It was 20 years ago next month, but Tony Blair’s landslide election victory still shapes the left today. Steven Fielding reflects on New Labour’s achievements – and the opportunities it wasted
On the early evening of Saturday 23 June 2007, BBC1 viewers settled down to watch another episode of Dr Who. ‘The Sound of the Drums’ has a young, charismatic politician promising a new kind of politics elected to Number 10 thanks to a stunning landslide victory. Everyone thinks Harold Saxon is a great guy but nobody can recall exactly why they voted for him, except that: ‘He always sounded… good.’ This is because the voters had been brainwashed. For Saxon is actually The Master and needed to become prime minister as part of his plan to destroy humanity.
The episode was broadcast during the week Tony Blair resigned as prime minister, 10 years after helping Labour win its biggest ever Commons majority and ending the party’s 18 years in opposition. It is pretty obvious scriptwriter Russell T Davies intended to draw a parallel between Saxon and Blair. For in the decade between the start and end of Blair’s premiership attitudes to the Labour leader had been transformed. Initially enjoying satisfaction ratings in the mid-70s, Blair left Number 10 with them languishing in the mid-20s. From the distance of just a decade Labour’s 1997 landslide already appeared barely credible.
It is now 20 years since 1997 and the election looks even more like something dreamt up by one of our more imaginative science fiction writers. For since Blair’s departure, the political scene has been transformed. Britain has endured an international financial crisis, which has provoked an apparently unending period of grim austerity, increasing poverty and, arguably, the 2016 vote to leave the EU. In the meantime support for the Labour party has reached a nadir. Did Blair really get elected in 1997 to the song ‘Things Can Only Get Better’?
The election undoubtedly took place at a moment in important respects very different from our own times but for the Labour party many of the issues it raises remain relevant and controversial. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that what Labour members think of 1997 shapes how many believe the party should face the future.
The equal dangers of nostalgia and hindsight bedevil those who want to look soberly at the past. And some certainly see 1997 as the moment when Labour discovered what John Rentoul has called ‘the eternal verities of the Blairite truth’. Thinking the party’s present troubles would be solved if it only it returned to such principles overlooks how many of them were generated within a specific historical context. But it is just as disabling to regard the election through a lens shaped by what subsequently happened and to imagine the former was inevitably responsible for the latter. If nostalgia is a weakness of Blairite cultists, hindsight is something to which Corbynistas are largely prone, seeing as they do, the 2003 Iraq War and the 2008 financial crisis as inherent to the strategy that underpinned Labour’s victory. Things might have turned out differently.
Like any historical event, the election was the product of a mix of structural forces over which Labour had no control as well as the party’s agency, that is its ability to shape its own fortunes.
Undoubtedly the most important structural factor that made Labour’s victory possible was the dire state of the Conservative party. Within months of winning a fourth election in row in 1992, the Conservatives were in chaos. After a struggle that cost the Treasury billions, Chancellor Norman Lamont devalued sterling and exited the exchange rate mechanism. This caused the Conservatives to lose their long-established lead over Labour for economic competence. Just as bad, backbench MPs revolted against John Major’s implementation of the Maastricht treaty and the general direction of his EU policy. And when Major tried to reset his government’s course, with a campaign to restore traditional values, he unwittingly gave the green light to a populist media keen to expose the moral and financial hypocrisy – or ‘sleaze’ – of leading Conservatives. Some political scientists believe that once a party has been in office for a considerable length of time its cohesion becomes unsustainable and defeat inevitable. By 1994 Major’s government certainly looked doomed.
But can we explain 1997 simply in terms of a Conservative collapse? Many in the Labour party believed that, such were Major’s troubles they needed to do little to actively improve their own electoral position. Leader John Smith figured that a further significant round of ‘modernisation’ would be unnecessarily divisive in light of the party’s healthy opinion poll lead. It was a view shared by the Labour left, which had opposed all of Neil Kinnock’s attempts to make the party more electable since 1983.
In contrast, Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and others believed that if Labour was to hold on to discontented Conservatives it could not stand still. As the Fabians’ three ‘Southern Comfort’ surveys revealed, there was a group of culturally conservative voters whose support the party needed if it were to win enough seats to form a government. These voters had considered supporting Labour in 1992 but doubts about the party’s ability to manage the economy and a belief that it would waste their taxes on undeserving causes meant they stayed loyal to Major. Blair et al feared these feelings would again reassert themselves when another general election came into view.
We will never know for sure if Smith’s approach would have worked because he died in May 1994. Opponents of what became New Labour however point to the European Parliament elections held weeks after Smith’s death as evidence that he would have won back power. With Margaret Beckett as interim leader, Labour won 40 per cent of votes compared to the Conservatives’ 35 per cent. This, they claim, proves Blair was unnecessary. Against that supposition, however, we should remember that a second order election with a 37 per cent turnout is not necessarily an infallible guide to how Labour might have performed in a general election held three years in the future.
In his memoirs Blair cannot hide his belief that he was critical to the 1997 result. We should be cautious about unqualified claims for Blair’s agency. But it is doubtful that the scale of Labour’s victory – the 10.6 per cent swing from the Conservatives – could have been achieved without him. And without that, the party’s re-election in 2001 and 2005 become less likely.
Some Blair critics in any case concede that a Smith victory would have been less spectacular than the one Blair actually achieved. But they argue it would have been a more ‘Labour’ triumph. For to their eyes the price of the 1997 landslide was the party’s capture by a neo-liberal elite and it ceasing to be a vehicle for ‘socialism’.
There is no doubt Blair wanted to transform the party, thinking change necessary if Labour was to become a party of power rather than semi-permanent opposition. With that in view, Blair sought to clarify its ideological character, to reduce the scope of its ‘socialist’ ambition – which he in any case considered unrealistic – in order to make its more modest aims that much likelier to be achieved.
On this point it is worth quoting Blair’s rationale for revising Clause IV, which he called for almost as soon as becoming leader.
“Of course, as opponents of the change immediately pointed out once it was announced, it was largely symbolic. No one except the far left ever really believed in Clause IV as it was written. In a sense, that was my point: no one believed in it, yet no one dared remove it. What this symbolised, therefore, was not just something redundant in our constitution, but a refusal to confront reality, to change profoundly, to embrace the modern world wholeheartedly. In other words, this symbol mattered. It was a graven image, an idol. Breaking it would also change the psychology in the party that was damaging and reactionary and which was precisely what had kept us in opposition for long periods. It had meant that although we were able erratically to do well against the Tories in response to their unpopularity, we could not govern consistently on our own merits.”
These were the same reasons advanced by Hugh Gaitskell when he tried to revise Clause IV in 1959. Gaitskell wanted to turn Labour into an overtly social democratic party, a catch-all, people’s party, one drawing strength from but not wholly dependent on the labour movement. Nor, in principle, would any other post-war Labour leader – with the possible exception of Michael Foot – have disagreed with Blair. But instead of obfuscating, as many of his predecessors were wont to do, Blair said out loud and shamelessly, exultantly even, that which they all had believed: to achieve its aims Labour had to make capitalism work and that Clause IV ‘socialism’ was a fantasy.
By the 1990s, the capitalism with which Labour would need to work was defined by the globalised free market; and so it was that which Blair took to define the ‘modern world’, it was that ‘reality’ which he called on Labour to embrace. However, as Blair said, even while praising Thatcher, the free market could not do everything if the economy was to become more efficient and society fairer: government had a role.
Blair, then, pursued the classic social democratic strategy, but in a particular historical context. There were shouts of anguish in the party but members after nearly two decades of opposition, craved power and believed Blair would deliver it. The most obvious expression of Blair’s blunt strategy of winning over wavering Conservatives was to promise to keep to Conservative tax and spending plans in his government’s first two years and maintain the top rate of income tax at 40 pence throughout its life. And to make sure his message got through to these voters Blair pursued a frank realpolitik when it came to the media, most infamously making peace with Rupert Murdoch.
At the same time, this most cautious – but at the same time most audacious – of electoral strategies saw Blair bring the Liberal Democrats into Labour’s orbit by agreeing a package of constitutional reforms, one that turned both parties against the Conservatives. And he continued to support moves, which began under Kinnock, for all-women shortlists if only because they promised to improve Labour’s standing with female voters, which they did on a spectacular scale.
If Major’s troubles opened the door to a Labour victory, it was Blair who stuck a firm foot in the door so it could not be slammed back in the party’s face. This meant that, while the economy had been doing well for most of Major’s term, the Conservatives did not reap any political reward. Despite throwing everything they had at Labour, unlike in previous elections nothing seemed to stick. So having won the 1992 election in the midst of a recession Major lost five years later during a boom.
This is not the place for a detailed assessment of the record of the governments made possible by 1997. But before the 2008 financial crisis transformed the context for politics, even some close to Blair criticised him for acting in office with the same extreme caution that defined the 1997 campaign. Even so, during Labour’s first term spending limits were loosened, and taxes other than for income were raised. Blair pledged to abolish child poverty, while tax credits for those in work promised to improve the incomes of the poorest of employees, as did the minimum wage. By the time Labour went to the country in 2001 it had developed an ‘invest and reform’ agenda for the public services which would dramatically improve health and education provision and so, Blair argued, enhance everybody’s potential. From Thatcher’s tax-cutting agenda, Labour had used power to move politics on to different ground, such that when David Cameron became Conservative leader in 2005, he was forced to move on to it too.
As a result, relative poverty declined during the New Labour years even if inequality on some measures – thanks to the dramatic rise in incomes of the top 1 per cent – did not. But Labour’s prolonged period in office won by the 1997 victory now looks like an opportunity wasted, one in which it failed to more fundamentally transform British politics and challenge the conservative attitudes of those voters who put it into office. Peter Hyman loyally worked for Blair as a speechwriter and strategist but in 2003 left Number 10 to become a teacher. Writing in 2005, Hyman argued Labour no longer needed to “reassure people we can be trusted with government. We have proved that. I believe passionately that you cannot create a modern social democratic country by stealth. You have to argue for higher taxes to pay for education and health, argue for greater tolerance for minorities, argue for greater opportunity for those denied it. We have to build a grassroots movement that will sustain New Labour in the long term. We have to use our powers of persuasion.”
Perhaps the most compelling criticism of Tony Blair is therefore that having developed and applied the right strategy to deliver the 1997 landslide victory, he remained a prisoner of it.
Image: Dan White Alamy