Leading Article: Blair's future: is it like this?

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The Independent Online
LOOKING back today, 24 June 1999, it is clear that Tony Blair's call-to-arms five years ago was a turning point in British politics. It signalled an end to Labour prevarication and the dawn of a truly radical social democratic party. Swept to power by the desertion of middle-class voters from the Tories, the Prime Minister did not betray their trust. Although the very rich felt stung by higher income tax, Mr Blair kept his word and held overall taxation at the level inherited from the Conservatives.

There were big rows with the teaching unions and health service workers - and even a showdown in Cabinet with John Prescott - over public sector pay. Means-testing child benefit and setting the new minimum wage at a very low level have produced acrimony within the party. But public expenditure has been successfully held down.

Mr Blair has been equally committed to sound money. Now that the Bank of England is independent, Eddie George, the Governor, has an iron grip on interest rates. Labour left-wingers may never forgive Mr Blair for surrendering control to the Governor, but overseas investors have been wooed by low inflation and stability.

A halving in the numbers of people unemployed for more than a year is a considerable achievement. Thousands have been encouraged back to work by a huge expansion in training, restructured benefits and tax incentives for the low-paid. The near-universal availability of nursery education and childcare support for lone parents has transformed the lives of single mothers. Mr Blair's much maligned but far- sighted promise that every child should be able to speak a foreign language is creating a nation of polyglot Europeans.

There is also a sense of a more cohesive society engendered by better economic prospects for the jobless and a sharp fall in the number of beggars. Mr Blair faced hostility for creating dozens of clinics to supply registered drug addicts. The subsequent drop in burglaries and violent crime vindicated his decision.

Constitutional reform has raised perhaps the greatest furore. Parliaments in Scotland and Wales and new powers for local authorities seemed scarcely possible five years ago. Yet Edinburgh and Cardiff are today alive with the politicking of new MPs. Next week's referendum should produce a resounding vote for proportional representation in general elections. The White Paper on reforming the House of Lords will be more difficult to enact. But on this, too, Mr Blair has public opinion behind him.

Three years into his project of national renewal, there is much still to be done, but the Prime Minister has already achieved more than could have been expected.

.Or like this?

THE Prime Minister's famous manifesto, published five years ago, must be gathering dust somewhere at Walworth Road. Ideas that fired voters during the last general election proved to be no more than cover for another dose of failed Labour prescriptions.

Pre-election Tory tax cuts were no help, but Mr Blair's inability to get a grip on the national finances has been disastrous. The initial bonanza for the public sector was a mistake from which the Government has never recovered. Then Eddie George resigned as Governor of the Bank of England over the Government's unwillingness to offset its financial profligacy with monetary discipline. The short-lived boom and double-digit inflation led to today's merciless recession.

The minimum wage policy enthusiastically supported by the left is a cruel betrayal of the unemployed, who now number nearly 4 million. What is the use in training workers if they are priced out of jobs? Punitive tax increases designed to raise revenue have been counterproductive and frightened away foreign investment. The middle-classes face worse times even than during the early Nineties.

Hope that Labour had, as Mr Blair claimed, become the party of free markets, has not lasted. All too soon he gave in to pressure from the socialist majority in the European Parliament to ban products from countries where workers are exploited. That directive has triggered a wave of populist protectionism.

At home, parents are calling for the return of 'Nutter' Patten. Instead of embracing parent power, Mr Blair has done the bidding of the teachers' unions and rolled back the Tory education reforms. The national curriculum and testing have been scrapped along with grant-maintained schools. Local education authorities are back in the driving seat and making a hamfisted job of it. Private education is booming.

The same pattern can be seen in the NHS. Mr Blair promised back in 1994 that public services would be free of vested interests. But he soon scrapped the health service reforms to appease the unions. Increased NHS funding has gone into the pockets of staff rather than patient care. Waiting lists continue to rise.

Amid this deepening economic and social malaise, crime is rising. Ever stiffer penalties have failed to do more than temporarily appease public anger. In the moral panic, MPs are poised to vote for the return of capital punishment.

Mr Blair's statement five years ago promised so much, but the hard work of turning principles into policy was never done. The awful results are becoming manifest.