In politics, as in much of life, the truth is often twisted for self-interested reasons. The coalition has done this with skill and vigour. Its members have picked an economic narrative and have been running with it tenaciously and effectively, but also slightly dishonestly. They claim that in 2010, when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats came together to form a coalition government, they did so in the national interest to prevent Britain from going the way of Greece, as Labour – particularly Gordon Brown and his team – had come close to ruining Britain by wasting all its money.
The majority of the British public has tended to side with the government on this, believing that the last Labour government spent wildly and left the country in the mess. As Labour initiated a lengthy leadership contest directly after the election, it was, as a party, very weak in defending its record, allowing the coalition to dictate the ‘truths’ about the last government’s record. The complacency there has hurt the party’s credibility for the time being.
It should not be allowed to detract from its record, however. Labour, by the end, had perhaps been in power for too long, succumbing to the usual mixture of hubris and complacency (at least in the personalities involved) that affect long-standing governments. But does that mean it was irresponsible in government, as the coalition self-servingly claims? Does it, moreover, mean that it did not change Britain for the better?
This is the central question posed by Polly Toynbee and David Walker in their book, The Verdict. Both authors are, or have been, Guardian journalists. Polly Toynbee in particular is a well-known social commentator from the left; she has been a persistent and polemical thorn in the side of the coalition ever since it launched its welfare reforms, and allowed the hapless Andrew Lansley to reorganise the NHS. Her political leanings are therefore, well-known. Despite her polemical style, she claims to reject tribalism, and the book, despite being written by traditional Labour supporters, is highly critical in places.
Unlike other books that assess the New Labour years, such as Andrew Rawnsley’s magisterial two-volume account (Servants of the People, which covers Labour’s first term, and The End of the Party, which covers the rest), The Verdict does not seek to explain what happened in a narrative form. Rather, it searches for core themes of the Labour years. For this reason, it is not as detailed about specific events as Mr Rawnsley’s books, which travel through the Labour years with meticulous precision (and, indeed, revelation, as Gordon Brown’s combustible character was exposed). Where Ms Toynbee and Mr Walker succeed is in trying to pull this information together, though with an exclusive focus on policy, and not on personality.
The Verdict considers various aspects of Labour policy, from crime and immigration, to education and the economy. In each area that they cover, they also conduct a short case study to see how things changed ‘on the ground’ and to elicit local people’s opinions. This gives both an impression of the policies promoted by New Labour, as well as the sense of life in Labour’s Britain.
The overall assessment in each of the policy areas examined is that Labour did not have a vision: it was generally committed to building a more just society, but arguably because of its post-ideological complexion, it did not know precisely which routes it would take to achieve this. It was both pro-globalisation and wanted to be seen as tough on immigration. In constitutional matters, it brought about the Human Rights Act, but then tried to enact ID cards and huge databases. In general, the authors appear frustrated by Labour’s urge to “tinker”. This is a claim that some former ministers reject, arguing that it was precisely when Labour did reform public services that it was at its most successful.
It is perhaps only on healthcare that the authors’ appraisal is unambiguous: Labour delivered cleaner, better hospitals, and eliminated waiting times, with patients continuously revealing a higher sense of satisfaction than ever before. In a dispiriting paradox, though, they note that grumbling about ‘the state of the NHS’ remained never-ending.
On the economy, the authors note that Labour was enthralled by globalisation and the idea of free movement of capital, in the same way that others were in the era – including, of course, the people in government now. Living standards did rise under Labour: the figures that the authors give is a GDP per head rise of £3840 between 1997 and 2010 (at 2009 prices), and an average unemployment fall from 9% under John Major, Tony Blair’s Conservative predecessor, to 5.5%. But this was matched in many other countries. The authors suggest that Labour should not have been so taken in by the economic zeitgeist. But shedding the anti-globalisation image and emphasis on industrial policy was part of Labour’s electoral strategy. Labour cannot be blamed for the financial crisis (a part of the economic narrative that this deficit-focused government often fails to mention when dispensing blame) but the authors suggest that had their whole approach been less accepting of free-market principles, Britain might have been less affected.
Ms Toynbee and Mr Walker are clearly frustrated by Labour’s lack of clear thinking, and regularly lament the missed opportunities or lack of motivation on the government’s part. They praise it when it succeeded (as in the case of healthcare), but aren’t afraid to criticise when they feel it did not do enough, or did something wrong (as in the case of the Iraq War). They believe Labour did change Britain for the better, but their overall assessment of 6/10 is one they are disappointed to give: “Look at the record and it is hard to suppress a rising sense of indignation: ‘Why not much, much more?’”
Clearly, the authors have interviewed a large number of people, and their grasp of the Labour’s policy development and direction is strong. They do, however, adopt a journalistic style of sweeping through complex information in an occasionally hasty way. While this makes the book very readable, it occasionally gives the impression of a lack of rigour. Ms Toynbee and Mr Walker offer large numbers of interesting anecdotes, but the book lacks a detailed notes section, making it difficult to test the veracity of the figures and statistics quoted. They may well have accepted that their goal was to provide a general assessment; political scientists will be meticulously scrutinising the impacts of specific policies.
But for a final verdict on New Labour, it is too early to tell. Historians will be debating that question for a long time to come.