New Labour Show Is Set to Run and Run; TONY Blair Is about to Celebrate Heading Britain's Longest Continuous Period of Labour Rule. Chris Moncrieff and Lindesay Irvine Assess His Time in Office
IN THE midst of all his present troubles, Tony Blair can look forward to at least one item of good news this summer.
On Saturday,he will have been in office for six years and 94 days -eclipsing the previous Labour record holder Clement Attlee, with the prospect of at least two more years in office ahead of him.
Indeed, it has begun to look like Harold Wilson's stated ambition to make Labour ``the natural party of government'' has come true.
Political biographer and historian Ben Pimlott says of New Labour: ``It's been dramatically popular, which sounds an odd thing to be saying at the moment, but actually,it's been ahead in the opinion polls for longer probably than any government.''
Even now, six years into Blair's administration, with Iraq, the NHS and criminal justice all creating problems for him, opinion polls suggest the electorate is not yet even thinking about electing anybody else.
No small achievement for a party which spent the vast majority of its first century in opposition.
But will longevity alone makeBlair the best of Labour's prime ministers? How does his record compare with that of the four others -MacDonald, Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan -who shimmied up Disraeli's ``greasy pole'' to hoist the Labour flag over Britain?
Neither James Ramsay MacDonald, Labour's first PM in the 20s, nor James Callaghan,at the tail end of the 70s, represent much of a challenge to Blair's reputation.
But then they both led minority governments at tough times -at the start of the Great Depression and in the wake of the oil crisis.
MacDonald's triumph was to prove that a Labour government could be elected at all,and in securing the party's place as one of Britain's two main political parties.
For Matthew Taylor,director of the influential Institute of Public Policy Research, ``the only Labour leader you could seriously compare him with in terms of his overall impact is Attlee''.
Attlee, who won a resounding victory in 1945 after the war, is still thought of by many Labour supporters as the party's best ever leader.
Under Attlee the modern welfare state was firmly established, with the institution of national insurance and the NHS. He nationalised a number of key British industries and also began the process of granting independence to Britain's colonies.
Has Blair done anything to compare to this? Well, yes, according to Taylor. ``Blair,like Attlee,has under his belt `legacy achievements' which cannot be reversed in the conceive able future. Blair's devolution in Scotland and Wales is changing the nature of Britain in a way that is all but irreversible.''
Ben Pimlott agrees,but suggests that Blair's is a ``middle of the road'' government more reminiscent of Harold Wilson's premiership in 1964-70,although ``when Wilson came to power there were high expectations and ambitious plans and people still talked very much about socialism''.
Wilson's was not an economically radicalgovernment, but he did pass dramatic social reforms such as the legalisation of homosexuality and divorce, and the abolition of capital punishment, playing to an appetite for social change in 60s Britain.
``That wasn't the case when Blair came to power in 1997 -on the contrary,'' says Pimlott. ``He had fought on a manifesto of reassurance -the pledge not to increase spending beyond Tory targets and so on. It was precisely a sort of `don't frighten the horses' government. Therefore it can hardly be blamed for not frightening the horses. You pays your money...''
He continues: `` The big difference is that the Wilson government was fighting against appalling economic problems and got the economy wrong. …