Photo: (The Guardian)
By Max Abdulgani – Deputy Editor of YPR
This week marked the 25th anniversary of Labour’s historic 1997 election win, a momentous victory not simply for the party but for Britain too. 1997 marked the end of almost two decades of successive Conservative governments, coupled with the start of an entirely new era for the Labour Party. One that saw the party return to power for 13 years and subsequently go on to win two more elections. After years of being in the political wilderness throughout the 1980s as Thatcher claimed political hegemony, Labour had finally been able to establish themselves as a serious and competent opposition with the right ambitions for a governing party. Gone were the days of complacency and incompetence. Labour knew it had to change its ways and end its culture of entitlement. It had to earn trust from the people to govern, an immense challenge but an accomplishable one nonetheless.
From 1979 onwards, there were significant problems with the Labour Party’s appeal to Britain. Its values, though utterly indispensable to the Labour movement, were out of touch with the modern world. Britain had moved on from the days of industrialisation and there was a significant decline in manufacturing. This was a global phenomenon, with governments across the world setting new ambitions as financial markets began to dominate the economic landscape. Between 1979 and 1983 in Britain alone, around 2 million jobs were lost in industry, with 1.7 million of those being in manufacturing. It’s true to say that much of this devastation for workers was made worse by the government’s refusal to commit to supporting those out of work and providing new avenues of employment for their skills. But much of this decline was inevitable. The central problem was that financing imports had become unsustainable due to a weakening manufacturing sector not generating enough exports. Instead of facing up to this problem and providing meaningful solutions, Labour were harking back to the days of industrial power and sounded like a broken record. Meanwhile, the Conservatives were managing to dominate a narrative for Britain’s future despite the adverse effects Thatcherism was having on the country. Unemployment was rapidly rising and by 1983 over 3 million people were unemployed, plunging many into poverty. Privatisation of the utilities was benefiting the asset-owners and the wealthy, but not the workers. Thatcherism tore apart Britain’s manufacturing sector, killing our reputation as a global exporter. Its ideological implications left ordinary people on the breadline struggling for basic services. It was inherently socially regressive and discriminated against minority groups through the implementation of Section 28 to name but a few. And yet the Conservatives continued to govern throughout the 1980s and through most of the 1990s. The most crucial difference between Labour and New Labour was this- Labour lacked the courage to ask the difficult questions. New Labour didn’t. For instance, why were the Tories dominating the political landscape and gathering so much support amongst the working class when their livelihoods were getting much worse? When they faced significant obstacles to a better life. Why were the aspirational middle classes voting Tory and not Labour? Why had Labour lost the majority of its working-class base vote to the Tories? For a shift in the geopolitical landscape of this immense scale, it was never going to be enough to continue with Old Labour habits. In 1985, though, the long road back to power for Labour began. And it was started by Neil Kinnock.
A media-savvy, highly intelligent and hugely capable former TV producer was appointed by Kinnock as Director of Communications, as the party set about to change the one component it had left untouched for years- image. Peter Mandelson’s role was essentially to deconstruct the perception of Labour as simply a ‘tax and spend’ party, to make basic adjustments to foreign policy narrative that had previously made Labour unelectable and to project a suitable vision of the country to the media- one that the public could support. He was largely responsible for the successful 1986 Fulham by-election campaign which saw Labour make a 9% swing. But growing complacency within the party led to a false sense of security which resulted in a further two election defeats. A third election win for the Tories and their second landslide victory in 1987, followed by a fourth election win in 1992. Despite becoming a credible opposition, Labour had not yet developed into a government in waiting. The public remained hesitant. Upon taking over in 1992, John Smith set out to be even more vigorous and radical than Neil Kinnock. He immediately set about promoting rising stars within the party- most notably Tony Blair as Shadow Home Secretary and Gordon Brown as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. New talent that could reconstruct the Labour Party, and would indeed go on to lead the party into government, was not just enabled but encouraged by Smith. But John Smith’s approach of ‘one more heave’, i.e. opposing the Tories without proposing an exciting alternative, was not to last. And in tragic circumstances, it didn’t. Smith’s death left a hole in the movement and was incredibly sudden. But two ambitious frontrunners were about to break through the mould of British politics and revolutionise the party for the foreseeable future.
When Tony Blair took over the reins of power in 1994, it was clear that he represented something entirely different from previous leaders. He was not of the Old Labour persuasion, and instead signified a reinvention of Labour as a pro-European, pro-business, progressive vehicle that would also act in the interests of social justice. The most important priorities for Labour entering power were these. Economic credibility, a professional image and being trusted on foreign policy. The last was pre-conditional in the minds of the electorate to any election victory. When Labour entered power in 1997, it didn’t falter at the first hurdle. Showing they meant business, Gordon Brown delivered one of the most radical reforms to the economy in decades. Bank of England independence. Its purpose was to show the government had moved on from the days of altering interest rates for ulterior motives. It provided a benchmark for how the economy would be run into the future. The second biggest thing on the agenda was Northern Ireland. Blair understood that this was not simply a complicated dispute to be solved amongst two groups, but it was a case of morality. The intense feeling that dominated both sides of the conflict meant that bringing peace was always going to be a practically impossible task. But the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 represented the most significant step towards peace in history. This was only the beginning of what would then go on to accomplished under the leadership of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
To say the Labour Party should be proud of what we achieved in government from 1997 to 2010 is a huge understatement. Fundamentally, that government changed millions of lives for the better. Through unprecedentedly high investment in health and education, through radical reform on the economy, through its achievements in Northern Ireland, through lifting millions of children and pensioners out of poverty. There are compelling arguments for when Labour made the wrong decisions too. Not least with the invasion of Iraq, a truly horrendous act that had cost the lives of so many and undermined international law. And the refusal of Blair to reverse much of Thatcher’s woeful record in government will always be a greatly missed opportunity. But the incredible legacy of New Labour was astounding, its implications being plain to see. It leaves many with a sense of hope and optimism that one day the Labour Party will be able to learn the lessons of the past, but apply these as part of an agenda for the future. And in terms of getting back on the road to power, celebrating the achievements of the last Labour government is a great place to start.