Assessing a party that I used to hate
By Matt Coot
Responses on my Facebook Page seem to suggest that I am pro-Labour. Until now, I haven’t actually thought about it. I was, until recently, a Liberal Democrat town councillor. I also, until very recently, paid for membership of the Liberal Democrat party. My dislike of the Conservative Party’s policies and actions have led many to argue that the country would be worse under the Labour Party.
There was also many mentions of the Labour Party leaving the country without any money the last time that they were in government, as well as blaming most of the problems on the previous Labour government.
People commenting also seemed to distrust and dislike Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the Labour Party.
So, I decided to embark upon an investigation into the last Labour government – along with their achievements and their failures – and consider, again, Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party and potentially as Prime Minister.
I do, however, expect many more comments with rude, ignorant, and insulting statements from those who disagree with my assessment. If you agree or disagree, I would love to receive some polite comments and I would love to engage in a polite discussion with you on your political beliefs.
What happened in the UK prior to the ‘New Labour’ government?
In 1997, Tony Blair won a landslide victory against the Tories, who had been in power for eighteen years. I was only nine years old at the time, but I remember snippets of the time, but mainly I remember my cartoons being cancelled one morning because of a princess being killed in a car crash in Paris. I remember the sadness that this incident caused to those around me who were old enough to understand what was going on. But, I don’t remember what the country was like pre-Blair. I was too young.
Despite being too young, I have done some in-depth research to find out just what eighteen years of Conservatism had done to the UK. I’ve always been intrigued by people’s anger at Thatcher and the overlooking of Sir John Major. What did Thatcher do that was so wrong in the eyes of these people? Why would Major’s term of prime minister be mainly ignored? I wanted to find out, so I asked people and I studied the era.
It seems that one of the major issues that people have when they talk about Thatcherism is that it saw social infrastructure of the nation be degraded by her policies and stubbornness. There was a return to unemployment on a massive scale; a growth of the north-south divide; a growth of regional inequality; and two recessions. You could argue that there was a rise in home ownership, and that this was a good thing, but this was only amongst those who could buy and it actually increased the wealth inequality throughout the nation. There was also a severe reduction in council homes, the supply of them was at a record low, and this was because many of them had been sold off. Thatcher’s policies also saw a rise in poverty, with numbers of pensioners living in poverty increased and the number of children in poverty doubled from 1.7 million to 3.3 million.
Of course, when people talk about Thatcher, there’s always the mention of the Miners’ Strike between 1984 and 1985 (a few years before I was born). The BBC described it as “the most bitter industrial dispute in British history”. The defeat of the strike meant a diminished power of trade unions and alienation of many in the working class. However, this wasn’t the only reason for the hatred of Margaret Thatcher. Before she was prime minister, Thatcher was education minister and was responsible for the withdrawal of free milk from school children. This earned her the nickname “the Milk Snatcher” with rhyming chants across playgrounds sounding out “Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher”.
Thatcher was also hated for the very controversial Poll Tax. The Poll Tax, or Community Charge, was responsible for deep distrust and wounded the political psyche of millions of voters. It changed the way tax was calculated from the valuation of a property to the number of people living within it. It disproportionately affected the poor and affected mainly the ordinary working people. The wounded distrust is still felt today.
It should also be made clear that the financial deregulation during the 1980s created greater financial instability in the long term, which actually laid the groundwork for the credit bubble of the 2000s, and the subsequent credit crisis.
John Major was criticised for not having a clear strategy for governing and his era as prime minister was polluted with scandal and sleaze in the media. Despite having successes with the Maastricht Treaty and bringing about an IRA ceasefire, Major had many divisions in his party due to disagreements over Europe and the accusations of sleaze. He was deeply unpopular and his party never truly united behind him. Major was also responsible for the heavily criticised Railways Act 1993, under which the British Rail was sold off and privatised.
What did eighteen years of Conservatism lead to?
Distrust of politicians; mass unemployment; growth of north-south divide; growth of regional inequality; two recessions; wealth inequality; rise in poverty; diminished power of trade unions; alienation of working class; long term financial instability laying the groundwork for the credit bubble of the 2000s and the subsequent credit crisis.
What did New Labour actually do?
During 1997 to 2010, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown led New Labour with very mixed results. Many consider this period of time as disastrous with the party leading the country into an illegal war, economic crisis, and increasing the nation’s security risks.
The war in Iraq was wrong. Tony Blair and President of the United States George W Bush led the campaign to take our forces into Iraq due to Saddam Hussain possessing weapons of mass destruction. This wasn’t true. The intelligence that led to this war taking place wasn’t real, and this country went to war for no good reason. Yes, Hussain was an evil dictator and yes, it is good that he is gone, but not at the expense of what the war cost: lives of British military and lives of innocent citizens of Iraq. The stability of the Middle East has not been improved, rather it has worsened with the rise of ISIS and with the Iraq war triggering a sectarian bloodbath between Sunni and Shia across the region and beyond. The war also added to the reasons behind the Syrian Civil War. All of this has also been responsible for the surge of refugees escaping into Europe. Not to mention that the war in Iraq has meant that this country is under a much higher risk of terrorist attack than at any other time. So yes, the Iraq War was definitely a negative part of Tony Blair’s New Labour government.
The war in Iraq could also be seen as responsible for perception problems with regards to the electorate’s perception of politicians. In fact, it could also be partly responsible for Brexit. The New Statesmen wrote that the Iraq War was responsible for the “loathing of mainstream politicians, the distrust of the elite, the desire for the United Kingdom to disengage from the world”. So, yeah, Tony Blair certainly screwed up.
Financially, the New Labour government has been blamed for the country being in economic crisis. The party has been accused of overspending before the credit crunch and not providing any protection for the country before the crisis. Gordon Brown, prime minister after Tony Blair resigned, sold off a large amount of the nation’s gold reserves. Brown sold this at the wrong time, costing the tax payer almost £7 billion. So, yeah, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown certainly screwed up the economy, right? Although, actually, if you think about it, the Tories did introduce policies that systematically damaged society and put the nation in economic instability. The roots of the credit crunch and economic crisis lead back to the financial deregulation of the 1980s. So, maybe New Labour aren’t entirely to blame.
However, it is also this failure by Labour to entirely reverse the two decades of Thatcherism that led this country to crisis. The policies that led to the degraded social infrastructure and economic instability, also led to the 2008 financial crisis. Blair and Brown’s failures to stop this and to reverse policies of Thatcher and Major, meant that this country suffered.
Of course, Labour wasn’t all bad. In fact, I can think of approximately eighty five good policies and actions that Labour took during the thirteen years in government. In 1997, Labour had five key pledges: tackle crime, improve public services, maintain top rate of tax, and reduce youth unemployment. These five pledges were achieved.
New Labour tackled crime with 48,000 more police officers and oversaw the reduction of crime by 48%.
They certainly improved the National Health Service with tripling spending on the NHS, establishment of four new medical schools, 44,000 doctors, 89,000 nurses, a reduction of waiting times to lowest ever levels of a maximum of eighteen weeks, record low A&E waiting times, extending the opening hours of three quarters of GP services, free prescriptions to cancer patients, reduction of cancer deaths by 50,000, free breast cancer screenings, heart disease deaths down by 150,000, access to life saving drugs for HIV and AIDS, reintroduction of matrons, and the introduction of NHS Direct.
As for education, Labour saw that schools had 43,400 extra teachers and 212,000 extra support staff; they made sure that ever 3 to 4 year old had a free part-time nursery place; they doubled the overall education spending; increased university places; introduced EMA; put a ban on grammar schools; doubled the amount of childcare spaces; reintroduced free school milk and fruit; introduced healthier school meals; scrapped the homophobic section 28; reduced class sizes; and oversaw the number of school leavers with five good GCSEs rising from 45% to 76%. They also made sure that 93,000 more 11 year olds achieved numeracy skills each year.
As for tax, Labour introduced tax credits; Winter fuel allowance; an increase on the value of child benefits by over 26%; removed the minimum donations limit from gift aid; and introduced pension credit. Not only that, but the pledge to “not raise the basic or top rates of income tax throughout the next Parliament” was met with the top rate remaining at 40% between 1997 and 2012. The basic rate was reduced from 23% to 22% in 2000. The “long-term objective” of a starting rate of income tax of ten pence in the pound was introduced in 1999.
The pledge to reduce youth unemployment was indeed met with long-term youth unemployment cut by 75%. To make this happen, Labour introduced the Young Persons’ Job Guarantee and more than doubled apprenticeships.
But it wasn’t just keeping to their pledges that Labour achieved during their time in government. They improved workers lives by introducing the National Minimum Wage, alongside the Low Pay Commission; increased paid annual leave up to 28 days per year; and introduced paternity leave. Labour also improved human rights and equality by introducing the Human Rights Act, civil partnerships, Sure Start, the formation of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the rural development programme, and ensured that 900,000 pensioners were lifted out of poverty. They also equalised the age of consent, introduced the Disability Rights Commission, and passed the Autism Act 2009. Labour also decreased homelessness by 73%; Raised legal age of buying cigarettes to 18; and removed the majority of hereditary peers. To improve public health, they introduced the smoking ban and also banned advertising of tobacco in magazines, newspapers, and billboards. Labour cared about the older generations by introducing free eye tests for the over 60s, free bus passes for the over 60s, and free TV licences for the over 75s. They improved the rights and welfare of animals by banning the testing of cosmetics on them and Labour also introduced the Hunting Act, to ban cruel and unnecessary hunting. Labour introduced the Crossrail Act 2008, with hopes of reducing congestion on the underground, and this project will come to fruition when it opens in December 2018.
Culturally, the Labour government established free entry to galleries and museums. They also doubled cultural funding between 1997 and 2010. Labour also won the bid for London 2012.
Environmentally, Labour oversaw the country beating Kyoto targets on greenhouse gas emissions. Labour also introduced the Climate Change Act.
Relevant in the news this week is the housing crisis. During Labour’s terms in government they oversaw a £20 billion improvement on social housing conditions. They also introduced a new deal for communities programme worth £2 billion. Unfortunately, they also built fewer council houses, altogether, than Thatcher did in a single year.
Labour made sure that there was more accountability and transparency with the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act and the Electoral Commission. They also introduced the Food Standards Agency.
Labour oversaw the finalisation of the Good Friday Agreement, helped to end civil war in Sierra Leone, and supported NATO intervention to stop ethnic cleansing by Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade. They banned cluster bombs and halved the UK’s nuclear weapons. Although, it should be noted that the UK still maintains enough nuclear might to destroy even the largest of countries.
Labour was also responsible for devolution of power to Scottish and Welsh governments.
Labour doubled overseas aid budget, helping other nations to become self-sufficient, and wrote off up to 100% of debt owed by the poorest countries.
Returning to the economy, Labour oversaw the longest period of sustained low inflation since the 1960s and ten years of continuous economic growth.
So was Britain better or worse under the Labour government between 1997 and 2010?
The Verdict: Did Labour Change Britain? by Polly Toynbee and David Walker performed an audit upon the Labour government’s successes and failures. They cover big social triumphs and the much better resourced public services, all of which I have also summarised above. They also covered the rise of public paranoia fuelled by the tabloid press, and how their policies that recovered poverty, fought for inequality, and successfully funded public services were all lacking sustainability and failed to provide any lasting change. However, all in all, their analysis seemed to suggest that Britons were better off under the Labour government.
And this is where I must give my own opinion. I hated Labour. I blamed the party for the Iraq War and for lying to the public about the reasons why our forces fought over there. I blamed them for causing more problems in the Middle East and for those problems triggering terror attacks here, in the UK. I also blamed them for leading the country into an economic mess that then led to the Tories having the motive it required to launch an austerity policy that has systematically broken apart the soul of this nation. I blamed Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and their team. To me, it is their fault.
However, I can also see that this country got better under Tony Blair’s government. Public services were improved, unemployment reduced, crime reduced. There was respect for the arts and culture, there was an improved National Health Service, and inequality was fiercely fought against. So maybe, just maybe, I can see both the good and the bad that the Labour government did between 1997 and 2010.
What about Jeremy Corbyn?
Jeremy Corbyn didn’t agree with some of what his party stood for during the Blair years. Corbyn is a man of principle and he stood by his during, what he would think of, as the dark days of New Labour. I can respect that.
I have written before how Corbyn is a man of peace. He has been criticised many times by those who misunderstand. or have been mis-led by the anti-Corbyn media, as being far too friendly with terrorists and other enemies of the state. Yet, Corbyn is a man of peace who knows that process to peace means that “you have to talk to people with whom you may profoundly disagree”. Records show that Corbyn has been consistent in his voting against the use of UK military forces in overseas combat operations. He voted against the Iraq War and voted for there being an inquiry into the Iraq War by an independent committee of Privy counsellors. Corbyn also stood by his principles and voted against military action in Syria, including air strikes against IS targets.
Corbyn has also worked his entire life fighting for disarmament of nuclear weapons. As covered in a previous article, Corbyn has been an active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), who work “non-violently to rid the world of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction and to create genuine security for future generations”. Alongside this work, Corbyn has consistently voted against replacing Trident with a new nuclear deterrent and against renewing Trident.
As a leader who stands by his principles, Jeremy Corbyn’s voting record shows consistency and strength in his convictions. He has consistently voted against the ‘bedroom tax’ and against the reduction in spending on welfare benefits, but he has consistently voted for raising welfare benefits in line with costs, for higher benefits over longer periods for those unable to work due to illness or disability, and for public money to be spent on guaranteeing jobs for young people who have been unemployed for a long time. He has consistently voted for equal gay rights, for smoking bans, for the hunting ban, for gay marriage, and for laws to promote equality and human rights. Corbyn has also a consistent voting record for voting against raising the tax on low- to medium-income workers, but for raising tax on high-earners. He has also voted against lowering the rate of corporation tax.
The Labour Manifesto promises “a fully costed programme to upgrade our economy”. I’ve read the Manifesto, and I have to say that what I read is something that I can put my support behind. Not because I believe everything I read – else, I am sure that I would find parts of every political Manifesto that I would agree with. No, I can put my support behind this Manifesto because the leader of the party behind it is a man of principle who stands by his beliefs no matter what. He has consistently proven this, and so when I read of a fairer taxation system, I actually believe in it. When I read of a National Transformation Fund, I actually believe in it. When I read about the National Education Service, I actually believe in it.
I used to hate everything that Labour was. I couldn’t believe a word they said, and I felt betrayed by a government that led us into war but who also led us to economic crisis. However, that is not the Labour that Jeremy Corbyn is leading today. The Labour led by Corbyn is one that I find myself increasingly believing in. With the country in chaos due to the Conservative Party, I believe that Corbyn is the leader this country needs.
But, no, before you rush to conclusions, I am not ‘defecting’ to Labour. Nor am I going to give up assessing, analysing, and producing articles about political matters independent of affiliation with a political party. I just believe in the current political climate, that Jeremy Corbyn is the Prime Minister that the country needs and the country would thrive under his leadership.
This is the first assessment of the political parties of the UK. I shall soon be writing articles about the other political parties, starting with the Liberal Democrats.