I was going to treat myself to a little celebration of our ’97 Labour victory but May calling the snap election has somewhat put paid to that. A number of us had a series of events set out to mark the amazing result we achieved in 1997 with that landslide majority but they are all postponed. So my sole celebration is to remind myself of that magical day on 1st May 1997 and the atmosphere in the country that week. It was indeed a ‘New Dawn’
I know people will want to jump in and give their verdict on the 13 years that followed and I know even mentioning the name Blair or New Labour in a Blog will cause the usual levels of vitriol we have become accustomed to in recent times to be released on social media. But this little reflection is not about the 13 years that came afterwards – there is plenty of opportunity to articulate what was achieved and what can and should be learned by the mistakes – it is instead about how we got to the point that Labour won and created an electoral coalition.
I had started life in the Labour Party by joining in the ’83 election. I was a student. My student politics had enthused me to join the Party for a Socialist Victory, but the ’83 election defeat and knocking on doors talking to voters in my home area had taught me a great deal. The brand of socialism I favoured as a student wasn’t one shared by most of our voters never mind the ones we needed to convert to support us. The longest Suicide note in history referring to our manifesto was sadly too near the truth.
By 1987 I was standing in the local elections and again being heavily defeated in a solid Tory area. although I sneaked onto the Parish Council in Birstall as a labour candidate because the Tories failed to get their nomination papers in on time! Being one of two Labour councillors with 20 Tories teaches you a lot about the widest range of voters.
By 1992 I had been asked to fight the unwinnable Loughborough seat as a bit of experience. After we lost the 1992 election I had assumed that was probably the end of my Parliamentary ambitions. However, boundary changes and working with John Smith and then Tony Blair on the continued modernisation of the Party gave me hope that Labour was once again serious about engaging with the voters I had been meeting for a decade. I understood what it would take to win a general election where we needed people to stop voting Tory and start voting Labour! With New Labour we had a party that had started to realise these lessons too. This was not an abandonment of any of values – but a recognition that many of our own voters didn’t like what we had on offer and the many that we needed to win over needed us to understand their hopes, fears and aspirations about their lives. The line from Blair about being tough on crime AND the causes of crime chimed well, because he recognised that our traditional voters didn’t have the same liberal views of criminals as we did. The same was true of aspirational Labour supporters. Blair understood their aspiration – the so called Sierra man (& Worcester Woman). I still hear these things again in this election. Aspiring young couples getting on the housing ladder (if they can) then feel they need to support the Tories because they will look after them. We needed these people to think Labour represented them. We need that feeling again today. When Labour becomes narrow and forgets or even repudiates people who *may* vote Tory then the election is lost. When you look at the demographics of a seat like Loughborough – one that the government of the day needs to win to form a government you have to know and understand the aspirations of Middle England as well as our traditional supporter base. Without that coalition you don’t win Loughborough and you don’t win the election to form a Labour government. Whilst I was never truly a full Blairite or sold on New Labour I did understand its necessity. I remained on the soft left of the Party thereafter. I knew we needed that coalition of support created by new Labour but always hoped we could learn to be more radical with our power as the electorate began to learn to trust is with the economy and that our extra spending on Public Services was not just throwing money at a problem – but bringing results. We saw that in the NHS where 18 MONTH waits became 18 WEEK waits and 90% of us could see a GP in 48 Hours. We showed we could run the economy and improve public services.
So going back I got selected after the 1992 election to fight the now marginal Loughborough seat – now 55th on the Party Key Seat Strategy and the one that meant we had a majority of 1 if we won it! No pressure then. Well as it turned out there was no pressure on me as we won seats way down the target list and beyond on the 1st May 1997. There were cameras booked into the Town Hall for the count, but as the evening wore on they were shipped elsewhere looking for other Tory MPs to fall as Portillo had earlier. By the time my count was finished the result was obvious and Loughborough was just one of the new 179 majority or 419 Labour seats.
It all now seems obvious and certain. People will say ‘anybody’ could have won that election for Labour. But It wasn’t. It was incredibly hard work and nerve wracking. It had gone wrong in ’92 and it felt like it could all over again at anytime. We were incredibly professional, on-message and disciplined. Nothing was left to chance. The support (and demand) on candidates was amazing. Yes we had our voter i/d targets but these were invaluable to us in ’97 and beyond. I think we changed politics for the better as we engaged with voters in greater numbers than ever before. As soon as we won we were put into election mode for 2001, so that level of campaigning intensity was carried over the next four years. I can assure you we never took the 97 victory for granted and always feared as previous Labour governments had that we might just get one term.
I was incredibly proud of the team of people who became my extended family from 94-97! It was a massive team effort. I made lifelong friends during that time. I think fondly of the people I worked alongside to achieve this result.
Many who didn’t join or work for the party were still there throughout making the campaign a pleasant experience. Going into the market place for a street stall was a ‘pleasure’.
As I said, I know people will want to judge the Blair administration from their own lens. I am not in the mood for rehearsing my defence of those criticisms where people can see no good coming out of those 13 years. I think anybody who can look through these little booklets we produced showing all the gains of a Labour government and still moan are beyond arguing with!
We did instil a sense of Hope. For months after the election I got standing ovations almost everywhere I went. Even those who hadn’t voted for me and Labour were generally happy we actually won. We were ahead in the polls for years (only a small blip during the fuel duty protests put the Tories ahead for a week or two). If anything these expectations were far higher than we could ever achieve. We all discovered governing and making systemic change on difficult and takes time. We allowed the over optimism run away and so people were always going to be disappointed.
As I said I understand why people will want to have a go at the Labour government. But sorry I am not going to join in unless you acknowledge the achievements and changes we made that benefited the country and don’t really bore me with trying to pin the Global recession of 2008 on the government!
Hopefully Labour will return again some day to understanding the electorate it hopes to serve – not lecturing them about why they are stupid or evil to vote Tory. When we have the Momentum wing of our party telling anybody who doesn’t agree with them to F*** off and join the Tories it is hardly surprising many of the electorate are doing just that. Hopefully the journey back to power will be quicker than the generation I served with – waiting 18 years until we understood how Labour wins.