Two Thousand Days of Nothing Very Much - Labour’s performance in office

Type: Think Pieces Written by Dr Madsen Pirie | Saturday 1 January 2000

In her first 2,000 days Margaret Thatcher changed the world. She privatized state industries, lowered taxes, deregulated the economy, and tamed the unions. The miners were conquered at home, the Falklands liberated abroad. By late 1984, after decades of decline, Britain was back and booming.
 

Has Tony Blair done as much? It would be hard to suggest that New Labour, which passed its 2,000th day in office on October 23rd, has as much to be proud of. Indeed, for a government which came in promising so much, the delivery has been small.

Both Blair and Thatcher promised a fundamental change in direction for Britain, but Lady Thatcher had one great advantage. She had a clear vision of an alternative. In place of controls, central planning and subsidies, she could set the market alternatives. By contrast Tony Blair had something hyped as the "Third Way," but difficult to pin down to much more than a set of attitudes. It seemed to involve a market economy with more care for the vulnerable, and with better public services.

Certainly Labour's first move was pure free market. The Bank of England gained the freedom to set interest rates and pursue inflation targets. It was bold. Even the Tories had refused to do it, despite pressure from the Adam Smith Institute. It has been so successful that the very Tories who criticized it at the time have subsequently endorsed it.

Labour's second big achievement has been constitutional. Part one of House of Lords reform has been done, with the hereditary element reduced to a temporary rump. Even so, this is only half a reform. Where is the elected element? Unless most of them are elected, the chamber is reduced to a giant quango of political placemen. Yet the government is reluctant to weaken its grip on the Commons by giving the upper house any authority.

Devolved assemblies for Scotland and Wales are a reality, but have not achieved much. Scotland's can claim to be more generous with student fees and home care charges, but it is generosity done with other people's money, and leaves unresolved the allocation of powers and the now-dated Barnett formula subsidy. The Scottish Assembly has separated the two nations, however. Scottish political stories rarely feature in national dailies, while the Scottish papers seem more parochial than ever.

The economic changes are even more contentious. Gordon Brown created a very good first impression by the pledge to keep Tory spending targets, and by Labour's promise not to raise income tax. He was rumbled fairly quickly, however, as someone who was raising a great many other taxes, most of them surreptitiously.

The various taxes on pensions, insurance, travel, and fuel, all left their mark. Indeed, since New Labour took office, Britain has increased taxes more than any other EU country. Thirteen of them have lowered taxes, but the UK, along with Portugal, has raised them.

The least pleasant of the tax changes has been their complexity. They were becoming simple. Nigel Lawson lowered taxes, abolished taxes and simplified taxes. Gordon Brown has done the opposite. Clearly he relishes a situation in which no ordinary people, sometimes not even accountants, actually understand the tax code.

Mr Brown inherited a golden economy, performing better than our EU partners, and flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances. The Tories cannot take all of the credit for this, since some it followed the forcible overthrow of their ERM policy. However, Mr Brown has spent 2000 days slowly eroding that advantageous position. The British economy is now more highly taxed, more regulated, has less flexible labour markets and higher business costs than it did 2000 days ago. Lady Thatcher's first 2000 days achieved all of the opposites.

It was all done, he says, in the name of better public services; but are they better? Figures are promoted assiduously, but the reality is of targets unmet. Less than a quarter of the extra doctors are there. School class sizes are down for younger children and up for older ones. This hardly amounts to the promised revolution.

The problem which Tony Blair sees, if not Gordon Brown, is that the problem was not lack of resources. They have already had extra money without getting better. The problem is organization, lack of customer input, and lack of different sources of supply. For all the hype and spin, very little has actually happened in those 2000 days to change the experience which people have of those services.

Crime remains a problem to which the government clearly has no solution. Police pursue priorities other than those the public would have them tackle. Most people feel less safe than they did in 1997, and celebrities, once attracted by the general buzz of the place, have begun to flee from its violence.

Outside of hard politics, there have been gains and losses in the cultural field. The Blair government set a lead in making Britain a more tolerant and relaxed place, despite firm opposition from the 'nasty' tendency. But cool Britannia and rebranding Britain now invoke only cringes of embarrassment. The Dome, which could have been a confident symbol of a confident Britain, collapsed in a welter of politically correct and utterly dull exhibits.

Meanwhile, the government muddled pretty incompetently through the legacy of BSE, the fuel protest, the foot and mouth crisis, the Railtrack fiasco and the A-levels problem. Sleaze reached new levels of efficiency because, unlike under the Tories, Labour's backers got something in return. Passports for the Hindujas, exemption for Formula One advertising, all gave evidence of a new joined-up sleaze. Ministers resigned in disgrace, and in one case for crass incompetence.

What was it all about? Compared with Lady Thatcher's 2000 days, not very much. There is not a lot to show for two massive mandates. Media control and spin are at unprecedented levels. Most stories appear because government sources put them there. Hype abounds out of all proportion to substance. But this is talk. Lady Thatcher, with far less going for her and far less control, achieved far more with her first 2000 days. She turned Britain around and pointed it toward the future; Labour did not.