I was in the midst of the exuberant throng at the Royal Festival Hall on that warm night in May 1997. I enjoyed the never to be repeated spectacle of Neil Kinnock, Peter Mandelson and John Prescott jigging their limbs to D:Ream’s Things Can Only Get Better . I was deafened by the raucous celebrations as Tory MP after Tory MP was engulfed by the Labor landslide. Wild cheers greeted the defeat of Neil Hamilton, oily epitome of the Tory sleaze of that time. “Out! Out! Out!” the celebrants roared when Michael Portillo, quiffed embodiment of Tory arrogance, became one of seven cabinet ministers to lose his seat. And I watched as the sun peeped over the Thames and Tony Blair, with characteristically impeccable timing, declared to the ecstatic crowd: “A new dawn has broken, has it not?”
Labor had achieved a landslide majority of 179, so whopping that it bested even Clement Attlee’s landmark victory in 1945. The curtain crashed down on 18 long years of Tory rule to usher in an unprecedented 13 years of Labor government.
The 25th anniversary of that famous victory is a bittersweet moment for anyone Labor or anyone who thinks Britain is ill-served by unrelentingly long stretches of rightwing government. The architects of New Labor did not want their period in power to be the exception to Tory rule. As David Miliband will say in a speech this week: “Blair, Blair, Blair, lose, lose, lose, lose is not the history we wanted to write.” Labor is coming up to another anniversary, this one entirely miserable: its 12th full year in opposition since the 2010 defeat terminated the era that began in 1997.
Many contend there is nothing much to learn from then because the world is now a very different place. I agree that today’s Labor party wo n’t profit by blindly trying to replicate the methods, ideas and policies of a quarter of a century ago, but there are enduring lessons that will repay study by Sir Keir Starmer and his team.
A fierce hunger to change the landscape of British politics. That was a remarkable characteristic of Mr Blair and his tight group of self-styled modernisers. They burnt with a passion to win for a party that had suffered four back-to-back defeats. It is sometimes said their key insight was that principles are redundant without power. This could only be called an insight in reference to Labour, a party too often populated with people who believe winning elections has to entail betraying your values. Tories, it is not an insight to say that achieving office matters. It is a statement of the obvious bleeding.
John Major’s parliamentary majority was evaporating to nothing, the country was fed up with his rancorous government and Mr Blair inherited a poll lead when he became leader in 1994. Yet he never presumed that the Tories would relinquish office without a fight or that power would fall into his lap. Even when Labor was registering sustained and huge leads, he was “an eternal warrior against complacency”. The size of the ’97 landslide has given rise to an anti-New Labor argument from some on the left that the party was always destined to win whoever led it and whatever it presented to the public. That’s not true. New Labor won because it did not treat victory as inevitable.
That refusal to take the voters for granted was accompanied by boldness in making the political weather. It is often noted how aggressively Mr Blair swept aside intellectually barren and electorally damaging leftwing shibboleths, such as the antique, nationalise-everything clause IV of the party’s constitution. It is less often remarked how ferociously New Labour’s formidable campaign machine hastened the Tories to their doom. Mr Blair never wasted an opportunity to exploit the fractious state of the Conservative party to demolish the public character of his Tory rival. “Weak, weak, weak,” he ridiculed the other man across the dispatch box. “I lead my party, he follows his de el” was another sizzling Blair zinger that fed on the weakness of the incumbent to build the strength of the challenger.
Confidence in performance was accompanied by care about policy. The determination to make the party fireproof from rightwing attacks led to a 1997 manifesto that laid the greatest emphasis on what Labor would not do. Does not increase in any of the rates of income tax. No ditching of the nuclear deterrent. No more overall spending than that planned by the Conservatives for the first two years. This banished the anxieties of swing voters about whether they were to be trusted with security and the economy, previously a fatal handicap that had cost Labor earlier elections. Where there were firm policies, they were signature demonstrations of an updated social democracy framed in a way to be appealing. A Gordon Brown classic of the genre was the windfall tax on the privatized utilities, disliked monopolies making bumper profits, to fund a “new deal” for the unemployed. The five promises on the “pledge card” included achievable-sounding improvements to health, education and crime rates that served as tokens of a wider commitment to revive public services dilapidated by Tory neglect.
In his memoirs, Mr Blair says that the manifesto was written “essentially to capture a mood” rather than as a detailed prospectus for government. Miliband, who wrote the document, says that a test for every policy was how it contributed to the overarching project of changing perceptions of the party, speaking to the concerns of the country, expressing their ambitions for government and rallying support. “Everything was driven by a need to marry a new position for Labor with a new direction for Britain.”
The years that followed delivered many legacies for progressives to be proud of, including the introduction of the first minimum wage, the revitalization of the NHS and state education, impressive reductions in child and pensioner poverty, civil partnerships, devolution and the peace agreement in Northern Ireland. I have sympathy with the argument that New Labor was too relaxed about rampant finance capitalism and too heedless of the downsides of globalisation, but it successfully used its 13 years in office to shift the center of gravity of British politics to the left in many significant respects. .
It also, as all governments do, disappointed.
Today, even many of those old enough to have been witnesses struggle to recall just what a phenomenon Mr Blair was as an aspiring prime minister. Memories of his immense popularity have been over-layered with subsequent disillusionment, notably because of the gray aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. In 1997, it was an enormous asset to have a charming, fluent and youthful leader (he was not yet 44 when he became prime minister) who was a superb communicator with a rare talent for transcending Britain’s traditional political battle lines. When he voiced his ambition to modernize the country, it was more credible because he looked and sounded modern, especially in contrast to a decayed and decadent Tory party. He was most brilliant at articulating an optimistic argument with wide appeal that his New Britain would be a tolerant, thriving country that married social justice and decent public services with aspiration and rewards for success.
So these are the lessons to be learned from the only period in our history when it looked as though Labour, rather than the Conservatives, was Britain’s default choice of government. Labor can achieve radical advances in office, but only once it has found a blend of soothing reassurance and galvanizing vision that convinces the country the party is fit to wield power and has a plan for using it fruitfully.
There needs to be a project for victory, led with verve and flair from the top, which is coherent at every level and relentlessly executed every hour of every day of every week. Be merciless in taking apart your opponents. Bomb-proof yourself against the inevitable counter-offensives from the right and its media. Have policies – it is the quality not the quantity that matters – that are credible answers to the urgent needs of the country and emblematic of how you intend to change Britain for the better. Make your story of reform and renewal so compelling that it inspires voters. New Labor secured that historic landslide by ticking every box.
Sir Keir Starmer isn’t going to win the next election by trying to turn himself into Tony Blair because he couldn’t do it even if he wanted to. You will struggle to find anyone who thinks his Labor party is on course for a Blair-style landslide. What Sir Keir can do is ruthlessly examine the list of lessons and ask himself how many of the boxes can today’s Labor party tick with confidence.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism