The Coalition: The true test of a Blairite legacy

1 Aug 2013

Since the start of the twentieth century, Britain has experienced many radical administrations that have left their blueprint on the nation and forced their successors to carry on their legacy. These include the Liberal government of 1906-15, the Labour government of 1945-51 and the Conservative government of 1979-97. However, as the pages of history keep turning, it is very difficult to assess how much of a legacy Tony Blair and New Labour has left on Britain, with many authors such as Peter Riddell calling his legacy an ‘unfulfilled one.’

 

Throughout his time in power, Blair was a dynamic, persuasive leader who left his mark on the world stage. He came to power during the best time ever for a peace time Prime Minister; in eleven years, the economy remained stable and Gordon Brown ensured that the Thatcher legacy was preserved and even expanded upon. But there in itself was already part of New Labour’s problem; Gordon Brown. New Labour missed out on a fundamental opportunity to capitalise upon their historic landslide victories due, in my opinion, to three fundamental problems with the New Labour administration; the conflict between Brown and Blair, the anti-terror legislation that came flooding in after 9/11, and the Iraq War. 

With a strategy of keeping Middle England happy through the maintenance of income tax rates for the highest earners at 40 per cent, Blair missed out on an opportunity to radicalise the public services and change the political landscape to the same extent his predecessors did. He was cautious of his rebellious backbenchers and of radicalising public services when all the money inherited from the last Conservative government was running dry. Indeed, it was only by 2006 that the effects of New Labour’s reforms were coming into place. By that year, people felt New Labour did well in only three important areas; lifting people out of poverty, improving school standards and managing the economy better than the Conservatives did during the 80s and 90s. On everything else like Europe, immigration, crime etc., New Labour failed.

When David Cameron became Conservative leader in 2005, his strategy was a centrist one, rather like Blair’s, as he even helped support Labour’s Education Bill in 2006 despite opposition from Labour backbenchers. But on other issues, there were clear differences between Cameron and Blair- the question of ID cards for example. So now that Cameron is leading a Coalition with Blair’s old allies, the Liberal Democrats, what have this Coalition Government managed to preserve and even continue from the New Labour administration? And what have they scrapped? For a start, we already know that Cameron has gone further than Blair in drawing up a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, something which he failed, or simply did not need, to do.

Constitutional Reform: There is no doubt that the Coalition has preserved Labour’s fundamental constitutional reforms like devolution, the Freedom of Information Act, the 1999 House of Lords Reforms, Northern Ireland and the Supreme Court. If anything, devolution has continued under the Coalition, with the Welsh Assembly gaining more powers as of 2011 and potentially Scottish independence coming into effect in the relatively near future. The Coalition also continued with New Labour’s idea of opening up British Government to the people by bringing in e-petitions. 

As we know, Labour failed to bring in their promise of reforming the electoral system with AV+, but because Cameron was forced to reach a deal with the Liberal Democrats, electoral reform came onto the agenda with the 2011 AV Referendum, but even this referendum failed as the British people overwhelmingly rejected the Alternative Vote system. And as for House of Lords’ Reform, the Coalition’s plan to reform the House of Lords to a greater extent than New Labour failed miserably also, with even Ed Miliband’s Labour Party opposing the reforms. To be fair to the Coalition, they have tried to complete many of New Labour’s reforms, but the issue of electoral reform is now dead in the water and unless we see another Conservative-Lib Dem coalition in 2015, House of Lords’ Reform will be a long time in coming. 

Europe, Liberal Interventionism and International Relations: Here we see the Coalition taking a completely different turn from New Labour. Blair was the most pro-European Prime Minister Britain has had since Heath, but there is no doubt that despite his pro-European agenda, he himself failed to be radical enough on Europe. In contrast, Cameron is trying to win back the powers that New Labour surrendered to Europe, seen with the recent opt-out of justice and home affairs. Cameron went further than Blair and even Thatcher in 2011 by rejecting a European Treaty which would bring in a financial transactions tax and from this year, Britain will not be contributing to the EU bailout fund. Furthermore, Cameron is promising an In-Out Referendum and is even pushing through legislation to make this happen in 2017 regardless of the next election result. Although Cameron speaks the same language as Blair when it comes to the referendum, he has certainly been much tougher on Europe than Blair ever was. 

In regards to Liberal Interventionism, Cameron made the decision to intervene in Libya and took the lead amongst Western nations in overthrowing Colonel Gaddafi. But with regards to Syria, the Coalition isn’t exactly sending in the troops as we did in Iraq. So whilst it seems the Coalition will allow Britain to intervene when necessary, Liberal Interventionism does not remain on the top of the Coalition’s agenda like it was on New Labour’s.

The Economy: Let’s be honest, every Labour administration since 1997 has operated in a post-Thatcherite world, and Blair’s strategy to win over Middle England involved keeping disillusioned Tory voters happy by maintaining income tax levels for the highest earners at 40 per cent. So if anything, there is really nothing new coming from the Coalition that isn’t a continuation of past Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown administrations all operating in a free market economy. Of course, the Brown administration nationalised Northern Rock, Lloyds and the RBS, but with the Coalition having already sold off Northern Rock and Lloyds looking like it will return to the private sector, I don’t think we will see a large scale return to the Attlee years (understatement I know).

Even with a huge deficit- the largest since the Second World War- there is no turning back from the legacy of Thatcherism. But where the Coalition has been different to New Labour is in reducing the economy’s dependence on the public sector; which is why the Coalition has recently created 1.3 million jobs in the private sector. The Coalition has cut corporation tax to 20 per cent, lower than when New Labour was in power. And under the Coalition, more businesses have been created than ever before, with 250,000 created so far and half a million new apprenticeships. 

Where New Labour’s legacy is secure is on the minimum wage. Resisted by the Tories in opposition, the policy has proved to be quite popular and has increased since the Coalition came to power. 

But the Coalition has gone further than New Labour in helping the lowest paid workers, primarily by cutting income tax for those earning £10,000 or less, benefitting 24 million people, and lifting 2 million people out of income tax altogether- an improvement from Labour’s blunder in 2008.

Public Sector Reform: I think this is where New Labour’s legacy is undoubtedly secure in the Coalition agreement. Although the Coalition has brought in £6 billion of spending cuts, the budget for education and health spending has remained uncut. If anything, like when New Labour focused on winning the votes of ‘real Essex men’, the Coalition must win the votes of northerners by focusing on public sector reform. Although New Labour talked about reversing the previous Conservative government’s reforms to the public sector by scrapping the internal market in the NHS and vouchers for schools, if anything New Labour carried on with the reforms brought in by the Thatcher and Major governments through introducing top up fees for universities, foundation hospitals in the NHS and school academies. 

Since the Coalition came to power, the number of academies opened has rapidly increased and the Coalition’s controversial NHS reforms last year were merely a continuation of what New Labour started. Also, tuition fees, which tripled to £3,000 under New Labour, tripled further under the Coalition to £9,000.

Welfare: Other than the minimum wage, the Coalition has practically reversed New Labour’s legacy on welfare due to swift spending cuts and reforms to welfare that include earnings being linked to pensions, the Universal Credit merging all the benefits that New Labour brought in to prevent people over-claiming on benefits, and cuts to housing benefit. Some call this the most radical welfare programme in the last thirty years. Even the front page of the Daily Mirror in April had a picture with Cameron, Osborne and Thatcher nailing a coffin with the welfare state inside of it. 

Conclusion:  So, in the first three years of the Coalition we can now assess what Blair’s legacy really is. There is no doubt that the majority of his constitutional reforms have been left preserved and untouched. Not even a Conservative government with an overall majority would have overturned these reforms. Blair realigned the political spectrum and forced Cameron’s Conservatives to change their ways to win power, there is no doubt that he has had a legacy there. 

Nevertheless, I don’t think we will ever see a radical programme of constitutional reform pursued ever again by any government again without the Lib Dems being involved. Maybe under a Labour government we will see House of Lords’ reform; the hereditary peers may all one day be removed and the House of Lords may one day be elected, but if Cameron wins an overall majority in 2015, I can’t see constitutional reform being pursued any further, especially with the majority of Cameron’s Conservatives not converted to the ‘benefits’ of constitutional reform. A legacy preserved, but not really certain to continue. 

The Coalition has almost reversed New Labour’s legacy on Europe with Cameron reclaiming powers from Europe on justice and home affairs’ powers and vetoing an EU treaty in 2011. And these reforms may continue if an EU referendum is made law this year and the Conservatives win an overall majority in 2015. Though Cameron is pro-European in rhetoric when he talks about the referendum, here we have a Prime Minister who is not continuing with Blair’s reforms on Europe. Again, another legacy not preserved. Furthermore, Cameron is hardly an enthusiastic liberal interventionist; the Coalition has intervened in Libya and to a certain extent Syria when necessary, but Blair’s legacy has not been preserved, especially after the Iraq War, where we saw the ugly head of liberal interventionism.

In regards to the economy, the Coalition is continuing with a Thatcher era more than a New Labour era, as the latter was forced to work within a post-Thatcherite settlement. The Coalition has certainly retained New Labour’s reforms to the Bank of England, but the Coalition has tried to rebalance the public and private sector more so than Labour. This is Thatcher’s economic legacy more so than Blair’s. 

Other than the minimum wage, the Coalition has also overturned almost all of New Labour’s welfare reforms through cuts to public spending, reforming pensions and merging all benefits into a Universal Credit. Not really much of a Blairite settlement here. 

But where we have reached a true Blairite settlement is in regards to public sector reform and gay marriage. With regard to the latter, the Coalition has finished off New Labour’s reforms to civil marriages and brought in gay marriage. Here we have a Blairite settlement of reforming institutions. And where we also have a Blairite settlement is on public sector reform, where the Coalition has finished off New Labour’s reforms to schools, hospitals and university tuition fees. And if Cameron’s Conservatives want to win power in 2015, they should pursue winning the votes of the ‘Manchester Man’ by focusing on public sector reform to show that, despite swinging cuts, Cameron is on the side of the public sector.

Overall, New Labour undoubtedly had a significant and historic impact upon UK politics, but I doubt whether it will be grouped in history amongst our most radical administrations. New Labour’s legacy is not one which has been unchallengeable by Cameron’s Coalition, and one expects that if Labour return to power they will look to somewhat distance themselves from the Blair-Brown years. Maybe we will need the return of the Brains of New Labour to ensure the ultimate continuation of New Labour’s legacy in our political conscious.

By Matthew Snape

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