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Last Updated: Friday, 1 August, 2003, 11:45 GMT 12:45 UK
Longest serving Labour PM
Tony Blair
On Saturday 2 August, Tony Blair will have been in office longer than any Labour Prime minister for a single stretch.

It should have been an occasion for jubilation in Labour ranks, although the Hutton Inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly means the celebrations will be muted.

But what's been the secret of Blair's success? How has he managed to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors?

Paul Mason traveled back through time to look at the crises that destroyed Labour governments - and where Tony Blair goes next.

PAUL MASON:
"To secure for the workers by hand and by brain the swiftest possible departure from office amid economic crisis and a clash with our own supporters."

OK, that wasn't actually in the Labour Constitution, but there were times in the 20th century when it seemed like it. Then came Tony Blair. On Saturday his becomes the longest-serving Labour administration. So how has he avoided the pitfalls of his predecessors?

MICHAEL PORTILLO MP:
(Conservative)

Part of Blair's project was to get rid of all the negatives that there were about the Labour Party and they did it ruthlessly, people didn't trust them on law and order, they dealt with it, people didn't trust them on defence, they dealt with it. That meant that he had access suddenly to the middle-class vote.

PETER MANDELSON MP:
(Labour)

Neil Kinnock once said, the difference now is that we're getting our betrayal in before we come into office, we're being brutally honest about what the Party can and will do, rather than going to the electorate on a false prospectus.

PAUL MASON:
A clash with the media, a forged document, political pressure on the Attorney General and a man called Campbell. The year is 1924, and the first Labour Government falls after nine months, after failing to prosecute Communist editor JR Campbell for sedition. In the election that follows, the fake Zinoviev letter seals the fate of Ramsay MacDonald's Government. After that, Red scares haunted every Labour Government until now.

JAMES PURNELL MP:
(Labour)

I think Tony Blair has slain forever the idea of any Red Menace. I think the opportunity for the Labour Party now is we're entering territory we've not been into before. We can establish ourselves as the natural party of government. We can transform the country to being a progressive social democratic country.

PAUL MASON:
But old responses die hard. The Conservatives fought the '97 election on the slogan "New Labour, New Danger" - are they any clearer now what kind of danger Blairism represents?

MICHAEL PORTILLO MP:
The way we perceived the new danger was that he wouldn't be able to control the Left of the Labour Party and for six years that Blair has been in power, that seemed a rather ridiculous claim. After six years, maybe it doesn't look quite as ridiculous. The Left is somewhat out of its box now and that is what we meant by new danger, that the danger of the Left would be lurking under a figure of the Right.

PAUL MASON:
No Labour leader today could suffer the fate of MacDonald in '24. But if Blair had been there for the Zinoviev letter, surely his spin doctors would have had it buried in the inside pages.

1931. The second Labour Government ends in electoral disaster. After the Wall Street crash, unemployment rockets, and there's a run on the pound. The Cabinet splits over benefit cuts. MacDonald leaves the Party, and forms a Government with Tories and Liberals. By contrast, some believe Blair's achievement has been to take the Party further to the right without a split.

DANIEL FINKELSTEIN:
(Associate Editor, The Times)

Ramsay left the leadership as a result of a great crisis where he thought he could take the Party with him and failed to do so, and the position is not the same. I do think it's possible that after Blair has departed the scene, a lot of his allies do not remain Labour Party members for the rest of their lives, but they probably can't see it yet.

PAUL MASON:
Coalition was once part of the famous "Blairite Project", LibDems in the Cabinet in return for Proportional Representation. Labour's 1997 landslide put paid to that, but could we ever see Blair go for a cross-party government?

HUGO YOUNG:
(Political Columnist, The Guardian)

Only under conditions of crisis. One of Blair's great treacheries, luring Roy Jenkins and Paddy Ashdown over Proportional Representation, the key to a Lib-Lab alliance, then ditched it completely.

PETER MANDELSON MP:
Tony Blair, and those of us who supported him from the beginning, wanted to see a reunion of socialism and liberalism in order to defeat conservatism. What we wanted to create was a 21st century, which was a genuinely progressive century, in which progressive goals were pursued over many terms of government. Have we achieved that? I hope so, but I think I would be more confident that we have, if we had brought about that re-alignment and the reunion on the left of centre which we originally sought.

PAUL MASON:
They sought it because there seemed no other way to beat the Tories. The dream has not exactly died, but it's unlikely to be revived until there's a credible threat from the Right.

1951, a year into the second term of the post-war Labour Government. Clement Attlee has nationalised industry, created the NHS and run out of steam. The departure of Health Minister Nye Bevan signals the beginning of the end. Some see uncanny parallels with the state of the present Government.

DANIEL FINKELSTEIN:
By 1951 a lot of Labour ministers were intellectually and physically exhausted, some parallels with Alan Milburn's resignation, and other close Blair allies. There are parallels with that.

HUGO YOUNG:
As for running out of steam, to me it's not so much that, the Labour programme has plenty of content, it's more to do with credibility, and who is selling this scheme. Is the voice of Blair, which has been so dominant, so heavily personalised, one which people are tired of hearing? I think that's why the Party and the country would benefit if Blair were to step down.

PAUL MASON:
Tony Blair's answer is to press on with market-driven public service reform. The danger is, he alienates Labour's core supporters, while irritating the middle-class with a mixture of tax rises and failure to deliver.

GEORGE GALLOWAY MP:
(Labour)

It isn't just the war, it's privatisation, it's the lack of results and delivery on public services, it's going around the world attacking other countries, witch hunting, turning his back on the trade unions, these are all the things the New Labour clique wanted him to do and they've made him unpopular.

PAUL MASON:
In 1951, Attlee built a Dome, part of the Festival of Britain, signalling a new start for a war-torn country. But Tony Blair's had his Dome experience, and his Government is still struggling with its own war damage.

1979, The Wilson-Callaghan years see Labour Governments in conflict with the unions, whose strength is at its height. Harold Wilson invents the daily press conference, some say the art of spin - so it's not hard to imagine Tony Blair in his element in the white heat of the Wilson revolution.

Wilson departs, Callaghan takes over, and in 1979 the Winter of Discontent seals Labour's fate for nearly 20 years. As Blair presses on regardless, does he run the risk of repeating Callaghan's mistakes?

JAMES PURNELL MP:
It's difficult in the middle of a crisis to separate yourself out. I think the first six years will be judged as an economic success, as an electoral success, a good start in constitutional reform, public service reform. But I think, if it all finished now, those things would be unfinished. Blair wants to be remembered as the Prime Minister who sorted out public services.

Professor DAVID HOWELL:
(University of York)

Callaghan's loss of contact was with his constituency, the trade unions. Blair has never claimed to have a special relation with the trade unions or any interest group, yet clearly there are moments in many premierships where this loss of contact appears a weakness and credibility is destroyed.

PAUL MASON:
Tony Blair has faced mass revolts - the Countryside Alliance, the Fuel protests, and the anti-war movement. But all were well supported by Middle Britain, which Blair has claimed as Labour's new heartland.

JAMES PURNELL MP:
One of the core principles of New Labour has always been to talk to the country. The first place to get support was from the electorate. I think we are now entering a phase in which the kind of reforms which are being put through, those are difficult things to convince people of.

PAUL MASON:
So, as Blair reaches this milestone in office, which of the men who came before does he resemble most?

GEORGE GALLOWAY MP:
I think Blair is the 21st century Ramsay MacDonald. When MacDonald betrayed the party and deserted us, all over the country Labour people turned his portrait to the wall. When Blair departs the political stage, which I believe he may do soon, the same thing will happen.

MICHAEL PORTILLO MP:
Blair would hate me for saying this. I think he resembles Harold Wilson, Harold was the person who first dominated television, who spoke to us in our living rooms, who had this way of appearing convincing, and made a virtue of being pragmatic. In the end, Wilson was despised for having no particular principles, and I think Blair saw that coming. He saw that he had to get some principles, but unfortunately it just hasn't worked out that way.

PETER MANDELSON MP:
I think he has more in common with Callaghan, in the sense that Callaghan was a Party man who cared more deeply about the Party than people think. He will never do what previous leaders have done, leave it split and divided and unelectable for years to come, that is not a mistake that Tony Blair is going to repeat.

PAUL MASON:
The adulation and vilification of the past few weeks obscure attempts at long-term judgement. What's certain is that, on August 2, Tony Blair, the Labour Party, and British politics as a whole, enter unknown territory.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.



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