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Tony Blair and New Labour

The 1994 leadership contest following the unexpected death of Labour leader John Smith saw the election of Tony Blair, the youngest-ever leader of the Labour Party. Blair was widely known to be a moderniser and his leadership election statement was clear that Labour must be reformed radically if it was to win office again. Yet for any still in doubt, Blair showed his true intentions in his first speech to party conference as leader, when he called for the updating of Clause IV of the party's constitution.

While opposed by some traditionalists, the proposed change won overwhelming support at a special conference in April 1995. This was followed in 1996 by the publication of New Labour, New Life for Britain, the draft manifesto that was discussed and voted upon by party members across the country. Labour's agenda was fully costed, to avoid the arguments over tax that had dogged them in 1992, and centred on five pledges: education; crime; health; jobs and economic stability. Party members gave the proposals clear endorsement - with 95 percent backing the plans.

The 1997 election campaign saw the Tories in decline - over sleaze, tax rises and division. Labour's campaign, by way of contrast, was smooth and efficiently run. The Labour Party targeted 90 marginal and 216 key seats - the constituencies it had to win if it was to gain a majority. In the event new Labour was shown to have underestimated its popular appeal, winning a landslide total of 418 Labour MPs, including a record 101 Labour women, and a majority of 179. At 43, the leader of the Labor Party - - Tony Blair - - became the youngest British prime minister since Lord Liverpool in 1812.

As a Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair gave new direction to the country with the introduction of a National Minimum Wage, one million more jobs, smaller class sizes in primary schools, and the biggest ever sustained investment in the NHS. Labour governed on a broad centrist platform advocating open and competitive markets, increased spending on public services, improvements in education, and fairness in the workplace.

On 7 June 2001 Tony Blair led Labour to a second successive victory in a General Election, winning by another landslide. Labour won a majority of 167. Blair's move to the political center in the mid-1990's had raised doubts among many labor traditionalists, who remained suspicious even after the government followed through on the pro-worker legislative and regulatory commitments it made in the first two terms.

By 2002, the euphoria of the victory and return to power began to fade. Organized labor struggled with the conundrum of criticizing a Labour government on specific policy issues while maintaining its traditional links to the Labour Party. Some of the largest unions began to talk openly about changes to Party funding structures. Two unions, the Fire Brigades' Union (FBU) and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), withdrew their direct affiliation with Labour.

In July 2004, the Labour Party and the remaining 16 affiliated unions reached agreement on a framework (called the Warwick Agreement) that outlined the major workforce-related commitments for a third term. In return, the affiliated unions committed to fund and engage in election campaign activities. The agreement included commitments to reform the pension system, introduce additional paid holidays, invest in skills training, and pass laws on corporate manslaughter.

Equally significant was the omission from Warwick of long-standing union demands not addressed in Labour's first two terms, e.g. the right to engage in secondary strike activity and compulsory participation in private pension schemes. Since the elections, the Government has reiterated its commitment to the Warwick agenda, though emphasizing that the reforms outlined in the Agreement constitute good public policy, rather than highlighting promises to a union constituency. Unions in turn have become more strident, calling for prompt action on the Warwick agenda and a review of a traditional left-wing package of labor and employment policies.

On 5 May 2005, Labour achieved a first in its history: a third consecutive term in government. Labour had run a positive campaign on investment in public services including the slogan "If you value it, vote for it" in the run up to polling day. The Tories, in contrast, led by Michael Howard had run a negative campaign, largely on immigration and crime.

Labour's majority was 67. On the steps of Downing Street the next day, Tony Blair said: "It's a tremendous honour and privilege to be elected for a third term and I'm acutely conscious of that honour and that privilege. When I stood here first eight years ago I was a lot younger but also a lot less experienced. Today as well as having in our minds the priorities that people want, we, I, the government, has the knowledge, as well as the determination and commitment, to deliver them."

This election and the campaign period that preceded it marked a shift in the relationship between organized labor and its political brethren. Blair's smaller Parliamentary majority was made more difficult to manage by a significant cadre of rebellious MPs who voted against the government on key issues like education reform, school financing reform, and foreign policy.

After Blair's announcement in May 2005 that he would stand down as Prime Minister sometime before the next election (then expected in 2009), pressure mounted for him to set a specific date for a handover of the party leadership. In September 2006 he indicated he would leave within 12 months. Chancellor Gordon Brown was the presumed successor. However, Blair seized the initiative and defied skeptics by pushing through his controversial education initiatives with the help of Tory votes, by launching the largest reform of the pension system since World War II, and by going on record in favor of retaining nuclear power as a policy option just weeks before the publication of a major study of energy policy in July 2006.

Tony Blair and John Prescott both announced that the 2006 Annual Conference would be their last as Leader and Deputy Leader of the Party and in May and June 2007 the party held its first leadership election for thirteen years. For the first time whilst Labour has been in government, thousands of party members and members of affiliated organisations were involved in voting and attending hustings meetings around the country, culminating in a Leadership Conference held in Manchester on 24 June 2007. At the conference Gordon Brown was declared Leader of the Labour Party, with Tony Blair describing him as "strong in his convictions and true to his principles". Following a hard-fought contest against five other candidates, Harriet Harman was elected Deputy Leader.

Three days later, on 27 June 2007, Tony Blair stepped down after ten years as Labour's longest-serving Prime Minister and the ninth-longest serving in the nation's history. At the final Cabinet meeting, Gordon Brown led tributes to Tony Blair by remarking that people would look back in 100 years time and see his achievements which had changed this country for good and that "whatever we achieve in the future, will be because we are standing on your shoulders."

The Blair decade had its low points. His government was tainted by several scandals -- the most damaging one being the so-called "cash for honors affair." Police continued investigating allegations that people close to Tony Blair had accepted large sums of money for the Labor Party in exchange for honors, such as peerages in the House of Lords. Experts said such dealings had been going on in Britain for centuries, but not in such an obvious way in recent decades.

One of Blair's enduring achievements was to make the Labour Party 'electable'. He moved it to the center; some in the Labour Party say he moved it to the right. He has effectively gotten rid of the idea that profit is evil, that the rich are monsters, that high taxation is a good thing culturally and socially as well as economically. He got rid of the whole concept of nationalization and he didn't attempt to nationalize any of the industries that the conservatives had privatized in the previous 18 years.

He is accused of being the heir of Margaret Thatcher by those people from what's called 'Old Labour' -- the original kind of Labour -- who do really want to use the powers of the state to redistribute wealth.

Half his party in parliament, half the Labor MPs [members of parliament] were not members of the government and therefore free to vote either way, voted against the Iraq war and ever since then, he's was fighting his party on that. Not only fighting his party, but the British public as well which overwhelmingly opposed the war in Iraq and Britain's participation in it. Many analysts believe Blair's reputation was severely damaged and his successes overshadowed by the war in Iraq.

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Page last modified: 08-12-2014 19:30:03 ZULU