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Review of 2001 Thursday, 27 December, 2001, 10:31 GMT
British politics in 2001
Sharron Storer confront Tony Blair in Birmingham
Blair was given a clear election message on the NHS
Andrew Marr

All governments are haunted by spectres - their own failures, their hidden, shameful secrets, their fears about the future.

But the Labour government elected on Thursday, 7 June 2001, is haunted by an army of specific, individual spectres living ordinary lives, people who will march alongside every day of its journey.

It was Labour, easily returned to power, which had the most to worry about as it pondered that massive abstention

They are the 5,563,800 people who did not bother to vote. Actually, there were many more than that. Had every citizen entitled to vote done so, another 18m people would have taken part.

My lower figure is based on the turnout for the 1997 election, plus the extra population growth since then. However you slice it, however you explain it, at least five million people turned their backs on electoral politics.

Labour won a landslide - the number of their MPs in the Commons barely changed - on a smaller vote than it got in 1992, when it lost.

Humiliation for politics

The turnout, 59.4%, was the lowest in Britain's democratic history.

Yes, the outcome was never really in doubt.

Yes, turnout was higher in constituencies facing a real fight. But frankly, this was a humiliation for the body politic.

John Prescott in his punch incident
Prescott's punch was the abiding election image

The Tories under William Hague had banked on getting back the Thatcherite true believers, with a mix of Eurosceptic anti-Brussels policies and a tough line on asylum seekers, criminals and trendies.

They probably did stop a complete collapse in their core vote happening but they also completely failed to win new voters over.

The Liberal Democrats, fighting a rather old-fashioned campaign highlighting the case for higher taxes, did rather better than expected; their leader Charles Kennedy was an unexpected star of the campaign.

But it was Labour, easily returned to power, which had the most to worry about as it pondered that massive abstention.

Self-congratulation punctured

The first Blair government had certainly raised expectations very high very early, and then made some awful mistakes.

Its self-congratulatory "Cool Britannia" period was punctured by the failure of the Dome, a series of ministerial resignations (above all, Peter Mandelson's duo), ham-fisted attempts to exert control over devolved politics in Wales and London, and a series of policy failures in the health service and transport.

The Tories may not give Labour the simple left-right battle on public services that Mr Blair had expected.

There had also been notable successes - the Northern Ireland peace process, the Kosovo conflict and, most important of all, Gordon Brown's management of the economy which, based on his famous prudence and semi-independence for the Bank of England, produced low inflation, low unemployment and rising applause.

But the final year of the first Blair administration was dogged by the fuel protests, the fury of pensioners over derisory rises in the basic state pension and then the agonising and hugely expensive disaster of foot and mouth disease.

Small wonder, perhaps, that when the delayed election finally came, Mr Blair found it hard to stir up much enthusiasm.

Prescott's thump-up

The election campaign itself was not devoid of excitement or interest.

The prime minister was verbally skewered by a furious woman, Sharron Storer, outside a Birmingham hospital on the same day that his deputy John Prescott thumped a protester who had thrown an egg at him.

Yet none of this, nor the clever slogans and wheezes of advertising companies, nor the speeches and tours of the leaders, aroused the interest of the missing voters.

If the electors' message could be summed up in a sentence it might be: We're not much impressed with New Labour but - luckily for that grinning bloke Blair - we think the Tories are even worse.

Operations in a UK hospital
The public are demanding results on health
Tony Blair's own analysis accepted that people had not been impressed.

He seemed to take the spectres seriously: he thought that his government had not changed enough in their daily lives to arouse their loyalty or enthusiasm.

This basic belief drove his second term agenda as it unfolded in the months after the election.

Again, to pare it down to the essentials, the prime minister thought that only a long and substantial injection of new money, plus the use of private companies to help, plus internal reforms, could save Britain's public services.

This would involve him, inevitably, in a punch-up with the trade union movement.

But the alternative would be failure and the return, sooner or later, of a radical Conservative government dedicated to a new round of privatisation.

This Labour government of 2001-5 would go down as the one which saved public services with radical changes, or it would be a failure. That was the Blair view.

Tory shake-up

The Tories, meanwhile, had also decided that the future of public services was crucial to the politics of the next few years.

William Hague had resigned immediately and the party, faced with a choice of exciting but divisive figures like Kenneth Clarke and Michael Portillo, had opted instead for the quiet, bone-dry Eurosceptic Iain Duncan Smith.

Michael Howard
Howard changed the Tory line on tax and public services
Politics, however, is rarely predictable. Mr Duncan Smith appointed Michael Howard as his new shadow chancellor and Mr Howard quickly proclaimed himself a convert to the view that tax cuts must now take second place to better schools, hospitals and railways.

Instead of lurching further right, the Tories began a careful examination of how other European and American social systems worked.

They may not give Labour the simple left-right battle on public services that Mr Blair had expected.

World crisis

On 11 September, as the prime minister was preparing to confront his trade union critics in Brighton, all this was blown off the front pages by the hideous terror attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In a mood of global crisis not experienced since the worst days of the Cold War, the hunt against terror dominated every other issue.

Right from the start, Mr Blair unambiguously associated Britain with America, and himself with new Republican President George W Bush who in other circumstances might have been regarded as a political foe.

The World Trade Center collapses
The terror attacks turned politics upside down
The prime minister threw himself into the creation of a world coalition of countries against the terrorists of al-Qaeda, travelling some 35,000 miles to capitals as unlikely as Damascus, Gaza, Riyadh, Moscow, Islamabad and Cairo.

In a speech of staggering ambition at Labour's autumn conference, he suggested there was a chance to build a new world order from the ashes of the New York attack, re-engaging with Africa as well as Asia, resolving the Middle East peace process and striking new deals with Russia, Iran and other old enemies.

Once the war in Afghanistan got going, and despite the worst fears of many sceptics, the Taleban collapsed quickly across the north of the country.

British special forces were involved in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and the RAF helped support US bombing raids, but there was no mass deployment of British ground forces.

Washington, where Mr Blair had been feted for his staunch support, did not seem nearly as concerned about the humanitarian agenda as the British government - and distinctly cool about the wider ambitions for a new world order too.

Until Osama Bin Laden and his organisation were destroyed, President Bush had a single focus and a single interest.

Blows to optimism

Meanwhile, as a putative new government for wretched Afghanistan was being agreed, the Middle East erupted into a new cycle of terrifying violence - Palestinian suicide bombers provoking massive Israeli retaliation.

Mr Blair was relearning the old lesson that optimists usually retire hurt.

Now, as the year ends, the domestic agenda is slowly returning, though not in the way Mr Blair might have hoped.

Despite its huge parliamentary majority, this is a haunted Government that finally feels its own mortality

He and his chancellor were again seen to be at odds over the details of funding the Health Service - though, remarkably, the Treasury was in favour of a new injection of tax money. Their relationship seemed as raw, fraught and unpredictable as ever.

Mr Blair still hopes to argue Britain into the euro, which becomes a practical daily reality from January, with a referendum sometime in the next two years. His chancellor seems as dubious and massive an object to move as ever.

More generally, New Labour had not shrugged off its reputation as a spin-obsessed and somewhat cynical organisation.

Jo Moore, transport special adviser
Moore added to the Railtrack controversy
Stephen Byers, the new transport secretary, did not sack his adviser Jo Moore for suggesting that the 11 September attack was a good moment to release and bury bad news.

He was deeply entangled in a complex row about the circumstances in which he had pulled down the private company Railtrack.

Life in government is very hard. Cynicism about the ability of politicians to deliver anything has become deeply ingrained in Britain.

It is proving much easier to talk about reforming services than actually demonstrating real changes to sceptical patients, parents and commuters.

After demonstrating that it could run the economy, Labour now faces its first serious downturn - and at a time when it needs even more money.

But this time, it has no choice. If a real improvement in Britain's public services is not experienced by most of us, that spectral army of non-voters will grow even bigger.

And the lower the turnout, the less predictable politics becomes.

New Labour is new no longer. Despite its huge parliamentary majority, this is a haunted government that finally feels its own mortality.

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