"Would either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown want to claim the paternity of the Lib-Con coalition..."The New Labour government is now, finally, at an end. After thirteen years, it passes into history – and in a strangely anti-climactic way. There was no sturm und drang, no (with the greatest of respect to Jacqui Smith) cathartic Portillo moment for its opponents on election night, no flag waving on Downing Street for the incoming government, although I am sure plenty of Bolly will be spilt in the pubs and clubs of Notting Hill over the next few days.
One reason for this lack of drama is that the end has been so long in coming. Since 2008 few could have had any expectation that Gordon Brown would win a fourth victory for his party. How he must be regretting not holding that much-trailed election in the autumn of 2007. The other reason is that – apart from the brief flurry of hope yesterday – since the results were confirmed on May 7th there was really only one game in town, and it wasn’t one to which New Labour was invited to play. And finally, there is the context for the election itself – continuing financial instability and the generally agreed need to cut government spending on an unprecedented scale. Things can only get better? Not until they get very much worse.
When Tony Blair became Labour leader in 1994 he talked of making sure the twenty-first century would be the ‘progressive century’ in the same way as the twentieth century had been the ‘Conservative century’ given how long that party held national office. The basis for this progressive century was to be a new relationship between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. For division between these two parties Blair – following David Marquand and many others – claimed had allowed the Right to rule.
For a time Blair brought the two parties together – and even offered Paddy Ashdown a place in his Cabinet and created a Cabinet sub-committee on which Labour ministers and leading Liberals discussed policy. There was also, most crucially, Lord Jenkins’ Independent Commission on the Voting System, which proposed AV plus – a half way house between Proportional Representation and the Alternative Vote. Blair however backed off from putting this to a referendum as he had promised, in part because his Cabinet – where Gordon Brown had a very loud voice – rejected the need for electoral reform. At the time Labour had a majority of 179 and was confident of at least two more election victories under the old system.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing but there is an irony, then, in the events of the last few days. New Labour leaves office with the Liberals in coalition with the Conservatives, a party now led by a man who has described himself as ‘progressive’ and has said his government will be, above all things, ‘fair’.
Margaret Thatcher has claimed that one of her greatest achievements was – by destroying socialism - the creation of New Labour. As Thatcher also said on the verge of leaving Downing Street for the last time as Prime Minister: ‘It’s a funny old world’. Would either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown want to claim the paternity of the Lib-Con coalition? Probably not; not just yet anyway.
Professor Steven Fielding