A guest post by Peter Bolton
The news has recently been rife with reports of the new, moderate and even left-leaning proposals of the coalition government.
We are still in the midst of the coalition government’s honeymoon period and as such there is a natural, collective, almost subconscious feeling that the Blair/Brown years were a disappointment. The Tories obviously make their feelings on this clear enough and the new Labour leader has sought to distance himself to some extent from his party’s previous administrations – in part due our political culture’s constant tendency towards the image of renewal and regeneration.
It might be too easy at this point then to forget the gains of Labour under Blair and Brown. Certainly, this is natural enough: 1997 was a long time ago and governments always tend to fall out of favour with the public after long periods in power. After all, the gap between expectation and achievable outcome will never be filled no matter how successful or popular a government might be: it’s a defining feature of human nature that there is an intrinsic clash between what we expect and what is realistically achievable through a difficult and complex arena such as politics.
With this in mind we would be well advised not to take for granted all of their achievements no matter how disappointed we might be.
Let us look back to 1997: it was quite a different country and Britain was behind the rest of the world in number of important areas. For instance in 1995 the majority of European nations had a minimum wage including not just countries such as France, Spain, Belgium, and the Netherlands but also less developed countries including Romania, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia and Malta. Britain remained one of the few without one until it was instituted a year after Blair’s election victory. Even the United States, the UK’s partner in neo-liberalism, instituted its minimum wage in the 1930s.
It is also easy to forget the social progress that has been made since 1997. Take, for example, the gains in social legislation. It was the Blair government that in 2000 lifted the ban on gays serving in the military, in 2005 legalized civil partnerships for same-sex couples and in 2004 passed the law allowing transgender people to change their legal gender. Perhaps most symbolic, if not salient, was the decision to revoke Section 28 in 2003 – a highly controversial policy instituted by the Thatcher government in 1988 disallowing the promotion of homosexuality or “the teaching in any maintained school of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”
Workplace discrimination law was also strengthened by the Labour governments of these years. For instance, 2003 saw the introduction of the Employment Equality Regulations statute which outlawed discrimination on the grounds of actual or perceived sexual orientation, religious beliefs or lack of belief, or age. Similarly the statue outlawing less preferential treatment of part-time workers, which disallows employers to pay part-time worker less than full-time workers who perform the same job, was not made law until 2000.
Thankfully, the modern Conservative Party is not seeking to undo many of the progressive changes of the Blair/Brown years and perhaps the greatest achievement of these years was to draw the political centre of gravity to the left and end the possibility of Conservative Party attempts to backtrack. In fact, thanks to this shift the Conservatives have been forced to adopt policy ideas from the left in areas such as the environment, animal welfare, taxation and, of course, social policy. David Cameron, for instance, finally apologized for his party’s position on Section 28 in 2009, describing the policy as “offensive to gay people”. Their website includes policy pledges including promises to “promote equal pay and take a range of measures to end discrimination in the workplace”, “use our relationships with other countries to push for unequivocal support for gay rights and for UK civil partnerships to be recognised internationally” and “promote improved community relations and opportunities for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities.”
In many ways this reaction of the Cameron government of tacitly accepting the virtues of policy changes of the Blair/Brown years mirrors the approach of previous Tory governments to the Labour Party’s greatest achievement, the establishment of the National Health Service: not one has dared to suggest abolition since its inception.
The Conservative Party may now want to posture itself as a progressive and forward-thinking party, but we must not forget that it had over a decade and half to make legislative change on these issues under Thatcher and Major, yet consistently failed to do so. For all of its rhetoric about “big society” and “cleaning up Britain” we can’t forget what the Conservative Party did do and failed to do when it had the power to.