Identifying exactly when a government has come to an end is a more difficult task than one might expect: Emerging out of a bitter leadership struggle and plagued by a sluggish economy and divisions over Europe, the Major government was dead almost before it began and, by contrast, the spirit of Thatcher’s three administrations have outlived her time in office and look set to outlive the woman herself.
However, a sure sign that a government has passed on is the flurry of books that are published in its wake, and this is certainly the case with New Labour. Self-justificatory memoirs from Alistair Campbell, Peter Mandelsson and Tony Blair followed each other thick and fast after the election, and are now being joined by a number of titles seeking to give an overall assessment of the party’s time in power, the first of which is The Verdict: Did Labour Change Britain?, by Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee and her writing partner David Walker
That Walker is part of the Audit Commission is appropriate, since he and Toynbee have long-since acted as the informal Auditors-General of the Labour party, writing end-of term assessments in 2001 and 2005, at each stage sounding like stern teachers lamenting that a bright pupil with great potential isn’t doing as well as he should. The two have been travelling to book festivals and public meetings around the country in the months after the election and I caught up with them at the 14th annual Edinburgh Radical Bookfair in Leith.
It might seem strange that Toynbee started writing the book before the election. She is aware of the pitfalls of assessing a government so soon after it has left office, but reminds us that so many of the programmes that form part of a government’s record can recede into the ether quickly and need to be considered before they become forgotten, or cut: “History needs constantly re-writing in the light of what comes next. Perhaps we will have to re-write this in ten years’ time”. Nevertheless, she maintains, “To capture all that was done it is particularly important to do so now, before the axe falls on programmes many of which are unknown except to their users, things such as Connexions, the Decent Homes scheme or Every Child a Reader”.
An overarching theme of Toynbee’s assessment is that New Labour’s first term was its most radical and effective and when it was at its most coherent: “New Labour had a lot of back history to get rid of and so it was in some senses a marketing ploy…But it was a new idea; a strong belief in the good that the state can do, but at the same time recognising its limits and genuinely embracing the idea that markets are what make money. New Labour had never explicitly come to terms with that before”. Talking of devolution to Scotland and Wales, the peace process in Northern Ireland, the minimum wage and the New Deal, funded by a windfall tax on privatized utilities, she highlights the scale and significance of changes that were achieved in the first four years and the energy which she feels petered out thereafter: “New Labour had quite a radical edge to it, but most of the radical things they did were in the first term: Things that were well planned, before they came to power. It was after the first term that they rather lost their nerve and New Labour became anything they wanted it to be”. The hard realities of being in government took the wind out of Labour’s sails and it became increasingly fearful of a hostile press: Iraq, too, played its part in derailing the project: “Labour’s record is undeniably marked by the war. It destroyed a lot of its reputation for trustworthiness and in some ways broke its spirit”.
Toynbee’s analysis is generous in places, and she gives the party a “six out of ten” rating overall. She reminds me of the strides made in less high-profile policy areas that nonetheless she feels are important to include in a comprehensive analysis: “Arts Council funding rose by 70 per cent: It really has been a golden age for the arts of all kinds, from community art to great national institutions. Free museums and galleries: There was a huge upsurge in the numbers of people visiting, particularly children and families”. She argues that the party put a huge amount of effort into regenerating the inner cities, something which she says has been taken for granted and will soon be forgotten: “Parks, public places and public buildings, in most places infinitely improved: Brighter, cleaner, better city centres. Manchester, Gateshead, Birmingham – wherever you go, you see a new kind of civic pride”. While admitting that Labour was rightly seen as illiberal on issues such as identity cards, 90-day detentions, control orders and prisons (she and Walker wryly note that, relative to population, the Labour government imprisoned more people than the military dictatorship of Burma, although they state that the figures of the former may be more reliable than the latter), she points out the introduction of civil partnerships, the Data Protection Act and the Freedom of Information Act – “throwing open a lot of windows and doors on what happens inside government”.
On the bigger issues, however, Toynbee is less generous and is particularly scathing with regards Labour’s timidity in using the tax system to encourage fairness: “The abolition of the 10p tax rates for the lowest earners was pretty shocking; it shocked the very middle England voters who were supposed to be getting a tax cut in exchange. As top incomes soared there were no increase in the top rate of tax until the very last month they were in power, and what on earth was a Labour government doing cutting capital gains tax down to 10 per cent?”. Labour, she argues, became too fearful of scaring-off the middle classes and underestimated their willingness to accept higher taxes in order to have a fairer society: “Labour could put more trust in the generosity of spirit of the British people; their willingness to see justice done and to see fairness in the interests of those who have too little, or none”. Some redistribution was achieved – 600 00 children were brought out of poverty – but Labour’s attempts were “always running up a down escalator as global forces were pushing in a more unequal direction”.
While Labour was happy to use state power in some areas, Toynbee partly blames Labour’s most spectacular failures on the lack of regulation in others: “On the economy, a serious charge would be the disastrous overemphasis on the city, kowtowing to high finance and the gross neglect – the deliberate neglect – of manufacturing”. An issue that provoked a surprising number of questions and comments from the audience gathered at the Dalmeny Drill Hall was housing and the failure of the last government to build more of it: “Despite this huge upsurge in property prices, they allowed an extraordinary market failure to happen; so few houses – whether private or social – were built”.
Impressive though some individual Labour achievements were, they don’t, Toynbee argues, add up to a fundamental shift in the UK’s society or economy: “Look at the replacement of the Labour cabinet with a cabinet of old Etonians, 18 of them millionaires, I think that says quite a lot about what didn’t happen on Labour’s watch; that no plates shifted in terms of Britain’s social geology”. This fact is made worse, she feels, by the opportunities that Labour had to effect such fundamental change: “We hope the new leader will reflect on our claim that so many chances for change were missed at a time when it had everything: Ten years of a full Treasury, and enormous Westminster majorities”.
This, it seems, is a fair summary of the verdict that Toynbee and many others on the centre left have given on New Labour: The problem was not so much what it did or did wrong, but what it did not do when it had the chance. Such a conclusion may well become more poignant over the next few years.