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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 May 2007, 10:33 GMT 11:33 UK
How Blair shaped public services
By Mark Easton
Home editor, BBC News

Protesters greet Tony Blair in London in 2001
Public expectations grew during the Blair years, Mark Easton argues

Tony Blair was bestowed with that rarest of political gifts - being in the right place at the right time.

His party had emerged from the political wilderness redefined just as the electorate yearned for change.

As Britain woke up to New Labour's 1997 election landslide, the man about to enter Downing Street had a mandate to be bold.

But addressing his victory rally, his tone was cautious.

"No cockiness about the Tories - even now," he told his supporters. "They're not dead. Just sleeping."

Blair was determined not to blow his chance.

He judged that if Labour was going to institute real change, it would take more than one Parliament, and he was well aware of how previous Labour governments had been turfed out after one term.

So he sought consensus, accepting Conservative spending limits for two years. Number 10 was a big tent - all viewpoints welcome.

Sharron Storer confronts Tony Blair
Mr Blair was confronted by the partner of a cancer patient in 2001
"Is ideology dead?" he was asked. "Yes," he replied. What mattered was "what works".

Blairism defined citizens as consumers who, armed with the weapon of "choice", were encouraged to demand the best school, the cleanest hospital, the safest streets.

Targets and league tables were introduced as a mechanism to push up standards.

Public, private and voluntary sectors became blurred - anyone could bid to deliver state-funded services in "New Labour" Britain.

With a growing economy, Blair eventually relaxed the reins on public spending. Investment in the police, education and particularly health accelerated.

Growing protests

A second landslide election victory in 2001 showed the public held faith.

But Tony Blair was haunted by the D word: delivery.

A picket line in London in 2004
Tens of thousands of civil servants went on strike in 2004 over pay
"I believe we're at our best when at our boldest," he told the Labour conference the following year. "So far, we've made a good start but we've not been bold enough."

His "big tent" shrank as he looked to accelerate reform, took on vested interests and started to make enemies.

Doctors, teachers, nurses and other public sector workers demonstrated against reforms they argued were unethical or unworkable.

He was accused of being presidential, a control freak. Meanwhile the public were increasingly sceptical as to whether their taxes were improving public services quickly enough.

The billions pumped in could not match the demands of the new consumers, encouraged to view providers of dentistry, social care or schooling in the same way as retailers selling burgers, trainers or four-door saloons.

Missed chances

Time was running out. Tony Blair's political power was ebbing away and, as he saw it, the job had not been finished.

"Every time I've introduced a reform in government, I wish in retrospect that I had gone further," he told his party's conference - a hint of regret, perhaps, that he had sought consensus and wasted his political opportunity.

Tony Blair in silhouette
Many targets and league tables were introduced to raise standards
His last months in office were marked with moves to ensure his reforms of public services cannot easily be unravelled.

They are, in his view, a central part of his legacy.

Although there has been disappointment at the size of the gap between rhetoric and reality, concern - even anger - that traditional socialist principles have not been followed, it would be churlish not to recognise that there have been significant improvements in both the NHS and the education system.

But perhaps the greatest change has been in the terms of the debate.

Tony Blair has stripped away much of the ideological divide and changed the way the public views state services.

People's expectations are higher and that, one could argue, has been both his achievement and his undoing.




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