Was Blair a class act?

AS Tony Blair marks his tenth anniversary in Downing Street by preparing to move out of Number 10, political editor PAUL GEATER looks back at the night New Labour came to power.

By Paul Geater

AS Tony Blair marks his tenth anniversary in Downing Street by preparing to move out of Number 10, political editor PAUL GEATER looks back at the night New Labour came to power. In the first of a series he asks did Tony keep his promise to focus on one subject at the heart of its programme . . . education, education, education?

NOBODY was involved in the general election of 1997 will ever forget the momentous events during the five weeks of campaigning . . . or the five hours when most of the results came through.

The outgoing Conservative government had been on the rocks for years, handicapped by a tiny majority, splits among MPs, and a leadership challenge.

But yet on the night of the election no one could believe what was about to happen.

I arrived at the Ipswich count shortly after 11pm, an hour after polls had shut. The BBC had predicted a Labour landslide in its exit poll - but there was widespread scepticism about that after it had predicted a Labour victory in 1992.

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As I arrived at the count, I bumped into Labour's Jamie Cann, who was defending a majority of only 335 from five years earlier.

“Feeling confident?” I asked him.

“We'll win here all right,” he told me. “But don't believe this rubbish (he actually used a more Anglo-Saxon word) about us having a majority of 100. I'll be happy with 30 or 40.”

The mood in the hall changed as the results started coming in. I joined the Labour supporters in “their” bar as the result came in from Birmingham Edgbaston.

Their candidate won a seat that had been Tory for generations. A leading Labour councillor was wandering around the room in a daze repeating: “**** me, we've won Edgbaston!” time after time.

The scale of the victory was so great and it was seen as such a break with the past that the whole nation seemed to be carried away on a feeling of euphoria.

The reason Labour had won so well was largely because the Conservatives were in such a mess, a mess it took them another eight years to fully recover from.

But this was also the first time since Labour won in 1964 that the change in government was partially as a result of positive voting.

Changes in 1970s, 1974, and 1979 were essentially caused by voters rejecting the ruling party - there was not a great national enthusiasm for the incoming government.

In 1997 there was an enthusiasm, which resulted in the longest political honeymoon most commentators could remember.

A decade on those heady days of 1997 seem like a distant memory.

The glossy has long since vanished from Tony Blair's premiership. His time at the helm has been tarnished by an unpopular foreign policy and allegations of sleaze at home.

It is those issues which will be seen as his legacy - not the ten years of economic stability that followed the election or the painstaking work to bring peace to Northern Ireland.

Many members of his party are relieved to see the back of Mr Blair from Downing Street and will be hoping that a new Premier will lead to an upturn in their fortunes.

But few believe that the heady days of 1997 will ever return.

DURING the 1997 general election campaign Labour leader Tony Blair was asked what his party's three priorities for its first term were.

His reply was simple: “Education, Education, and Education.” It was a reply that has become a mantra which has accompanied the Labour government ever since.

Education professionals accept that the government's emphasis on the subject has had a major impact on their lives - but this has had both welcome and unwelcome consequences for the institutions involved.

In 1997 Labour's manifesto began: “Education will be our number one priority, and we will increase the share of national income spent on education as we decrease it on the bills of economic and social failure.”

Most prominently, parents were promised that infant class sizes would be cut to 30 or fewer and nursery places would be available for all four-year-olds.

Teachers were to be given help to better teach numeracy and literacy in a bid to improve the three Rs. In particular, the phonics system for reading was back on the curriculum.

The party set out its New Labour credentials by promising to modernise comprehensive schools, allowing children of different abilities to learn at their own pace.

But for college students, the last decade will be best remembered for the Government not only ending free education by agreeing to impose tuition fees, but also introducing loans to replace grants to cover living costs.

Ministers insist that huge gains have been made in education, thanks to the Government's investment.

There are 36,000 more teachers in schools, they are paid 17 per cent more than before, in real terms, exam results are rising, years of under funding in higher education are being reversed and more young people are going to university.

Detractors and supporters alike agree that Labour has committed a huge budget to education, increasing from £29.7 billion in 1997/98 to £60.8 billion in 2006/07.


See tomorrow's Evening Star for what effect ten years of Tony Blair has had on the NHS.

NEIL Watts chairs a group of Suffolk headteachers, and has been head at Northgate throughout Mr Blair's premiership.

He said: “The emphasis on education has seen a very real increase in resources for schools. The amount spent on education has gone up significantly in real terms and that is very welcome.

“Also the establishment of specialist schools has resulted in extra resources coming in and that has really given them a boost.”

Mr Watts accepted that some parents were concerned that specialist schools did not cater for their children's own needs.

He said: “That can be a worry, but schools like ours have used the extra money we get as a specialist school to improve facilities across the board and at the same time to be a focus for a particular subject across the area.”

While extra resources for schools were very welcome, teachers were less happy about other changes over the last decade.

Mr Watts said: “At times schools are given more independence to do what they want, at other times there is more control from local education authorities.

“And then there is now the constant pressure to either respond to the last Ofsted report or prepare for the next one.

“That means we are not able to spend so long preparing for normal school work as we did in the past.”

Mr Watts was also concerned about changes to society which saw youngsters rightly knowing much more about their rights but not so much about the responsibilities which should accompany them.

“That is all linked in with the government's respect agenda and ministers need to work with schools to try to combat anti-social behaviour,” he said.

OVER the last decade the government has promoted further and higher education - encouraging more people to stay in the system after they turn 18.

However alongside this expansion of the 18+ sector, some youngsters are concerned that the cost of education - with tuition fees as well as living expenses - could cause them problems in later life.

Suffolk College principal Professor Dave Muller, however, does not think a significant number of youngsters have been put off studying although they could face a long-term impact on their lives.

He said: “All the evidence suggests that more and more young people do want to carry on studying and that is good. They are not being put off by the cost at this stage.

“However we don't know now what the impact is likely to be further down the line - in say ten years time when today's students are looking to buy themselves a home or start a family.”

Over the last decade the investment in further and higher education had had a major impact in Ipswich - and the best is still to come with the establishment of UCS and the New Suffolk College.

Prof Muller said: “It would be churlish to deny that the government's investment in education has not brought great benefit to us, particularly over the last five years.

“Whether the investment here in Suffolk is as a result of the growth of the area or it is as a result of government policy is not really the issue - the fact is that it will have a huge impact on the town.”

TIM Beech from the teachers' union NASUWT in Suffolk said things had improved in education over the last 10 years, despite a slow start when the new government came in.

He said: “At first they didn't seem to be interested in what the profession, or anyone else for that matter, was saying - but over the years that has changed.

“Now we would have to say there are social partnerships within the education sector and they are most welcome.

“Changes to the salary structure dating back to the year 2000 are also very welcome and overall things are better now than they were 10 years ago.”

Mr Beech said the investment in school buildings and equipment was very welcome and had transformed the lives of teachers.

He said: “Whether or not you approve of private finance initiative, it has certainly transformed schools.”

National Union of Teachers general secretary Steve Sinnott gave the Government a ``could have done better' report earlier this month for its achievements in education over the decade.

He said Labour could be commended for stopping the `horror' of 40-strong infant classes and expanding nursery education to all three to five-year-olds.

Investment, too, had been excellent, with few young teachers experiencing the hours spent fund raising for books or computers by their older colleagues.