Change and Controversy:
​Ealing’s Blair Years, 1997-2007

By Dr. Piotr Stolarski


Photo of Tony and Cherie Blair outside No 10, 1997

                                 Tony Blair and wife Cherie, after 1997 election victory

Following the recent General Election, this month’s blog post looks back some years to former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s time in office, focusing on the impact of his Labour government at the national and local council levels between 1997 and 2007. 


The Blair Era

New Labour sign

                        Above: New Labour fused concepts and policies from across the
​                        political spectrum: the so-called ‘Third Way’

Tony Blair’s New Labour Party, de-emphasising traditional Labour socialist ideology, came to power in a landslide election victory in May 1997, amidst widespread euphoria, after 18 years of Conservative government. 

He went on to win two more general elections, in 2001 and 2005, in spite of the controversial decision to go to war against Iraq in 2003, which led to calls for him to be tried for war crimes. 

His government’s achievements included the introduction of the National Minimum Wage, the Human Rights Act, the Freedom of Information Act, as well as devolved government in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (based on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement). 

Wikipedia lists other policies pursued by Mr. Blair during his time in office: 

                  During his time as prime minister, Blair raised taxes; introduced […] some new
​                  employment rights (while keeping Margaret Thatcher's trade union reforms);
                  introduced significant constitutional reforms; promoted new rights for gay people in
​                  the Civil Partnership Act 2004; and signed treaties integrating Britain more closely
​                  with the EU. He introduced substantial market-based reforms in the education and
​                  health sectors; introduced student tuition fees; sought to reduce certain categories of
​                  welfare payments, and introduced tough anti-terrorism and identity card legislation.
​                  Under Blair's government the amount of new legislation increased which attracted
​                  criticism.

                  Blair increased police powers by adding to the number of arrestable offences,
​                  compulsory DNA recording and the use of dispersal orders. He did not reverse the
​                  privatisation of the railways enacted by his predecessor John Major and instead
​                  strengthened regulation (by creating the Office of Rail Regulation) and limited fare
​                  rises to inflation +1%. 

The Blair era saw considerable changes in British politics, society, and culture. British creativity and pop-culture: ‘Cool Britannia’, came to the fore. 

Increased government spending led to ‘public-private partnerships’, with schools and hospitals receiving greater investment. 

It was also a time of great technological developments such as the dawn of mass mobile telephone and Internet use, so central to modern life. 

Socially, immigration increased markedly (partly from the new E.U. member states, partly from Africa and the Middle East – many asylum seekers). 

Antisocial behaviour and crime also became problematic. The threat of terrorism became severe, with terrorist attacks in Ealing (2001), the U.S. (9/11), and London (2005). 

So what happened in Ealing during these years? This post explores some of Tony Blair’s links to Ealing, as well as highlighting a selection of the major developments in the local area between 1997 and 2007. 


Before 1997: A Taste of Things to Come

Photo of Ealing Councillor, John Cudmore, 1982

                                   Above: Cllr. John Cudmore, Labour leader of Ealing
​                                   Council (1994-2005), depicted in 1982

Tony Blair’s first known visit to Ealing occurred in 1990 while he was a shadow employment minister. In 1995, Yann Tear from the local paper reported on his appearance at a Greater London Labour Party event at Ealing Town Hall. The sleek, stage-managed, style of his future premiership, was already apparent:  

                    Further proof that modern socialism is in no way based on the old Soviet empire
                    could be found in spades with the visit of Labour leader Tony Blair in Ealing.

                    Not only is the Labour party mobilising to ditch Clause 4, much to the chagrin of a
                    dozen Socialist Worker activists on the town hall steps, but the spirit of glasnost is
                    particularly conspicuous by its absence. 

                    Within second of Mr. Blair’s arrival, the image-makers’ protection squad had swung
                    into action.

                    The party has chosen to hold frank discussions among party faithful about the pros
                    and cons of its commitment to nationalisation, but is cagey about allowing outsiders
                    to eavesdrop. 

                    Power dressers were quick to usher ‘scribblers’ and photographers from the mayor’s
                    parlour even during the welcoming session before Tuesday night’s party meeting.

                    As for the meeting itself – one of the six on the Labour leader’s nationwide pilgrimage
                    – forget it. The press are as welcome as pork scratchings in a synagogue, as Tory
                    Cllr. Stewart Jackson once famously observed. 

                     Tony Blair, smile reassuringly intact, arrived fashionably late, thus curtailing his time
                     with Ealing’s politicians. But then the scores of unfamiliar faces waiting patiently in
                     the Victoria Hall were a reminder this event was for the Greater London Labour
                     Party, and far from being a parochial event.

                     Council leader John Cudmore welcomes the MP, understandably taking the
                     opportunity to blow Ealing’s trumpet as the model borough which has regained the
                     hearts, minds and confidence of the local populace. 

                     Mr. Blair, who was last at the town hall five years ago as shadow employment
                     secretary, replied in mail-shot patter: “I’m very pleased to be here. We are proud of
                     what you have achieved in local government and hope that in time you could well
                     have central government more on your side than at present.” It was all we were
                     allowed to hear.  
 

                     (Article by Yann Tear in Ealing and Acton Gazette, 24 February 1995, p. 3) 


1997: Hospital Reform and Funding  

Newspaper picture of the Blairs visiting Central Middlesex Hospital

             Above: Cherie Blair joined Mr. Blair in his visit to Central Middlesex Hospital
             (1997) 

The Prime Minister’s next publicised appearance occurred in October 1997 – a visit to Central Middlesex Hospital, Park Royal. Addressing NHS funding, waiting times, inefficiencies, and bed shortages, were among his early priorities in government. The visit was an opportunity to praise staff and demonstrate his political commitment to the health service:  

                     Tony Blair chose Park Royal’s Central Middlesex Hospital as the venue when he
                     announced extra cash for the NHS this week – because Labour believes it is
                     showing the rest of the country how to avoid a winter health crisis. 

                    Health secretary Frank Dobson, who joined the Prime Minister on his much
                    publicised visit on Tuesday, said Central Middlesex was “the best in the country” in
                    its arrangements for the expected winter bed shortage. 

                    Mr. Blair and Mr. Dobson revealed that £300 million extra has been found for the 
                    
NHS. But as well as taking the extra cash, they want all Britain’s hospitals to follow
                    the Central Mid example – by keeping patients in hospital as short a time as possible.
                    Medical staff will work with social services to discharge patients early and make sure
                    they are looked after at home. 

                    Mr. Dobson said: “The winter arrangements here are very good – the best in the
                    country.”

                    An example of the policy at work is 82-year-old Edward Butler, who left hospital just
                    six days after a hip operation instead of the usual three weeks. 

                    Mr. Butler, of Waverley Gardens, Park Royal, said he welcomed the opportunity to
                    recover at home.

                    He said: “I would much prefer to go home than stay in hospital three weeks. If
                    anything goes wrong, health visitors who are visiting me every day can always get me
                    back to hospital.”

                    Mr. Blair said: “The willingness of the hospital to make huge changes is absolutely
                    tremendous. I cannot overstate my admiration for the managers and staff. It’s up to
                    the NHS to improve and modernise for the future.”

                    Mr. Dobson added: “The hospital has a shining reputation for showing the way
                    forward to the NHS. It used to be a pretty rundown place; but the commitment by its
                    management h
as resulted in drastic improvements.”

                     John Pope, chief executive of Central Mid. said: “Last winter, when there was a rise
                     in emergency admissions we seemed to cope better than many other hospitals,
                     which reported too many patients on trolleys. Lying around in bed is not good for
                     you and can lead to more problems. If patients can go home and receive care it is
                     better all round.”

                     Central Mid should strengthen its reputation as a model hospital with the completion
                     of its unique Ambulatory Care and Diagnostic Centre (Acad), set to open early in
                     1999. It is the first hospital unit in the UK created specifically to treat patients in a
                     single day. Private firms will provide support services. 

                    Meanwhile at Ealing Hospital, chief executive Julian Nettel said: “We will certainly be
                    putting forward our own ideas on how we can strengthen our services for
                    emergencies this winter and hope to get a sizeable cash injection. 

                    “Reports are being put together on how we could use that money but our target will
                    be to keep down waiting times, not just in accident and emergency, but for routine
                    operations too. That is bound to involve closer links with social services.”

                    (Article by Yann Tear in Ealing and Acton Gazette, 17 October 1997, p. 1).  


1998: Tony Blair and Rev. Broadbent  

Photo of Pete Broadbent, current Bishop of Willesden

                                        Above: Formerly Archdeacon of Northolt, Rev.
                                        Pete Broadbent is now Bishop of Willesden

Mr. Blair’s influence as Prime Minister extended to the Church of England. In 1998, the Archdeacon of Northolt, Rev. Pete Broadbent, who was seen by some as a controversial character, missed out on becoming Bishop of Liverpool – seemingly due to Mr. Blair’s intervention. The local paper reported:   

                    Flamboyant Northolt archdeacon Rev. Pete Broadbent has again been suggested for
                    the job of Bishop of Liverpool – one of the highest-profile positions in the Church of
                    England. 

                    But word has it he has been turned down after intervention by Tony Blair. 

                    Mr. Broadbent, 45, has administrative responsibilities for the whole of Ealing, which
                    include the appointment of new priests and the supervision of church building work. 

                    However, Mr. Broadbent, who prefers only to be called ‘Peter, has already been
                    turned down for the job by Prime Minister Tony Blair, according to some Church of
                    England sources. 

                    They believe Mr. Blair’s unusual intervention – prime ministers generally rubberstamp 
                    church appointments – could be in response to Mr. Broadbent’s conduct as a Labour
                    Party councillor in Islington in the early 1980s. 

                    Regarded as something of a maverick left-winger, Mr. Broadbent caused outrage in
                    1982 when he donned church vestments and carried out a mock funeral service in
                    protest at Tory local government spending cuts. Passers-by were startled to see the
                    long-haired clergyman alter a prayer for political purposes on the steps of Islington
                   Town Hall. 

                    A church source said: “Broadbent might be too ‘old Labour’ for Blair. He might also
                    be too much of a trendy evangelical for his liking.”

                    But on Monday The Guardian newspaper tipped Mr. Broadbent as one of only four
                    candidates to take over the vacancy left by the high-profile Rt. Rev. David Sheppard,
                    who retired in September. The appointment saga has caused conflict between the
                    diocese, which wants a low-profile figure who will concentrate on diocesan work, and
                    the national church, which wants another high-profile candidate like Bishop
                    Sheppard.

                    The paper said Mr. Broadbent had a sound reputation for getting things done and
                    was a leading figure in the General Synod, the Church of England’s ruling body. It
                    also noted his prowess as an impromptu speaker and his evangelical leanings –
                    widely 
regarded as a vital asset in any appointment with the church trying
                    desperately to stop long-term decline in attendance.

                    One local Anglican said: “He is very popular among other clergy, especially in the
                    area of education which he knows a lot about.” Mr. Broadbent was unavailable for
                    comment. 

                    (Article by Ronan McGreevy in Ealing and Acton Gazette, 9 January 1998, p. 17) 

Rev. Broadbent was finally consecrated as the Bishop of Willesden in 2001, but later lived up to his reputation by making controversial comments regarding Prince William and Kate Middleton’s marriage, and the monarchy, in 2010.  


1999: Education, Education, Education  

Newspaper photo of Tony Blair visiting Fielding Primary School in West Ealing

                       Above: Tony Blair visiting Fielding Primary School, West Ealing (1999) 

‘Education, education, education,’ was one of Tony Blair’s most memorable mantras. He was committed to raising educational standards, cutting class sizes, and pumping more money into schools. Indeed, some schools locally received large injections of extra cash, and set about modernising their buildings and facilities, during his premiership. In 1999, Mr. Blair visited Fielding Primary School in West Ealing, as the local press reported:  

                    Prime Minister Tony Blair received a rapturous reception from excited pupils when he
                    made a surprise visit to a West Ealing primary school to announce a £150 million
                    plan to cut class sizes. 

                    Mr. Blair, who was joined by education secretary David Blunkett and his guide dog
                    Suzie, was greeted by a huge crowd of cheering and waving pupils in the playground
                    when he spent the afternoon at Fielding Primary School in Wyndham Road. 

                    But some of the children in the first classroom visited by the VIPs, a class of 26 four
                    and five-year-olds taught by Catharine Barham, were not sure who their visitors
                    were. 

                    Mr. Blair and Mr. Blunkett squatted down next to the children and chatted to them
                    about their drawings and collages. Mr. Blair told one girl: “Hello. I’m Tony Blair.” But
                    she was too shy to reply. 

                    The school is to received an extra £900,000 – a third of it from the Government and
                    the rest from Ealing Council – to build eight new classrooms and take on an extra
                    teacher to keep infant class sizes under 30.

                    At the moment Fielding has to stretch its budget to maintain smaller classes lower
                    down the school, which means that older children are being taught in classes of up
                    to 35.

                    Nationally the Government has pledged £150 million to ensure that fewer than
                    200,000 infants will be taught in classes over 30 by September. Reducing class sizes
                    was one of Labour’s five key pledges at the 1997 general election.

                    Mr. Blair, whose plan to visit Fielding Primary on Thursday last week was only
                    announced to pupils and staff during morning break, told the Gazette: “This is a
                    wonderful school with a very good atmosphere. I am delighted they are going to be
                    able to expand.”

                    Head teacher Mike Pankhurst said: “At the moment we are using money from our
                    existing budget to create three classes of about 25 for our first year intake. 

                    “But that is having an effect on class sizes higher up the school and cannot be
                    sustained.” 

                    (Article by Phil McCorkell in Ealing and Acton Gazette, 12 March 1999, p. 19) 

More controversially, Mr. Blair also introduced fees and loans for university students – who had previously received free maintenance grants – much to their distress.  


2000: Spending on Public Services 

Newspaper picture of local reporter Mike Parkinson interviews Tony Blair (2000)

                                   Above: Local reporter Mike Parkinson interviews
                                   Tony Blair (2000) 

Government spending increased under Tony Blair; yet many local councils had to make cuts and drastically increase council tax to balance the books. The Ealing and Acton Gazette’s reporter Mike Parkinson interviewed Mr. Blair as he promised millions more for public services, in 2000: 

                    He said schools, hospitals and the Metropolitan Police would benefit from his
                    Government’s spending plans. 

                    Critics have complained about the slow pace of reform, but Mr. Blair told the Gazette
                    that economic stability was the first priority. 

                    “In west London it will mean millions of pounds in extra public services, plus extra
                     police on the beat,” he said. 

                    “We have only been able to do this because of the tough economic decisions of the
                     first two years.” 

                    (Article in Ealing and Acton Gazette, 28 July 2000, p. 1)  

It is clear however that there was a contradiction between promises of government spending and the impact of a pre-existing Ealing Labour Council’s cuts and inefficiencies, between 1997 and 2006, when a Conservative council was elected. Strikes by public sector workers locally reacted against these constraints in this period.  


2001: Terror comes to Ealing  

Newspaper photo of Ealing Broadway in wake of the 2001 bomb blast

   Above: Ealing Broadway in wake of the 2001 bomb blast 

2001 was a year that will forever be remembered for the 9/11 attacks in the USA. Ealing itself was also directly touched by terrorism that year, when an 88lb home-made bomb hidden in a car was detonated by the Real IRA in Ealing Broadway at midnight, Friday 3 August 2001, injuring 7 people. Thankfully none were killed, but the blast shocked the borough’s residents. Labour MP for Ealing North, Stephen Pound, wrote a in his Gazette column on 10 August that ‘the bombers won’t beat us’. After praising the local authorities, police, firefighters and paramedics, he said: 

                    The awful reality of what had happened started to sink in after the initial shock had
                    warn off. Dissident Republicans, the so-called ‘Real’ IRA, had bombed Hammersmith
                    
Bridge, Acton Main Line, Shepherds Bush and now it was Ealing Broadway […]
                    Gerry Adams, for years demonised in this country as the extremist, is now under
                    attack for signing up to the Good Friday Agreement. He is now the moderate. 

                    The discipline of the IRA ceasefire is now seen as weakness by a fanatic splinter
                     group hell-bent on fighting yesterday’s war with lethal blast incendiary bombs and
                     the sour, stale rhetoric of a bygone age. 

                    I have a terrible feeling that things may get worse before they get better. But however
                    bad it gets, however brutal and indiscriminate are the terrorists, I know that they will
                    never win. They will make no converts to their cause by seeking to bring the
                    murderous bloodshed that they inflicted on Omaha to the streets of our town. 

                    They will never break our spirit. I saw Ealing at its best last Friday. Amidst the smoke,
                    the broken glass, the burst water mains and the eerie silence I saw the people of
                    Ealing show courage and compassion. I saw their strength. The bombers won’t beat
                    us. I hope that message echoes loud and clear in Dundalk. 

                    (Stephen Pound, in Ealing and Acton Gazette, 10 August 2001, p. 14) 

Yet it was Islamist terrorism which came to prominence in Britain after 2001, particularly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 7 July 2005 London attacks. Unfortunately, hate crimes against the local Muslim community also increased.   


2002: Tackling Antisocial Behaviour  

Photo of Ealing High Street

                        Above: Ealing High Street. Complaints about its clubs during the
                        early Blair era, as well as assaults and stabbings outside the
                        Broadway Boulevard club, were symptomatic of a rise in antisocial
                        behaviour.

Antisocial behaviour increased during Tony Blair’s period in office. This took several forms locally. One was the increase in so-called ‘yobs’ and ‘louts’ – misbehaving teenagers or young people, often drunk and operating in groups or gangs. Graffiti also increased, with Ealing Council struggling to cope with gangs of adolescent ‘taggers’. Binge-drinking and drunkenness outside pubs and clubs was also a pressing issue, often ending in noise, and sometimes in violence. Traffic-light ‘squeegies’ touting for unwelcome business were another manifestation. The Police were given new powers, including on-the-spot fines and the use of dispersal orders and ‘ASBOs’ with the right to restrict use of alcohol in public areas. Here are some Ealing residents’ views of on-the-spot fines, from a local paper article in 2002:  

                    SARAH WALSH, 55, who lives in Hanwell, said: “On-the-spot fines are a good idea. 
                    
Anything that makes the streets safer has to be a good thing and I think introducing
                    
the fines to Ealing would be a good idea.”

                    SYBIL SHEWAN, 88, lives in West Acton. She said: “In theory it’s a good idea for
                    those who can pay the fines. But what about those who cannot pay? I’m not sure it
                    will work from a practical point of view.”

                    MOHAMMED KHAN, 50, lives in West Ealing. He said: “On-the-spot fines are
                    definitely a good idea. People make trouble and if you make them pay straight away
                    you spend less in the courts. It saves money for everyone and doesn’t fill up
                    prisons.”

                    LINCOLN CHARLES, 35, lives in Hanwell. He said: “It’s a good idea. People are
                    abusive and that’s not right, is it? They should have to pay a fine. I’ve not seen much
                    trouble in Ealing, but the fines could be used for when people come out of pubs and
                    
pour into the streets.”

                    LIZ COOPER, 21, lives in Ealing. She said: “In theory the fines are a good idea but in
                    reality people will just lie and not give their real name or their real address and then
                    they’ll never have to pay the fines. That’s what I’d do, so I don’t think they’ll work.” 

12 December 2002 also saw the referendum about a directly elected mayor for Ealing, a policy championed by Mr. Blair. The idea was rejected by 55 per cent to 45 per cent, however. Only 10 per cent of eligible voters turned out, a sign of growing ‘apathy’ with the political process in the country at large.  


2003: The Iraq War  

Newspaper picture showing anti-war protests in South Ealing, 2003

  Above: Anti-war protest by St. George’s Close residents, South Ealing (2003) 

The invasion of Iraq on 20 March 2003 was a watershed moment for Mr. Blair. Millions marched across Britain against the war, launched to topple Saddam Hussein on the pretext that the Iraqi dictator had weapons of mass destruction (which were never found). Ealing also expressed its opposition. Clive Soley, Labour MP for Ealing, Acton, and Shepherds Bush, was ultimately a supporter of Mr. Blair over the war. He held question and answer sessions, including at Ealing Town Hall, and revealed that many Iraqi refugees living locally had written to him in support of the war. Mr. Soley believed than most other correspondents were opposed to the war, but that opinion in the streets was more mixed. The local paper reported much on opposition to the war, including on ‘potwalloping’ protesters in South Ealing; Elthorne Park School pupils walking out of school in protest at the invasion; and letters, such as this one regarding Labour MP for Southall Piara Khabra’s stance:  

                    Is Piara Khabra (MP for Ealing/Southall) deaf, blind, naïve or just plainly a hypocrite?
                    He claims that he attended the huge anti-war rally in Hyde Park. The following week
                    he voted with Tony Blair for the war against Iraq while his 122 colleagues (Labour
                    MPs) voted against the war. Now he is saying that he does not want an immediate
                    war on Iraq (The Southall Gazette, March 7, 2003). Where has he been for the last
                    four to five months?

                    For that length of time Bush, and his poodle Blair, have been threatening an
                    immediate attack on Iraq. It’s only due to the efforts of other members of the UN
                    Security Council that thousands of innocent people in Iraq, as well as many American
                    and British soldiers, are still alive. A vast majority of 
Mr. Khabra’s constituents are
                    opposed to this illegal, unnecessary and unjust war. Furthermore, about ninety
                    percent of the Labour party members are opposed. 

                    Why doesn’t Mr. Khabra, for once, listen to the views of his constituents and oppose
                    Tony Blair rather than trying to ‘curry favour’ with him?  

                    (Letter by Balwindar Rana, Featherstone Road, Southall, in Ealing and Acton
                    Gazette, 14 March, 2003, p. 18)  


2004: The Pitfalls of New Technology   

Newspaper picture showing how Ealing Labour Council expensive flop response program would have looked like

                        Above: How ‘Response’ was meant to look 

Information Technology was still relatively new, expensive, and unsophisticated during the early 2000s. Most people did not have the internet at home, and mobile phones were primitive by today’s standards. Ealing councillors first went ‘online’ in 1998, in what promised to be a change to the ‘paperless office’: saving money and increasing efficiency all round. 

The Labour Council thus planned a new customer service telephone and computer system, known as the ‘Response Programme’, to revolutionise public service delivery. It was meant to involve a new contact centre with 178 booths at Perceval House, allowing the public to be dealt with 7-days a weeks by Council staff over the phone and by email. Further computers were planned for the public libraries, and hand-held devices for housebound residents. 

Unfortunately, the system was to cost £50m (5-10 times the amount spent by other local authorities on the same system) at a time when the Council was making cuts to front-line services. The cost ultimately offset any savings envisaged in the number of staff which needed to be employed. Scrapped in 2006 by the Conservatives, the Response Programme raised the ire of locals and was rubbished by the local press: 

                    Anger is growing at the vast amounts of money Ealing Council is spending on its
                    Response Programme.

                    Every week more spending cuts come to light as the council struggles to find £50
                    million to pay for it, and every week more people are asking: could it be done
                    cheaper?

                    Experts in contact centre management have told the Gazette that not only could they
                    have done Response for a fraction of the price, but that it will not improve services. 

                    Nigel Brooks is a consultant who has set up 500 contact centres for the private and
                    public sector across Europe, including Trinity Mirrior. 

                    As a resident of Boston Road, Hanwell, and an Ealing council tax payer, he contacted
                    the Gazette to say how dumbfounded he was by the cost of Response.

                    He said: “It’s an anathema to me. The money has to be put into front line services
                    first.If you solve the problem at the root you don’t need 178 people in the contact
                    centre. It’s absolutely unbelievable. They are doing it the wrong way round.”

                    The experts agreed that the council is making a fundamental mistake in buying a
                    hugely expensive software programme that is simply does not need. 

                    (from article by Polly Manser in Ealing and Acton Gazette, 13 February 2004, p. 6). 


                                                                               Page 2: ​Ealing’s Blair Years, 2005 -2007 >>

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