If Tony Blair is looking for a symbolic photocall next week he will surely choose the roller-coaster at the end of Brighton pier. In a year that started with the government serenely climbing towards an inevitable second-term victory, the first hair-raising dip occurred with the NHS crisis and the flu epidemic that never was. Then there was the stomach-churning spiral descent of the London mayoral campaign. At last, Labour started crawling upwards with the comprehensive spending review and the NHS strategy. It enjoyed a calm climb through the summer before the jolt of Mo Mowlam’s announcement, the lurch of the Blair-Brown exposures and the precipitous plunge into the fuel crisis.
Alternatively, Blair could go on one of those rides where you can’t tell whether it is you or the world that is upside-down. For this was the year when Labour rediscovered its social democratic credentials with unprecedented increases in public spending. It was also the year when pensioners got a cost-of-living increase insufficient to hire a Brighton deckchair; the year when Labour asserted its liberal values with the introduction of the Human Rights Act and public recognition of the benefits of immigration; and the year when asylum-seekers were given food vouchers and placed in abandoned council blocks.
In an attempt to capture the highs and lows of new Labour’s year, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) launched its Oscars and Turkeys poll. Results will be announced and prizes dispensed by the political commentator Andrew Rawnsley in Brighton on the eve of the party conference – but already we have insights into perceptions of Labour’s year.
Some of the results are predictable and consistent. The category for best policy of the past year included the raising of the minimum wage, the abolition of voting rights for hereditary peers, the NHS plan and the comprehensive spending review. The winning policy fitted neatly with the overwhelming victor in the Best Member of the Cabinet (Excluding Tony Blair) category. As Bill McLaren, the BBC rugby commentator, would say: “They’ll be joy in the streets of Dunfermline tonight.”
We asked for the votes of two audiences – one poll of left-leaning opinion-formers and the other of the general public, conducted through the website www.yougov.com. But as those who consult the running total on the website will discover, the views of the two constituencies do not always coincide. So we have had no choice but to create a separate “People’s Oscar” for the top Cabinet member. Sadly, the winner won’t be repeating her performance next year.
The Best Achievement Since the Election award is too close to call: the creation of a million new jobs vies with reductions in child poverty and the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly. But that’s enough of being positive – what of new Labour’s turkeys?
The Worst Spin of the Year category had a distinguished shortlist. Sadly, two candidates have failed to get more than a handful of votes. The government’s annual report gets off lightly, despite its announcement of the completion of a non-existent Sports Institute in Sheffield – no wonder we’re top of the medals in Sydney. And Frank Dobson is once again lagging in a poll – it appears that not enough people actually read the story about him resisting Millbank entreaties to remove his beard. So the race is on between the Laura Spence elitism attack, the Women’s Institute speech and marching yobbos to cashpoints.
As for worst policy, my own favourite – “the continued employment of Chris Woodhead” – is sadly trailing behind, despite all too obvious attempts at ballot-rigging from the staff of one teachers’ union. When we opened the voting a month ago, “more money to the Dome” only just crept on to the shortlist, but this has achieved a late surge into contention. But, unsurprisingly, this contest remains a two-horse race. Note to Jack Straw: you could guarantee an IPPR turkey next year, not to mention a sympathetic editorial from the Daily Mail – simply require asylum-seekers over retirement age to subsist on a weekly voucher worth 75p.
As worst policy contender, the London Underground public-private partnership has largely escaped opprobrium, this despite the winner of the Best Government Critic category being a foregone conclusion. The latter award has also been the cause of the clearest political manoeuvring. Not only have all the votes for Nick Cohen come from other journalists, but also there was an impressive yet suspicious surge of support for Peter Kilfoyle – a warning there to those with an eye on the job of Mayor of Liverpool.
Finally, there is a special award for the best conference moment of the past 20 years. Among the also-rans, no one seems to remember the 1981 deputy leadership election, and there’s not much enthusiasm for the PM’s speeches. Despite a large sympathy vote for the Mo Mowlam standing ovation of 1998, there could be only one winner. Fingers crossed, but our ceremony could have no better ending than for the victor to remind us of that nerve-tingling moment. You’ll have to come to find out who won, but it was a former Labour leader, a Labour leader . . .
The writer is the director of the IPPR