Does the 2010 General Election Provide the Opportunity for Change that the 1997 Failed to Deliver?

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1997 seems an awfully long time ago. Then again, so does the last election of 2005. With hindsight, events in 1997 looked pretty good. A new government was formed with a huge parliamentary majority and a sufficient mandate to implement wide sweeping reform, be it social, economic or political. The 2010 election will not be like this. For the Tories to gain an overall majority, they will have to win more seats at this election than any other in living memory, and because of the idiosyncrasies of the electoral system, there is not, in reality, even the slightest chance of the Lib Dems forming a majority government this year. New Labour had such unparalleled political power in 1997, and their successes cannot, and should not be ignored. However, their inability to reshape Britain’s constitution has only further exacerbated the democratic deficit within the UK.

In recent years, the ‘new’ part of New Labour appears to have disappeared from the political vocabulary. With Gordon Brown as leader, the party has certainly lurched back to the left, particularly in regards to public spending, but in the mid 1990s, Labour as a political party was almost unrecognisable from that of Michael Foot’s a decade earlier. And in many ways, Tony Blair was exactly what the country needed. He seemed personable and affable, unlike the dourness of John Major, and he did not really polarise opinion (at least in his early days as Prime Minister) like Margaret Thatcher. Furthermore, Blair represented something different – a Labour Prime Minister for the first time in 18 years. With a flourishing economy and a parliamentary majority of 179, almost any legislation would have passed through Parliament, especially considering the general good will Blair possessed at the time.

To be fair to Blair and the New Labour government, they did employ momentous changes that benefited the country. It is pretty hard to argue against the implementation of the minimum wage, and their removal of all but two of the ninety two hereditary peers. The intervention in Kosovo was the definitely the right course of action to take; as was that of bring the UK in line with the European Convention on Human Rights. Devolution is a marked constitutional change, that has withdrawn powers from an overzealous centre, to regional bodies that are more likely to be in tune with their populace.

Yet, they could have done so much more. The two most significant areas where reform has not occurred is that of electoral reform and the modernisation of the House of Lords. The Labour manifesto of 1997 promised a referendum on whether the electoral system for British parliamentary elections should be changed from the pluralist First Past the Post to a more proportional method. The Jenkins Commission in 1998 recommended the usage of the Alternative Vote + system (where every MP had to win 50% of the support of their constituents), so it seemed apparent that a referendum would be on its way. This referendum never came, but Labour maintained in both their 2001 and 2005 manifestos that a referendum was the right way of approaching any changes in the electoral system. Of course this raises questions as to why a referendum wasn’t called, and whether it was ever the intention of Blair to remove the antiquated and arguably unfair First Past the Post. While this system does produce large, workable majorities in the House of Commons, it cannot be fair that it is possible that a party can win fewer votes than their opponents, yet still be able to form government. It is thus apparent that it was never in his interest to introduce a more proportional system. Both the Tories, and to a greater extent Labour, reap the rewards of FPTP, with PR suiting the Lib Dems, and smaller parties. Although it may have increased the scope of democracy in Britain, it would have been daft for Labour to sack the system that had served  the party so well.

Similarly, House of Lords reform seemed to be well on its way, following the removal of most of the hereditary peers. It is less apparent as to why Blair resisted changes to the Lords so much, as with its current constitutional position, the Lords has far less political clout than the Commons. Perhaps its failure to be modified is because of the lack of consensus as to whether it should be either elected or appointed. One thing is clear though – New Labour failed in reforming areas that they had legitimacy, strength and justification to execute.

In some ways, there are similarities between 1997 and 2010, in other manners, less so. Comparisons can easily be drawn between the Blair revolution within the Labour party, and Cameron’s modernisation of the Tories. Cameron’s focus on the NHS is certainly akin to the Blair claim of the importance of ‘Education, Education, Education.’ Both men represent confidence and youth, and a clean break from what went before – both in terms of their party, and the mannerisms of the previous government. Just as victory in the ’97 election seemed inevitable for Blair, for most of the past two years, the same could have been said for Cameron. However, Cameron has not seized the momentum that he had in his grasp, and this coupled with the rise of the Liberal Democrats, has made an outright majority for the Conservatives unlikely.

In addition to this, the financial situation of Britain is in absolute tatters. Although the economy is the talking point of this election, and discussions concerning it, have largely now resulted in political point scoring, its importance can be ignored. The changes that New Labour have made across the board, have come at the cost of £800 billion, thus making swingeing cuts inevitable, even in areas that they are claiming to be ‘ring-fenced.’ Politicians unwillingness to discuss cuts in detail, is indeed fair enough, as it is bound to be a vote loser. But this does present an opening for deliberation to shift from fiscal affairs to constitutional reform.

So then why does the 2010 election present an opportunity that  did not happen post 1997. Although Nick Clegg is ever eager to stress that this is not the case, his party will in all likeliness be the king-makers. As events currently stand, a hung parliament is looking incredibly sure, albeit with the uncertainly as to whether it will be Labour or the Tories who will win the most seats. In any case, the Lib Dems can effectively hold either party to ransom, as neither is going to want to serve as part of a minority government. The introduction of proportional representation is a key facet of the Lib Dem mantra, which could be secured under the guise of a coalition government. And although reform of the Lords is not as high up their list of priorities, of the three main parties, the Lib Dems are surely most likely to bring this process forward.

One thing is definite about 2010. The New Labour ideology is well and truly dead. On paper, it seems as good an idea as any, but neither Gordon Brown, or particularly Tony Blair have had the conviction to see significant constitutional reform through.

Article by Matthew Byatt. Edited by Vicky Shreeve.