By Dave Bodimeade.
If Jeremy Corbyn is the answer then many baffled New Labourites are still wondering what the question is. But, if you start from the premise that the last Labour government delivered little for working people (as many on the Left do), then Corbyn could be the answer. A real Labour leader with a real alternative to the Tories? But the premise is wrong and Corbyn isn’t the answer. The last Labour government delivered huge gains, which nail the lie that it was simply ‘Tory Lite’.
The crash of 2008 changed everything. It was caused by reckless bankers but Labour took the blame because we failed to defend our record from relentless Tory attacks. But, prior to the crash, Labour delivered the longest period of economic growth for over 200 years. Inflation and mortgage rates were lower than for decades. We won elections on the ‘Labour Investment vs Tory Cuts’ argument so, in 2007, the Tories pledged to stick to Labour’s spending plans.
Tony Blair was the first prime minister, of any party, to send his children to state schools so his commitment to ‘Education, Education, Education’ was genuine. Labour raised standards enormously and produced record numbers of school leavers with 5+ GCSE passes. We recruited 36,000 more teachers and 274,000 teaching assistants and support staff and reduced class sizes for all 5-7 year olds.
George Osborne said that ‘Labour failed to repair the roof when the sun was shining’. Not true because Labour rebuilt or refurbished around 3,700 schools. Every single leaky roof in every single dilapidated school building, neglected during the Tory years, was repaired. We introduced free pre-school (nursery) places for all 3-4 year olds and before & after school clubs for all pupils. This was a ‘win-win’ because children got more hours of education and parents had more scope to work, especially lone parents and those in low paid jobs.
Tuition fees were clearly unpopular but, under Labour, more students then ever went to university. We introduced the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) to help the poorest students and doubled the number of apprenticeships.
Remember how, under the Tories, patients festered for months (and sometimes years) waiting for operations. Labour reduced NHS waiting times to average of 18 weeks and took over half a million people off of the waiting lists. Waiting times were the shortest ever and have steadily climbed under the Tories. Under Labour, heart disease deaths were reduced by 150,000 and cancer deaths reduced by 50,000.
We recruited 85,000 more nurses and 32,000 more doctors, built (or started building) over 80 new hospitals, renovated every single A & E department, and introduced NHS Direct offering free patient advice. NHS satisfaction ratings, which were at record levels under Labour, have now crashed under the Tories.
Working people benefited greatly under Labour. The lowest paid saw their incomes greatly increased by the Minimum Wage (an objective of Kier Hardie’s finally met after 100 years) and Tax Credits.
We made it law for all full time workers to have 20 days paid holiday. Some unscrupulous employers included Bank Holidays so we closed the loophole to add Bank Holidays to the 20 days. Labour introduced legal rights for part-time workers to give them equal pay rates, pension rights, holidays (pro rated) and sick pay.
Labour extended maternity leave for mothers from 18 to 26 weeks, increased the rate of maternity pay and introduced two weeks paternity leave for fathers. We introduced the legal right to join a trade union (and be represented by them at a grievance/disciplinary hearing) and better protection against unfair dismissal. We made it illegal for employers to ‘blacklist’ employees it didn’t like or force employees to work more than 48 hours a week.
Labour helped over 1.8 million people into work and cut long-term youth unemployment by 75 per cent. This was through the New Deal in 1998 which was paid for by a Windfall Tax on the privatised utilities. We lifted 600,000 children out of relative poverty, and built 2,200 Sure Start Centres, to assist parents and children in the most deprived areas.
Labour were criticised for not spreading limited resources evenly across all pensioners. Instead, we targeted assistance to those most in need. Over a million pensioners were lifted out of poverty through the Pensioner Credit and the Minimum Income Guarantee.
Labour introduced winter fuel payments (every winter and not just when sub-zero temperatures kicked in), free TV licenses, free eye tests and free off peak local bus travel. We helped 2.3 million vulnerable households, including many pensioners in fuel poverty, with energy efficiency improvements through ‘Warm Front’ initiative.
Labour could have built more houses but committed to bringing all social housing up to ‘Decent Homes Standard’ by 2020. On leaving office 1 million homes had been raised to this standard. We reduced rough sleeping by two thirds and homelessness to its lowest level since the early 1980s. Under the Tories these figures continue to rise.
Labour decentralised government by devolving power to all parts of Britain. We created a Scottish Parliament (John Smith’s legacy) and a Welsh Assembly and held referendums to ensure that, if supported by the people, they could not be abolished by the Tories. We reintroduced London wide government by creating a Mayor & Greater London Assembly.
Labour ended decades of bloodshed in Northern Ireland by delivering the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and St Andrews Agreement in 2006. Hundreds of lives were saved as a result of Unionists, Nationalists and Republicans agreeing to run the province together in peace.
The Tories assumed they had a permanent majority in the House of Lords but Labour corrected this undemocratic outrage by removing 600 hereditary peers. Labour can now defeat the Tories in the Lords, including over recent Tax Credit cuts. Removal of the hereditary peers would have prevented many of Thatcher’s most unpopular policies including the hated Poll Tax. We delivered a Freedom of Information Act, which has enabled members of the public to see how government operates and helped uncover the MPs’ expenses scandal.
Britain was a better, nicer place under Labour. We introduced British Armed Forces and Veterans Day to honour the achievements of our excellent armed forces. Labour cut overall crime by 32%, assisted by the recruitment of 14,000 more police officers.
Labour banned fox hunting (after 100 years of trying), fur farming, the testing of cosmetics on animals and smoking in enclosed public places, including many workplaces. We delivered the cleanest rivers, beaches, drinking water and air since before the industrial revolution.
Labour scrapped Section 28 and introduced Civil Partnerships. We bid for, won and delivered the much celebrated 2012 London Olympics, and made all national museums and galleries free to enter.
Our foreign policy was controversial and Iraq remains easily the most contentious issue. But Labour, who helped establish NATO and the UN after the war, is an internationalist party who responds when called upon by our allies.
Labour supported intervention in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. In Kosovo this prevented thousands of ethnic Albanians from being slaughtered by Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. In Sierra Leone this ended the Civil War and restored democracy after a bloody coup. In Afghanistan this removed the Taliban and tackled Al Qaeda after nearly 3000 people were killed in America on 9-11.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of Iraq, Tony Blair still remains a hero in Sierra Leone and Kosova after intervening and saving many lives there. Remember, non-intervention has a price too.
Labour reduced world poverty by doubling the overseas aid budget and canceling 100% of the debt of the world’s poorest countries. Globally, this helped to lift 3 million people out of poverty (each year) and get 40 million more children into school.
It’s time to set the record straight on the last Labour government’s proud record. It wasn’t ‘Tory Lite’. Most achievements were opposed by the Tories, who claimed the investment in public services was ‘wasteful’, the Minimum Wage would ‘cost a million jobs’ and improved rights at work was ‘red tape’.
But it’s not easy to elect a Labour government. Since Universal Suffrage in 1918 only five general elections (out of 26) have delivered a Labour government with a sustainable working majority. Three of those elections produced the last Labour government of 1997-2010.
In the last century, the Tories governed Britain for more years then the Communist Party ran the USSR. Yet under Labour we enjoyed the longest period of non-Tory rule in over 200 years. An achievement in itself. But I suspect many of its other achievements have been overlooked by even the most seasoned Labour watchers. So it’s conceivable that huge numbers of Corbyn supporters wouldn’t even know these achievements existed. (Anyone aged under 30 now wouldn’t have even reached secondary school when Labour won in 1997.)
Given they are so hard to achieve, we should be proud of a Labour government that did so much to help working people. The Tories celebrate their years in office – so should we, especially as there is no guarantee that we’ll win again. If we don’t want the last Labour government to become the last Labour government we need to remember its achievements, because how can we expect voters to elect another Labour government if Labour members and supporters aren’t prepared to defend the record of the last one?
An edited version of this article was published by Labour First in March 2016. See the link below.