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05.12.10

The Labour Party's Highs and Lows

David Cameron's arrival at Downing Street ends Labour's 13-year reign in British government. The Daily Beast looks back at the rises and falls of the party of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.

David Cameron's arrival at 10 Downing Street ends Labour's 13-year reign in British government. The Daily Beast looks back at the rises and falls of the party of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.

HIGHS

1997: Blair Sweeps Into Power

After 18 years of Conservative rule, the Labour Party took up the slogan, “Things can only get better,” and they swept the general election like wildfire: winning a 179-seat majority, the greatest loss for the Conservative Party since 1832. Even worse, the Tories were not able to hold on to a single seat in Scotland or Wales. Prior to taking over as head of Labour, Blair formed a coalition called “New Labour,” aimed at bringing the old left-of-center party to the middle to tackle Margaret Thatcher’s dismantling of Britain’s welfare state. Newsweek’s Michael Elliott called Blair “the true heir to Thatcher.”

1997: Brown Frees the Bank of England

Despite being a left-of-center politician, Gordon Brown made quite a stir when, after only four days as chancellor of the Exchequer, he made the 300-year-old Bank of England free from national control. The move was one of the most radical in the bank’s history because it freed the bank’s monetary policy from being held hostage to the whim of the political party in power. An independent monetary committee was formed to set interest rates.

1998: Blair Strikes Deal in Northern Ireland

In the early years of Blair’s premiership, there seemed like there was nothing he couldn’t do, especially after he played a major role in the Good Friday Agreement, a major peace accord between the fighting Unionist and Republicans in Northern Ireland. Voted on both sides of the Irish border, the Good Friday Agreement had overwhelming support from both sides.

1999: The Establishment of a Fair Wage

After deregulation under Thatcher, the U.K.'s Fair Wage Resolution had been abolished in 1993, meaning there was no wage protection across the board, except in the agriculture sector. In 1999, the Labour Party announced a national minimum wage of £3.60 ($5.34), which has incrementally increased 60 percent since then. In October 2010, the minimum wage will increase to £5.80 for adults 21 and over.

2005: Blair Wins the 2012 Olympics for London

For one sweet day, London celebrated Tony Blair, who made a personal plea for his city that moved the Olympic Committee enough to name it as host of the 2012 Games. Paris had been considered a favorite before Blair’s trip to the Olympic Committee, a move that had never been done before then (President Obama tried to make a bid for Chicago in the same fashion last year). Celebrations erupted throughout the city, especially after the French-British rivalry had become personal. The city soon had bigger problems: Three subway trains and a bus were bombed the next day in a coordinated terrorist attack by al Qaeda.

2007: Blair Quits; Brown Takes Over

Who gives up power after winning three general elections, a feat never achieved by a Labour politician? Tony Blair, that’s who. Although some polls said Blair could have even won a fourth general election, he honored a 1994 agreement to hand power over to Gordon Brown. The terms of the agreement have never been exactly clear, but the intent has never been in dispute: A Blair-Brown coalition could end Tory rule. Brown moved into 10 Downing Street on June 27, 2007, after 10 years of Blair’s rule.

2007: Brown Becomes Mr. Popular

A series of disasters, both natural and other, gave Gordon Brown some of his highest-ever polling numbers in his first year in office. The worst U.K. flooding in 60 years, a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, and a failed terrorist attack all made for a busy first few months for Brown. He pushed for a £14 million aid package for the flood-devastated towns of Doncaster and Hull, canceled a family vacation to handle the foot-and-mouth outbreak, and announced the U.K.  “defiant” after an attempted terrorist attack in Glasgow.

LOWS

2003: Blair Joins Bush in Iraq War

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Tony Blair joined in a coalition with the U.S. to fight the war in Afghanistan, a largely popular move at the time. But things changed when he opted to follow him into war in Iraq less than two years later: He lost 139 Labour votes and over 2 million people protested in London. Later, Blair admitted he ignored any dissenters because he believed the war was the right thing to do, even though President George W. Bush offered him a way out. Blair has continued to justify his actions through the years, even saying in December that he would have gone to war in Iraq even if he knew there were no weapons of mass destruction.

2003: Blair Fails on House of Lords Campaign Promise

Britain has traditionally been ruled by two houses of parliament: the House of Commons and the more powerful House of Lords, whose members were automatically made members by family name. Over the centuries, the House of Lords’ power has been largely stripped, and Tony Blair promised during the campaign to create a completely elected House of Lords. In 1999, the Lords agreed to slash their number of hereditary members from 712 to 92, but this was the last reform on the House of Lords to take place. But by 2003, Tony Blair dropped plans for an elected House of Lords and agreed to a wholly appointed House of Lords, and the House of Commons rejected all motions for elections. In the 2005 election, Labour campaigned on removing the remaining hereditary members, and by 2007, and MPs voted to create a wholly elected chamber.

2007: Government Bails Out Northern Rock

In the early days of the credit crunch, the Northern Rock mortgage crisis was ahead of its time: The bank that specialized in subprime loans realized there was not enough money to cover its accounts. The Bank of England stepped in temporarily, and then several bids were made to take over Northern Rock, but in February 2008, Alistair Darling, the chancellor of the Exchequer, announced the troubled bank would be nationalized because none of the private offers were sufficient to cover Northern Rock’s value. Fallout from the scandal continued into 2010, with allegations that Darling knew of the wrongdoings on the part of the bank’s bosses.

2007: Brown Promises Fall Election, Then Reneges

Gordon Brown promised a fall election after Blair resigned and he took the helm that summer. Vacations were canceled, polls went out, Tories and Liberal Democrats began amassing war chests, but then abruptly, Brown announced the country had no need for a general election. Private polls later revealed problems with the electoral rolls and the growing popularity of the Conservatives, who took no time to claim Brown had “dithered” and prevented the election from occurring.

2008: The Global Financial Crisis

One of the downsides being chancellor of the Exchequer prior to being prime minister is that Brown now had to answer for mistakes made leading up to the financial crisis. Brown weathered the first big test with the Northern Rock scandal, but more banks failed as the crisis dragged on as the government was forced to bail out more banks. Unemployment rose to its highest level in 15 years, and the European debt crisis reached epic proportions. Some experts praised his handling of the fiscal crisis, but it was not enough to save him from public opinion. The David Cameron-Nick Clegg coalition has already promised stricter regulation for banks to prevent another crisis.

2009: Telegraph Publishes MP’s Expense Claims

In terms of scandals, this was a doozy: The Daily Telegraph obtained expense claims of all the MPs from 2005-2009, and very few were left unscathed. The uproar over what was considered misuse of taxpayer money spread across the political spectrum and abuses ranged from using government money to redesign a second home to MPs claiming exactly the minimum—£400—each month for food. Brown called for the “gentleman’s club” nature of parliament to end, but the scandal lasted for months as MPs began resigning one by one, with the Times referring to the era as “Parliament’s Darkest Day.” In Brown’s own cabinet, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and Hazel Blears both resigned over their claims. Eventually, the Speaker of Parliament Michael Martin resigned his post in a show of unity, but the scandal had caused deep public mistrust of elected officials.

2010: Brown Quits

Thirteen years of Labour rule came to a close in Britain on Tuesday as the Conservatives, led by David Cameron, and Liberal Democrats, with Nick Clegg at the helm, joined to form the first coalition government the country has seen since 1945. Brown resigned, effective immediately. The steely Scotsman’s voice cracked as he thanked his wife. “Thank you and goodbye,” he said before heading to Buckingham Palace to give the queen his resignation.