Tony Blair came in to office on 2nd May 1997 on a wave of optimism and expectation. Even the Conservative party recognised the star quality of the incoming Prime Minister including Margaret Thatcher who famously claimed ‘We don’t need someone who can beat Mr Blair; we need someone like Mr Blair’. On the surface he had it all; the sensible policies of the Thatcher government which had revived Britain’s failing economy, a modern and young cabinet in tune with modern society and an undeniable charm and impish nature that endeared him to the British people. However as the Blair years dragged on it became more apparent that this was not to be the new dawn many had hoped, it was merely a moderated version of the old one, and for British politics it was to mark a change for the worse.
Admittedly the downfall of the last Tory government was predominantly down to sleaze. The ‘Cash for Questions’ row and the failure of some back bench MP’s to declare minor gifts or sources of income (deja-vu) was too much for the public to stomach and they opted for a modern vibrant Labour government, a government that was to accept the economic policies of Thatcherism with the apparent added bonus of a socially concious core. Thus 1997 marked the date when Tory sleaze was replaced by a new phenomenon: Labour spin. 11 years after that famous victory the vast majority of people now acknowledge that the Tories brand of sleaze looks pretty weak compared to the whole scale corruption practised by the New Labour likes of Mandelson, Robinson, Irvine, Vaz, Byers, Moore, Milburn, Hughes, Levy, Corrigan and Blair himself.
I do not deny that Labour have made siginificant investments in public services. I do not deny they have made progress in certain areas but after 11 years one would bloody hope they had made progress given the economic legacy they inherited! What I am getting at is that the progress they have made is by no stretch of the imagintation the type of progress achieved by the Conservatives in the 1980’s. Ultimately in stark contrast to the Conservatives, New Labour is not just sleazy it is rotten to the core. The Prime Minister himself (Blair) was caught lying to parliament on many occasions. Bar Iraq what sticks out clearly in my mind is the £1 million contribution Labour accepted from the motor racing industry.
Blair was a politician setting out on a moral crusade to save the nations health by banning smoking advertisements in all public spaces yet at the same time was pushing for motor racing to be exempt from the ban because it is run by his old pal and Labour party donor Bernie Ecclestone. The Blair deception didn’t stop there. New Labour spin and sleaze of the early years developed in to downright corruption and deception. When Blair told the country his government had ‘no plans to increase tax at all’ was he telling the truth? Or when he wrote to anxious parents: ‘A Labour government will not close your grammar schools – that is my personal guarantee’ was he telling the truth?
Considering Europe when he wrote in The Sun newspaper before the election about his ‘love for the pound’ and how he felt so emotional and proud about the Queen’s head on a £10 note, was he telling the truth? When Blair promised us a refrendum on the European treaty in 2004 was he telling the truth? When we were told Iraq had the capacity to launch weapons in 45 minutes was he telling the truth? The point is Blair has coasted his way through office. As the veteran Labour, true Labour, MP Tony Benn has said ‘Margaret Thatcher did nothing by deception. She said what she meant and she meant what she said’ Can Blair or New Labour say the same?
In the Tory days, sleaze was about politcians succumbing to material temptations placed before them, such as expense accounts, foreign travel or it involved the personnal sexual morality or marital fidelity of politicians. There was little or no direct impact on the general public, but the press and opposition worked themselves in to a frenzy about it. New Labour’s New Sleaze works the other way around. It is all about the perversion of democratic government; matters of great importance to the public being cooked up behind closed doors, justified by massaged figures, semi leaked documents and brilliant media management. Yet until recently the press have remained conspicuously silent about it.
New Labour have lived off a healthy Conservative economy, and have admittedly assisted in its development, but their deception lies in their rhetoric of being the ‘saviours of the nation’. They have bullied, spun and manipulated their way through government making and breaking promises in the blink of an eye, using national tradgedies as an excuse to ‘bury bad news’ and using their well oiled spin machine to con the general public. Ultimately New Labour is an amass of contradictions, a failed and false political entity. Its deception goes deep and the implications of the New Labour project on public trust are far stretching. The damaged inflicted by the New Labour project on Briton’s faith in their elected politicians will be difficult to reverse.
Finally after departing Downing Street last June, to the delight of a certain dour Scot, Blair admitted that he regretted attacking the Tories over their sleazy past. Perhaps this is because Blair fears his sleazy past will define his and his partys legacy. It can and it will. The lesson of New Labour is not good policy but good presentation. Spin over substance.