The best is past

The Blair Effect

Edited by Anthony Seldon<em> Little, Brown, 672pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 0316856363

A collection of essays on the Blair government by 28 broadly centre-left commentators drawn from the more serious end of journalism and the more practical parts of academia cannot be anybody's idea of a fun read, unless you are a rather sad policy wonk beavering away in an obscure Blairite think-tank. These are serious, worthy folk who write in relentlessly earnest tones about every aspect of policy since new Labour came to power four years ago; it is not a formula for excitement. Moreover, regular readers of the better broadsheets will learn little that is new, even if they plough through every page, and it will all seem rather dated after 7 June: this book has a very short shelf-life.

However, those of us gearing up for the general election will find The Blair Effect an excellent primer on the government's record and the issues that should dominate the campaign: it is all in the newspaper cuttings already, but this is a convenient compilation of fact and opinion about the Tony Blair years. Nor is it quite the turgid tome it first appears. Reading it reminded me at times of the sterile set texts of my political science course at university. But there are some real gems that illuminate both the strengths and weaknesses of the new Labour project.

One of them is Christopher Foster's perceptive analysis of transport policy - or, rather, the lack of it. New Labour came to power without a policy for transport. "Blair was not interested in either transport or environmental policy," writes Foster. "The manifesto had lumped these together with second order policies under the heading 'We will help you get more out of life'." Blair then compounded this dangerous void by putting John Prescott in charge. No policies and a minister out of his depth - it is not surprising that transport has been the government's Achilles heel.

Nor can "things only get better" in a second Labour term. Foster explains how Labour wasted valuable time discovering that "a policy of traffic restraint on the roads and the promotion of public transport was [sic] not going to be enough to solve the transport problem". Over the next four years, the roads will get much more congested, while a clapped-out rail system will not quickly be put right.

Transport policy has never lost an election, Foster acknowledges, but he provides good reason for thinking that, on present plans, it could lose Labour the one after next. "The electorate does not appreciate how much worse congestion will become," writes Foster. "The issue which could still lose an election is just how the government manages the transition from a rapidly worsening position on road and rail to its new promised land of improved road and rail infrastructure and operations." Now you know why Prescott will be stripped of all responsibility for this on 8 June.

Alan Smithers's perceptive analysis of Blairite education policy is another example of problems looming round the corner in a second term. The writer notes that, despite the frenetic activity designed to give substance to Blair's promise to put "education, education, education" at the top of his agenda, "what is remarkable about all the apparent change is how little it differed at root from the policies of the previous Conservative administrations".

Smithers gives due praise for the improvement in pupil performance as measured by the literacy and numeracy tests. But he is rightly dismayed by the giddy array of top-down rules and regulations that smother local schools' initiative and teaching skills; and it is hard to avoid the impression that the Blairites are just tinkering with the system. After four years of Labour government, Britain still has a third-rate state school system, which perpetuates class division and denies far too many ordinary kids a decent chance in life.

"Until it [the government] truly gets to grips with how to provide a secondary education appropriate to every child," Smithers concludes, "its trumpeting of an inclusive system remains little more than rhetoric." Add in its disgraceful disregard for higher education ("its treatment of higher education, which has left both students and universities impoverished, amounts to wilful neglect") and you will see why education remains largely unfinished business.

The same could be said for health, a vital issue that is discussed (surprisingly) only on a superficial level in this book. The writers are too sympathetic to Labour to observe that the government's failure to undertake radical reform in the areas of health and education means we are about to blow £40bn on "schools and hospitals" for very little in return. Labour will find out the hard way in its second term: when the systems are basically rotten, no amount of money will produce the results that a prosperous society has the right to expect of its schools and hospitals.

"The [Blair] government outshines in achievement that of all other Labour administrations except 1945-50," concludes Seldon. It has done so because, unlike the Wilson governments of 1964-70, the Wilson government of 1974-76 and the Callaghan government of 1976-79, it has not made a mess of the economy - as Philip Stephens records in his excellent contribution, "The Treasury under Labour".

But the discovery that Labour can run the economy properly has obscured the truth that Gordon Brown's years as Chancellor of the Exchequer have not been a stellar performance: economic growth has been around a poor European average (and last year fell below it). Moreover, we are moving into an age when economic competence is taken for granted by voters, as Al Gore found to his cost last November. By the time Labour seeks a third term, running the economy well will no longer be a qualification for re-election.

Voters will want to know if Labour has created a school system that allows children from poor backgrounds to flourish, a health system that provides high-quality, patient-centred care for all, regardless of income, and a basic welfare safety net through which nobody is allowed to fall - oh yes, and a transport system that allows us to go about our business without unreasonable delay.

Those of us who believe in the "safety net and ladder" society - basic provision for all and a ladder up which everybody can climb, regardless of background, to the best of their abilities - had hoped that a second Blair term would produce the radical approaches necessary for its achievement. This book suggests we will be disappointed. Blair has achieved much in his first four years, but there is little evidence that he is prepared for the much longer road ahead to a real transformation of this country. Limited (and sometimes disappointing) constitutional change was the easy bit: combining social justice with a dynamic market economy requires rather more skill.

"Very few governments," writes Denis Kavanagh, in a masterly opening essay, "have become more successful or radical over a second term. For Blair, the future may not be the better; the best may be the past." I hope he is wrong, but fear he is right. Enjoy another great victory celebration on 8 June, but prepare for a long hangover to set in afterwards.

Andrew Neil is the editor-in-chief of Sunday Business and the Scotsman newspapers