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Labour - One Year On Wednesday, 29 April, 1998, 16:34 GMT 17:34 UK
Blair's first year
Robin Oakley
The BBC's Political Editor, Robin Oakley analyses an eventful year in British politics. Welfare to Work has been key to Labour policy, as has the Chancellor's control of the Treasury. The Irish issue has taken momentous steps and British diplomacy has spread its wings overseas. But Labour has faced embarassing problems too. And what of the the future?

Winning a majority of 179 and ousting a party that had ruled for 18 years gave Tony Blair's New Labour government authority and freshness.

Ambition on a grand scale has been marked by significant constitutional change. Referendums have been pushed through endorsing the principle of a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. Members of both bodies will be elected by proportional representation, as will Euro-MPs. A Freedom of Information Act is on the way. So is the end of the hereditary principle in the House of Lords.

Welfare into Work

Equally ambitious are the Government's plans for a complete recasting of the Welfare State, ending the "culture of dependency" and seeking to ensure that everybody is better off in a job than on benefits. First steps have been taken in the form of the 3.5 billion "Welfare into Work" programme (financed by the windfall tax on the privatised utilities) under which all 18-25 year olds unemployed for more than six months will get training, education or a job.

The Welfare reform programme got off on the wrong footing, however, when the Treasury insisted on the Government implementing curbs on single parents' benefits planned by the Tories. After a rebellion by 47 Labour MPs in the Commons ministers had to take time out for "Welfare roadshows" designed to calm party fears.

An eye-catching Chancellor

The toughness of the Treasury under Gordon Brown has been a significant feature of Labour's first year. There have been continued rumblings over interest rate rises following the Chancellor's early decision to cede to the Bank of England the power to set the rates as the Bank chooses in pursuit of inflation targets set by ministers. With uncertainty in the rest of Europe over the Single European Currency also helping to push funds into sterling, British manufacturing industry is feeling the strain in export markets.

Gordon Brown has proved an eye-catching Chancellor, moving swiftly to implement Labour election pledges. He has raided the reserves to find extra cash for schools and the National Health Service. But his retention of tight Tory spending plans has alarmed Labour's traditional supporters. They are disturbed too that a Prime Minister who assured Middle England that it would be "fairness not favours" for the trades unions under his government has been tardy in implementing election promises of statutory backing for trades union recognition in the workplace where a majority wanted it.

The Irish Issue

The most stunning achievement of an action-packed first year has been the move towards a political settlement in Northern Ireland. Building on the efforts of John Major, but not handicapped - as Major was - by a small and dwindling Parliamentary majority, Mr Blair tackled the Irish issue boldly, taking risks in opening up links with Sinn Fein and working hard to keep the Unionist leader, David Trimble, on side.

He realised the need to maintain momentum and set a tight timetable, imbuing others with his optimism and impatience and making full use of his friendship with President Clinton.

Around the World

In the international sphere Mr Blair has been helped by a majority which leads most of those with whom he is dealing to assume he will be around the top tables for a considerable period. He made his mark swiftly at European summits, showing the necessary showbiz flair for a modern political leader. The Northern Ireland settlement and his use of that to inject new momentum into the Middle East peace process argue that he has the capacity to deal in detail as well as being able to see "the big picture".

But Mr Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown overplayed their hand in Europe when demanding that Britain should have full membership rights in the EURO X meetings of countries which joined the single currency, even though they had decided Britain should stay outside Europe's biggest project to date.

The new Government's rhetoric about "leading in Europe" and its tendency to sermonise about labour market flexibility have irritated some Continentals while Mr Blair's eager embrace of President Clinton's stand on Iraq raised more European eyebrows. But ministers argue that signing the European Social Chapter and declaring in principle for the Single European Currency has transformed Britain's image.

Off message

The Government has not been without its problems, although they have been more down to personalities and to mishandled presentation than to policies. Local government has long been Labour's Achilles heel and a series of local government scandals plus the suspension of three Labour MPs variously for alleged electoral fraud, internal party feuding and non declaration of business interests with a Serbian link, has led to the all-embracing "sleaze" label re-entering politics in a Labour context.

Revelations over the family offshore trust holdings of Treasury minister Geoffrey Robinson proved highly embarrassing to the Government, as was the Foreign Secretary's marriage break-up and the revelation that he had considered making his then mistress his diary secretary after firing the previous incumbent. Nor was the Government's image helped by the expensive refurbishment of the Lord Chancellor's apartments. "Power is going to their heads" say the Tories.

Most damaging of all for a Labour Government which changed its policy to seek exemption for Formula One motor racing from the proposed European ban on tobacco advertising was that the Labour Party had received a 1 million election donation from the Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone. The donation was handed back on the recommendation of the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner.

One significant failure has been occasioned by the Government's arrival in office promising a House of Commons vote on the issue of hunting. Ministers have lost support among hunting's opponents because they refused to find Government time for the anti-hunting Bill. But the spin-off was two huge countryside rallies which created the damaging image that rural England believed that the New Labour government was against it.

Still out in front

But for all those problems the Tories, with a new young leader still struggling to engage public attention for all his sound work at Question Time, are finding it difficult to make inroads on the Government's overall popularity. With the Liberal Democrats, who have been given places on a Cabinet Committee considering constitutional reform, practising "constructive opposition", the public has kept faith to a remarkable degree with the election victors.

Much policy is still obscured by the "Work in Progress" sign, the commission sitting on the proposed minimum wage being an obvious example. The Government can be accused of deferring a number of decisions. An astonishing 150 reviews, studies and commissions have been set up and there could be a decision-making log jam when they all report. There is trouble ahead too in Scotland where constitutional change, to the Government's alarm, appears to have given a hefty boost to the Scottish National Party.

This is a government sometimes seemingly obsessed by marketing and PR, hence the "Cool Britannia" projections. Opponents reckon that the public will in due course reject what they call a nannyish, authoritarian streak in a Government which has banned beef on the bone.

But there has been an astonishing achievement in Northern Ireland. The Government which promised to prioritise "Education, education and education " is starting to tick off its manifesto promises, showing both pace and purpose. And Labour MPs have mostly stayed "on message".

Much now will depend on the Chancellor and on the economy. The promised jobs will have to be found from somewhere. But the poll gap remains. For the moment this is a government which is defying the laws of political gravity.

Links to more Labour - One Year On stories are at the foot of the page.

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