John Marriott: 1997 – Labour’s missed opportunity

May 1 marked 20 years since Tony Blair led New Labour to an historic landslide victory. As a parliamentary candidate that year for the Lib Dems in the newly created rock solid Tory seat of Sleaford and North Hykeham I could see that the writing was on the wall by the number of times I was asked at the door who had come second in 1992 and was honest enough to tell them it had been Labour in their area.

When the votes were counted, Labour’s young pretender, Sean Hariss (whatever happened to him?) got within 6,000 votes of Tory, Douglas Hogg, who got his smallest majority ever, with yours truly way behind in third, with the Referendum and Independent Conservative candidates bringing up the rear.

Despite the fact that Blair, like Cameron in 2015, hedged his bets on a likely coalition by snuggling up, in his case, to Lib Dem Leader, Paddy Ashdown, once the result became clear that putative partnership quickly disappeared.

With a majority to die for, Labour could really have gone to town and created a political system fit for the 21st century. So, what did it do about voting reform, House of Lords reform, a Bill of Rights, a Written Constitution? Nothing. Just think how different this country of ours might have been today if Blair and co had had the courage to challenge our bankrupt political system back then.

We should have been suspicious as soon as it became clear, following Labour’s victory, that the new Chancellor, Gordon Brown, was going to make a virtue out of sticking to the previous government’s spending plans at least for the first two years.

Doubtless pledged so as not to scare off potential Tory voters, it could have been ‘massaged’, like most pledges, especially when Gordon had opened the books at the Treasury.

The rest, as they say, is history. However, much of our problems today stem from how that Labour government reacted to events which were probably not foreseen when it came to power twenty years ago. Here are a few examples:

Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook’s ‘ethical Foreign Policy’ rapidly bit the dust when his boss got into bed with George W Bush and the two decided to finish the job that the Iron Lady and Dubya’s dad had begun, with UN backing, in the early 1990s by invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussain.

And what about Peter Mandelson’s comments about being “intensely relaxed” about people making loads of money in the city or his government’s failure, unlike Germany and France, to give just two examples, to introduce transitional arrangements for immigration when Poland and the Baltic States joined the EU?

And, finally, something close to my heart, having spent 34 years at the chalk face, Labour’s failure to address the skills shortage by kicking the Tomlinson Report on Vocational Education into the long grass in 2005.

Goodness me, how we need those skilled people today as a Brexit Britain faces an uncertain future if we are going to win those trade deals that minister, Dr Liam Fox, is supposed to be bringing home any day now!

So, I for one will not be looking back on the years 1997 to 2010 with nostalgia. Whilst achievements such as the Anglo Irish Agreement, Scottish and Welsh Devolution and increased spending on Health and Education need to be acknowledged, those years were, in my humble opinion, peppered with massive mistakes and were, above all, a missed opportunity from which we may never recover in my lifetime.

I just wonder whether, 20 years on, Jeremy Corbyn, given a majority like his predecessors in the upcoming general election, would grasp the sort of nettles that the latter, for whatever reason, failed to do.

One thing is certain. I doubt whether the kind of reforms I outlined earlier would even cross Theresa May’s mind.