to use the vast profits generated by the unprecedented financial and housing boom of the 1990s to build a crisis-proof public sector balance sheet. He hoped for the best — and only planned for that outcome, too. So when the bust hit, we suffered the worst fiscal deterioration of any of the Group of Seven leading countries.
Our recession lasted six quarters, longer than that of any other G7 economy. Government borrowing as a share of GDP this year is forecast by the International Monetary Fund to be the highest in the wider Group of 20. Our budget deficit is £167 billion, the largest in peacetime.
One leading British businessman, speaking anonymously because he once advised new Labour and does not want to add to the current crop of “business leaders slam Brown” headlines, describes the deficit as “amoral”. He argues: “I run a big multinational. If I ran it in the wildly irresponsible way that Brown has run the economy, I’d be out of business and out of a job.”
Blair and Brown wanted to reverse inequality and encourage social mobility. Child poverty would be abolished. “Education, education, education” would create new opportunities for the poor. Labour poured a once-in-a-lifetime amount into public services through the Sure Start programme, through tax credits for low-paid families and by doubling health spending in real terms to a massive £122 billion. The minimum wage was introduced.
The results? The poor did benefit. Analysis carried out by the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) shows that “Robin Hood” tax-and- benefit policies increased incomes for the lowest paid — up by 12% for the bottom tenth — and reduced them for the highest earners — down by 8% for the top tenth, compared with what would have happened if ministers had done nothing. More teenagers stayed in education and went to university.
It was not enough, however. Thanks to a booming economy, the rich continued to race away from the rest. We live in a country that is more divided than ever before. Robert Chote, head of the IFS, says: “Although the rapid increase in income inequality we saw under the Conservatives has been largely halted, it remains slightly higher now than when Labour came to office.”
Thanks to the extra health spending, many hospitals are shinier, waiting lists have fallen and the excellent NHS Direct has been introduced. But critics say the glitter is fool’s gold. Civitas, the think tank, argues that Labour did not get value for the extra billions it pumped into the National Health Service. It highlights the disastrous contracts for GPs that rewarded them for doing what they were already doing, rather than encouraging them to do more. Indeed, it allowed many to opt out of working nights and weekends, leaving a number of areas with next to no GP cover at those times.
To make matters worse, much of the government spending that has benefited the poor will be hacked away when whichever party wins the election cuts spending to reduce the deficit. Both Labour and the Tories say they will protect the NHS from real cuts. However, with the cost of healthcare overall going up and demand rising — thanks to an ageing population and the increase in “lifestyle” illnesses associated with rising obesity levels, such as diabetes — even a spending freeze will feel like a savage cut. Hospitals are already planning to reduce the number of operations they perform and to cut beds and wards.
The state may have struggled to nudge us to act differently but we have changed the way we behave, often for the better. Again, it is ordinary people who have led the way.
In our big cities, at least, we have become a more open and tolerant society. London is the most mixed, most international city in the world: the new New York.
We now have popular black and Asian role models. Rio Ferdinand is the England football captain. Lewis Hamilton, the Formula One star, is the sport’s youngest world champion. Leona Lewis is at the top of British pop music. Tidjane Thiam is the man from the Pru.
Trevor Phillips, head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, celebrates Britain today as “by far the best place to live in Europe if you are not white. There are still problems — attacks on immigrants, the failure of institutions to move with the times, the many anxieties that people of all races share about the effects of immigration despite its value to our economy — but we are increasingly open and tolerant”.
And it is not just race. The latest British Social Attitudes Survey confirms that our attitudes to homosexuality are more liberal. One-third of us now think that sexual relations between two adults of the same sex are “always or mostly” wrong, down from two-thirds in 1983.
Gareth Thomas knows better than anyone how our views have shifted. When the Welsh rugby international came out as gay, team-mates, rival players, fans and the newspapers praised him as brave. When Michael Cashman, the EastEnders actor, did the same thing a couple of decades ago, the headline in The Sun the next day screamed: “Eastbenders!”. Kelvin MacKenzie, the editor who wrote that headline, said recently that he couldn’t have written it now.
Hating posh people seems to be the last acceptable prejudice and even that is not as much fun as it used to be. Brown is itching to ram the toff card down Cameron’s Old Etonian throat but the focus groups say it won’t work, so he tiptoes around the subject instead, playing up his “ordinary, middle-class” background as a son of the manse.
Elsewhere, men — men! — have been fighting for their social rights. Fathers4Justice reminded us that dads mattered. We became greener — a bit. We stopped smoking and a lot of us, especially the middle classes, eat better, too.
It was chefs, notably Jamie Oliver, rather than government ministers, who accounted for this improvement. The television programme Jamie’s School Dinners forced the government to spend an extra £500m to ensure that children ate a nutritious meal for 190 days of the year.
The Essex boy made good says: “I was frustrated about the way we live but I was not the only one. When the petition to improve school food was launched, the public got massively behind it and, together, we achieved a change in policy.”
Oliver illustrates another example of the rise of people power in the past 13 years: the triumph of the self-starting entrepreneur. Traditional big businesses — British Airways, Marks & Spencer, EMI — have struggled under new Labour, and some have died: Rover, Woolworths. Yet business and the economy have grown and, for the first time, much of that growth has come from individuals creating businesses from scratch. Oliver himself has nine restaurants here, is expanding overseas and has amassed a personal fortune of £50m.
Figures from the Federation of Small Businesses show that in 1997 there were 3.7m small companies — usually defined as having between one and 250 employees. By 2008 the figure was almost 5m. These firms employ nearly two-thirds of the private sector workforce and contribute half of our GDP. The number of self-employed people has risen from 3.5m in 1997 to almost 4m today.
Sir Richard Branson, who named his company Virgin because he had zero business experience when he started it, says: “Britain has become a better place to set up a business, even from one’s front room. The rise of the truly global market has made it more open for new businesses to quickly establish themselves. Now we need to make sure that we maintain our entrepreneurial spirit and keep the recovery moving.”
Wannabe entrepreneurs had a key ally: technology. The spread of the internet, on our PCs and now on our smartphones and iPads, is the biggest “event” of the new Labour years. Nothing before, not the railways in the Victorian era, nor the telephone in the last century, has provided such potential to create, connect and communicate.
Sure, the web has harmed some — newspapers, travel agents, publishers and advertisers. Yes, it’s annoying to be “always on”, with email, Facebook, Twitter and goodness knows what’s next, when we want to be “off”. But technology has transformed our physical and social landscape — generally for the better.
In particular, it has slashed the costs of starting a business, running one and advertising one and has encouraged hundreds of thousands of Britons to set up new companies. Some have gone on to become big successes, notably easyJet, Carphone Warehouse, TalkTalk, Virgin Media, Soho House, Majestic Wine, Last Minute, Ocado, Dyson, Innocent, Net-a-Porter and Ryanair, which, although Irish, has its base at Stansted airport.
Charles Dunstone, who has seen his firm, Carphone Warehouse, go from a single shop to the biggest high-street phone retailer in Europe and whose telephone and internet provider, TalkTalk, is emerging as a rival to BT, says: “Technology is breaking down traditional business models. It allows new ideas to flourish. None of the major web-based success stories of the past 15 years was started by a corporation. All were founded by entrepreneurs as start-ups.”
People power was so all-pervasive in the new Labour years that it influenced every part of our culture.
Ordinary people came to dominate television for the first time. Big Brother, Survivor, Pop Idol, The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent promised us all our 15 minutes of fame and we grabbed it, watched it and voted for it in greater numbers than we voted in elections.
Our bestselling author, JK Rowling, sprang from a coffee shop in Edinburgh, not from Oxford. Some of the most influential art came from the man on the street — literally, in the case of Banksy, the graffiti artist.
Of course, just because we were doing things for ourselves for the first time does not mean we did everything right. We got hooked on cheap money, borrowed too much and are now in financial rehab.
Personal debt has risen from £500 billion in May 1997 to £1.46 trillion this year. We bought houses that we could not afford, helping to inflate the property bubble. In October 2007 the price of an average house was £186,044, Nationwide building society figures show. That was a 220% increase on the figure for May 1997 — £58,196. Today the figure is £164,519, up 183%.
We spent too much, often on idiotic things — 4x4s, Botox, Brazilian waxes and boob jobs. Boys went Nuts and girls wanted to be Wags. Our obsession with reality TV encouraged producers to come up with ever more extreme formats, turning much of our telly into a theatre of cruelty. Channel 4 axed Big Brother after complaints that contestants’ mental health was being put at risk.
Nor did the state get everything wrong. There are some things that only the government can do — and, thankfully, did do when we really needed it.
In those terrifying days in late 2008 when the entire global financial system was on the brink of collapse, Brown acted decisively to save the banking system. His move to pump money into the banks became the model for the global rescue of the financial system. Hank Paulson, the US Treasury secretary, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, immediately copied him. Brown was hailed by Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize-winning economist, as the man who saved the world.
Peace broke out in Northern Ireland when Blair, building on John Major’s success, persuaded the once implacable foes to work together. We are probably safer thanks to our decision to go to war in Afghanistan. London has a mayor and Scotland and Wales their own parliaments. Crime has fallen. And the trains run on time.
Thirteen years after a new political era began, what does people power mean for the election?
Peter Kellner, head of the pollster YouGov, argues that the contest will be far less about who wins and much more about whether whoever walks into Downing Street on May 7 can convince us we need them. “When I was growing up in the Fifties and Sixties it was taken for granted that politics and politicians were a good thing, but now politics is degraded,” he says. “The challenge for whichever party wins the election will be to justify their existence, to persuade us we need politics at all.”
Both main parties acknowledge that (mis)rule from the centre has gone too far and promise to decentralise power over the next parliament to bring politics closer to the people. That will take years. In the short term, whoever wins in three weeks’ time will have the greatest chance of regaining voters’ trust if they can persuade us that they can sort out the economic mess we’re in.
That will be easier in some areas than others. In those places that have done well over the past 13 years, where people power has been greatest, the Tory agenda — cut spending deeply and early to sort out the deficit fast, encourage banks to lend again and return to open and competitive markets that will restore Britain to its position as the poster child for globalisation in the rich world — is likely to resonate.
David Cameron may find the going tough in those areas where Labour’s higher public spending has left many dependent on the state. Under new Labour, the government’s share of output and expenditure has surged to more than 60% in some areas of England and more than 70% elsewhere, creating what commentators have dubbed “Soviet Britain”. In these areas voters may still vote Labour, opting for a “feel bad” recovery under Brown over what they fear will be a “feel worse” recovery under Cameron.
Richard Reeves, director of Demos, the think tank, says: “While Cameron’s vision of rolling forward the ‘big society’ in place of the ‘big state’ will appeal to many, to others it represents a big threat. For many in the public sector Labour is like a controlling husband. They don’t like it but are afraid of the alternatives.”
This leaves some in the Labour party daring to hope for a repeat of their darkest hour — with a twist. In 1992 another third-term government was mired in recession and sleaze and, everyone agreed, was on its last legs. But Major sneaked back in to No 10 by appealing to voters’ pockets.
Could Brown do the same? Could he appeal directly to public sector workers’ insecurities on the one hand and play up his role as a safe economic pair of hands in a crisis to the general electorate on the other — and come back from the dead?
History rarely repeats itself. But for the first time in 20 years no one — not the parties, not the bookies, not the pollsters — has a clue what the result is going to be. A Tory majority? A hung parliament? Brown desperately clinging on in No 10 trying to form a coalition, with Vince Cable of the Liberal Democrats in No 11? It is a fitting end to the era of people power that this election, more than any other, will be decided by the power of one: you.