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Mile End Institute

Friday 6 May 2022

New Labour, New Britain? The 1997 Election, 25 Years On

On Friday 6 May 2022, the Mile End Institute held its first major public policy and academic conference since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. With a stellar line-up of speakers including David Miliband and Lord Mandelson, we explored the lessons and legacy of the Labour Party's election victory in 1997 and its long-term impact on campaigning methods, the machinery of government and Britain's social values.

The 1997 election saw Labour win the largest parliamentary majority in its history and was the first of three further election victories, ending the Conservative Party's eighteen-year dominance of British politics. 

1997 also affirmed a fundamental shift underway in Britain's economy and society following the end of the Cold War, while the long-term processes of deindustrialisation and alterations in national and social identities were reshaping UK politics. 

The 1997 election also stands out because of the innovative campaign techniques that New Labour employed: a focus on the centralised campaign message; the 'spin' machine and Millbank 'War Room'; alongside the systematic use of advertising and focus group research. New technologies of political campaigning were unleashed with great force, drawing on the experience of Bill Clinton's 'New Democrats' in the United States. 

Despite this, there is major disagreement within the Labour Party and the British Left about the meaning and significance of the 1997 victory. 

  • Did 'New Labour' win because the Party had jettisoned its traditional ideology and beliefs in the face of the Thatcher and neo-liberal insurgency; or did Blair's party merely represent a renewed and updated version of long established social democratic values in Britain, in tune with the post-war legacy of Attlee and Wilson? 
  • Was the historic 1997 landslide a lost opportunity for the Labour Party to reshape Britain in its image, or are we as much 'Blair's Children' as 'Thatcher's Children' today?

This conference provided academics, politicians and the public alike with an important opportunity to reflect on what Labour's 1997 election triumph meant for the UK's institutions and economy, the Labour Party itself, and the long-term future of British politics.

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