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Mile End Institute

Solving Labour's Electoral Dilemma

To mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of New Labour's historic landslide in May 1997, Anthony Broxton reflects on the significance of Tony Blair's 'mythological grip on the party' and considers what Labour can learn from 1997 in 2022. 

Photo of a man sitting below a poster of Tony Blair urging Britons to vote in 1997.

A quarter of a century has passed since Tony Blair's 1997 election victory, and as the fall-out from his intervention shows this week, he still maintains a mythological grip on the party. To his many critics on the left, he is the man who eroded trust in politics for good by squandering his majority to continue with the politics of the Thatcher era. To others, he is Labour's political icon, the only person who understands how to win elections for the party. 

While the Corbyn years looked to move on from Blair, the Starmer years have been punctuated, so far, by an attempt to revive the spirit of New Labour. The language, from being "tough on crime" and arguing that "Britain Deserves Better" to the latest retail offer - a Gordon Brown-inspired windfall tax - all pays homage to the playbook of '97. The party has even opened up a special 1997 shop to tap into the growing nostalgia for the 1990s, where supporters can buy pin badges that say "we won in '97".

Photo of Tony Blair in Downing Street on 7 May 2022, thronged with New Labour supportersAs the Mile End Institute runs its retrospective on 1997 this week, why Labour won and, more importantly, whether they can ever do so on such a scale again has inevitably dominated the minds of historians. As Alastair Campbell argues in a report that I co-authored for Labour in CommunicationsNew Labour was a response to the electorate's demands as it was in 1997. New Labour and the changes to policy, the constitution, campaigning and communication were a symbol of that change and a recognition that it had come to terms with the politics of the 1980s.

In the 1980s, Labour struggled to navigate the end of the post-war consensus and the transition from a heavily industrialised, heavy-unionisted Britain to the new 'service economy'. By 1992, when public dissatisfaction with the state of the economy was high, Labour was still unable to bring floating voters back on side. New Labour was, in contrast, able to reach into parts of the country that were traditional "no go" areas for the party. On election night, Blair was rewarded at the ballot box with the party's biggest ever victory as 14 per cent of people who voted Conservative in 1992 switched to Labour. 

The disaster of 2019 means that to govern with a substantial majority, Starmer must not only eclipse Blair's performance in 1997, he must also fare better than Margaret Thatcher did in 1979. But while the political, cultural, and technological landscape may have changed, they did what Keir Starmer also has to do: go into "enemy territory" and convert millions of voters to his cause. Starmer's task is arguably even greater, with the gradual erosion of the traditional class dividing lines leaving the party without solid foundations. The crumbling of the base in Scotland, the Midlands and the North was underpinned by a rebellion by those with few or no formal qualifications. Labour now dominate the areas with the largest concentrations of university graduates. 

While the question for Blair's Labour was how to win back the affluent voters in Middle England, Starmer must reconnect Labour with voters who have drifted away since 2010. Electorally, it has struggled to respond to the fall-out of the EU Referendum in 2016. But, as Sir John Curtice has argued, the Conservatives were able to maximise the Leave vote to good effect in 2019. Nearly four in five (79 per cent) of those currently in favour of Leave voted for the Conservatives in the 2019 election. In contrast, only around a half (49 per cent) of those who backed Remain gave their vote to Labour. 

Keir Starmer speaking at the Fabian Society about a progressive Europe"If Labour had succeeded in emulating among Remain voters the Conservatives' success among Leave voters," Curtice writes, "the party would have outpolled Boris Johnson and been in a position to oust him from power".

While some have argued that there is no hope of winning back Leave voters, the emotional and historical ties remain strong. Starmer himself has chosen to focus on winning back those voters in the so-called Red Wall, as evidenced by the difference between its attitude towards the Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton by-elections. And his success will rest upon whether he can neutralise the inevitable criticism that the party is still part of the "London Remainer Elite" that has damaged the party since the referendum. 

Can he neutralise the attack lines as Blair did in 1997? Whereas in 1994, it was strategically bold for Blair to show that the party had come to terms with the settlement of the post-Thatcher age, the task for 2022 and beyond is to show that it has come to terms with the result of the 2016 referendum. So far, Starmer's attempts to talk about his humble origins as the son of a toolmaker have struggled to cut through. As a recent New Statesman poll showed, only 5 per cent of voters believe him to be working class, which is only 1 per cent higher than their view of Johnson.

His background may be irrelevant to the voters, but to win, Labour must show that the party has come to terms with the 2016 Brexit referendum and can deliver on the promises that have been made by the Government on 'Levelling Up'. Morever, as outlined in the Lessons from a Landslide report, to neutralise it, Labour must have a substantial, and well-understood, post-Brexit offer to the towns that voted Leave.

Photo of Keir Starmer saying that 'A New Future is Possible'Part of that will be policy, but part of that will be the narrative. Starmer has to turn the Johnson failures on Brexit into a betrayal of the traditional Labour voters who believed he would turn their life chances around. Successful oppositions tap into the appetite for change and take the agenda for the future as their own. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher skilfully tapped into industrial discontent to make a broader argument about the decline of Britain. In the 1990s, New Labour created their own narrative based on dissatisfaction with the sleaze and the decay of the public realm to argue for a more progressive and fair country. 

Narrating the crisis of Conservatism, just as Thatcher managed to narrate the crisis of the 'Winter of Discontent', will be central to the election of the next Labour government. Over the past decade, the party has failed to win a single Conservative seat in a by-election. Wakefield will test whether the party is on course to win back those who turned away last time, while the recent defection of Bury South's Christian Wakeford is a signal that some Conservatives are worried about their prospects at the next election. But if Labour is to really capitalise on it and learn a lesson from 1997, it will need to create a narrative about the decline of the Conservative Party that taps into a wider feeling about the deterioration of standards in public life. 

Anthony Broxton is a cultural and political historian, best known for his writing on Labour history and Rugby League. He is the founder and editor of Tides of Historywhich has over 35,000 followers on social media. He regularly contributes to national publications such as The Times, The I, The Critic and Prospect. 



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