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Global Viewpoint

Brown, Blair, and Labour's legacy in Britain

After a 13-year run, Britain’s Labour Party is out of power. How should we assess its legacy?

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How far did these emphases and policies in fact bear fruit?

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A record of impact

Labour’s record is distinctly patchy, but it would be difficult to deny that it has had far more impact than any of the other center-left governments mentioned above did in their respective societies. I summarize only very briefly here.

The UK enjoyed ten years of unbroken economic growth, not to be dismissed as simply based upon a housing and credit bubble. That growth took place together with the introduction of a national minimum wage. Large-scale investment was made in public services and significant reform achieved, both in the areas of health and education, whatever the problems and limitations of the policies adopted.

Overall economic inequality was contained, although not significantly reduced. The position of the poor, however, improved substantially. Targets to reduce child poverty were not met, but prior to the recession 600,000 children were raised out of relative poverty; measured against an absolute standard, the number is about twice that figure.

The New Deal, Sure Start, and tax credit policies have all had their difficulties, but have mostly proved their worth. The much-derided “private finance initiative” (PFI) deals have on balance worked, when measured against public procurement.

Devolution of power to Scotland and Wales has largely been successful. Legislation was introduced whereby city mayors could be chosen by election, an option of which a number of large cities, including London, took advantage. What looks like a lasting peace has been achieved in Northern Ireland. Crime rates have come down substantially in the UK as a whole, and Britain has made a more fruitful adaptation to increasing cultural diversity than most other European countries.

For a party so often seen as illiberal and authoritarian, there were some substantial achievements in the opposite direction. Labour signed up to the Social Chapter of the European Union, together with the European Convention on Human Rights, introduced a Freedom of Information Act and endorsed civil partnerships for gay couples. Britain is a more liberal and tolerant society than it was and Labour’s policies played a part in this change.

Labour's role in shaping foreign policy

In foreign policy, overseas aid was increased well beyond anything preceding Tory governments had managed. The military interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo – where Blair played a key role in persuading the Americans to contemplate deploying ground forces – and Sierra Leone were widely regarded as successes. If only he had stopped there! Nothing corroded Blair’s reputation more than his ill-starred decision to become George W. Bush’s main partner in the invasion of Iraq, where the prime reason given for fighting the war, Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, proved not to exist.