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Mile End Institute

The Road to 1997

To mark the 25th anniversary of New Labour's landslide victory in the 1997 general election, Dr Patrick Diamond charts the 'Road to 1997', explores how New Labour built on Neil Kinnock's 'modernisation' programme, and considers the lessons from the long road to victory in 1997. 

Photo of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown on a platform beneath a 'New Labour for a new Britain' banner

The 1997 Landslide

6 May 2022 marks the 25th anniversary of Labour's landslide election victory. The 1997 result was a critical juncture in British electoral politics. What was extraordinary in the context of twentieth century British politics was the severity of the Conservative defeat.

There had been speculation in the early 1990s that Britain was becoming a one-party state akin to Japan, in which the Tories were now the permanent party of power. Yet by 1997, the Conservatives had achieved their lowest share of the popular vote since 1832. Labour's capturing of Tory England was reflected in the astonishing number of marginal seats gained in the English South, particularly the classic Essex and Kent marginals such as Basildon and Gravesham. Meanwhile, a 101 Labour women MPs were elected, a tentative step towards addressing deep-seated inequalities in political representaton and the policy agenda of the UK. 

The story of Labour's modernisation has been recounted often, most recently in an evocative documentary series produced for the BBC, Blair & Brown: The New Labour RevolutionYet Philip Gould's book, The Unfinished Revolution, still provides the most compelling insight into the mind-set of the modernisers. There is little doubt that the traumatic experience of the 1992 defeat five years before had a seismic impact on the formation of the New Labour project. 

The 1992 Defeat

The Labour Party's loss that year shocked virtually the entire political establishment. What made the 1992 defeat especially disquieting for Labour was that the UK had been mired in a deep recession with unemployment rising above three million, while the housing market was engulfed by a wave of repossessions and negative equity. The bubble of the 'Lawson Boom' in the late 1980s spectacularly burst. The Conservatives had been in power for thirteen years. The removal of Margaret Thatcher in 1990 left a troubled party uncertain of how to deal with the divisive Thatcherite legacy. The Tories seemed tired and divided under John Major, afflicted by bitter disputes over Europe that were to rock the party for the next thirty years. 

Moreover, Labour went into the election campaign with a narrow but persistent poll lead. The party was widely thought to be united and competent. Ivor Crewe believes that, by the early 1990s, 'the Labour Party was disciplined, moderate and modern; the socialist left was marginalised; and a wide-ranging policy review had jettisoned its former policy liabilities, including unilateralism, nationalisation and central economic planning'. Labour would go on to fight the 1992 election, 'in as ideal conditions as an opposition could hope to find'. The party's proposals to make the UK economy fairer and more competitive even received editorial endorsement from the Financial Times. Yet Labour still lost the 1992 election 'conclusively'. 

In their tendentious but thought-provoking work, Defeat from the Jaws of VictoryRichard Heffernan and Mike Marqusee lay the blame squarely at Kinnock's door. They claimed that Labour's defeat was 'the result of errors and failures of leadership, of political mistakes and organisational blunders that could have been avoided'. 

Meanwhile, the modernisation process allegedly denuded Labour of its core working-class support, while attacks on the trade unions and the Militant Tendency demoralised the party's grassroots. Heffernan and Marqusee's memorable verdict was, 'without roots in the working-class or in the communities it claimed to represent, the party was infected with a culture of careerism that combined, in unhealthy measure, forelock-touching and back-stabbing'. The Guardian columnist, Seamus Milne, argued in similar vein that Labour was unlikely to win again simply by being 'better managers of capitalism' than the Conservatives.

John Smith next to 'Vatman' poster, depicting the Chancellor, Norman Lamont, as 'Vatman'. An alternative and (in my judgement) more plausible interpretation of the 1992 defeat is that Labour had not gone far enough in devising an intellectually convincing and plausible set of economic and social policies that it could present to the electorate. In John Smith's now infamous 1992 Shadow Budget, Labour pledged to increase child benefit and the state pension, responsibly funded by raising National Insurance on relatively high earners (a proposal that even the Labour Left MP, Ken Livingstone, decried as likely to be perceived as a cap on aspiration). That putative tax rise gave ammunition to the overwhelmingly hostile tabloid media to attack Smith's proposals, although the evidence that the Shadow Budget lost Labour the election is weak. 

Labour's vulnerability stemmed from the fact that, while Kinnock's paty had eschewed a reversion to the Keynesian welfare state of the post-1945 era, it had not yet identified a governing formula that would permit necessary social reforms, revitalising Britain's welfare state and public services, while retaining the trust of voters in managing the economy and protecting their increasingly precarious personal prosperity. 

At the same time, Labour was slow to come to terms with the structural decomposition of the class base of the electorate, despite Kinnock's self-evident determination to win. As Miller and his co-authors remarked in the early 1990s: 'the British political system is now one where the alignment between social classes and partisan support is sufficiently weak to give major play to highly mutable short-term forces. As such, it places a premium on waging successful campaigns'. 

The modernisers in Labour feared that the party was still beholden to an 'old-fashioned' image of trade unionism and producer interests, while it continued to be aligned with the declining sectors of society - inner-city council estates, the industrial North of England, the unemployed, benefit claimants, heavy industries such as mining - and so on. 

The difficulty Labour faced by the end of the 1980s, as the political scientist Eric Shaw perceptively noted, is that even if it had decided to pursue a rational median voter strategy following repeated defeats after 1979, the precise shape of the party's approach was not readily identifiable. Shifting to the centre is not a straight-forward task for any party since the political centre is constantly being modified and reshaped. The selection of an electoral strategy is mediated by the 'frame of reference' party strategists adopt to understand the changing political and social environment in which they are operating. Labour in 1992 had cleaved too far by default towards an unimaginative 'safety first' approach, discarding what David Blunkett described in Tribune as 'the spark of radicalism' and political imagination that was necessary to create momentum for an insurgent centre-left party. 

Indeed, it is striking that Labour achieved a lower share of the vote in 1992 than at any general election between 1945 and 1979, highlighting the apparent scale of the party's predicament. By April 1992, the 1945 victory appeared to be the high point from which Labour had descended inexorably in the intervening fifty years. No wonder the Attlee years were now viewed in the party with sepia-tined nostalgia. As the historian David Howell characterised it, Labour was encumbered by 'changes in social structure and loss of ideological direction which combined to produce stagnation and the threat of regression'.

 The nature of the defeat meant that intellectual momentum in the Labour Party passed to the rising generation of modernisers. Press and journalistic commentary focused on the triumvirate of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and Peter Mandelson. Influential alongside that 'trio' were figures from the 'soft' left of the party, notably Robin Cook, David Blunkett, Mo Mowlam and former Kinnock aides such as Patricia Hewitt and Charles Clarke who argued for the radical overhaul of Labour's agenda and presentational strategy. 

The Road to 1997

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

In essence, Blair had of course continued the approach instigated by Kinnock after 1983, but Blair went further in attempting to alter the ethos and culture of the party, symbolised by the re-writing of Clause 4. The commitment to nationalisation and wholesale public ownership was replaced by the enthusiastic embrace of market forces, emphasising the centrality of the private sector to a dynamic economy. New Labour believed that global capitalism had triumphed. Qualified support for the market economy was now insufficient. The legacy of 'Old Labour', the trade unions, the 'Winter of Discontent', the failures of Wilson and Callaghan symbolised by the IMF bail-out, and inept Labour local authorities, were repudiated by the designation of Blair's Labour Party as 'New', drawing a definitive line under the past. 

This was the strategic context for Labour's 1997 victory. Labour won ultimately because it appeared to offer a political and policy agenda to which the party leadership was now wholeheartedly committed, following the process of ideological transformation inaugurated by the jettisoning of the old Clause 4 in 1994-95. Above all, Brown provided Labour with a more resilient macro-economic strategy that did not threaten the material interests of its core electoral coalition. In 1992, the problem was that Labour appeared too expedient, desperately willing to do or say whatever was necessary to win. By 1997, it was advancing a position of principled conviction, whatever the subsequent inadequacies of its governing approach.

The political scientist, Dennis Kavanagh, concluded:

'The 1997 election is likely to be a watershed in modern campaigning. It demonstrated the importance of technology for rapid rebuttal of opposition arguments and in targeting voters. It reinforced the importance of discipline, remaining focused on a simple message ... and using focus groups to shape the style, language and demeanour of party leaders. The early days of the Labour government suggested that the party would translate many of these lessons from campaigning into government'.

In fact, the full paradox of the unprecedented scale of New Labour's landslide victory was the party's caution, reflected in the 1997 manifesto and the programme of economic and social change that was envisaged. 

The party in office introduced necessary constitutional reforms, yet appeared reluctant to contemplate a more thorough-going and imaginative democratisation of the British state. Meanwhile, Labour was reluctant to commit to the fundamental reform of capitalism and the redistribution of wealth, reshaping the UK's low skill, low wage service-based economy, tackling the deep-seated geographical inequalities that had emerged in previous decades. 

By the late 1990s, the Labour leadership had broadly accepted the economic management consensus forged in the Thatcher era. The focus of macro-economic policy was to achieve low inflation and monetary stability, while growth and the trend rate of productivity would be improved through micro-economic intervention by government: reforms to enhance skills, human capital, technology, and physical infrastructure. 

The key New Labour narrative centred on the apparent dominance of 'globalisation' with the implication that national policies were constrained by international economic forces. David Coates and Colin Hay wrote that, 'both in opposition and now in government, Blair's Labour Party has, to an unprecedented extent, emphasised the degree to which international (indeed, global) processes, pressures, and tendencies serve as external constraints circumscribing the limits of political possibility'.

Consequently, the newly-elected Labour government was inclined to over-estimate what could be achieved in the short-term, while underestimating the potential for more far-reaching reform of state and society. As a consequence, 'New' Labour experienced political turbulence within a year or so of the 1997 victory, as voters became frustrated and impatient that the putative promise to improve public services, particularly the National Health Service (NHS), did not appear to have materialised. 

Meanwhile, the structural inequalities that prevailed in the social and economic fabric of Britain were left largely undisturbed over the next thirteen years of Labour in power. 1997 was a rare moment in Britain in which, as David Howell puts it, 'anti-Tory forces decisively triumphed'. Yet, it is hard to evaluate Labour's record without concluding that a major and historic opportunity was missed.

Blair's original aim, signalled in his 1995 lecture on the fiftieth anniversary of the Attlee Government's election, was to forge a political coalition as ambitious as the Progressive Alliance of the Lloyd George era. That coalition assembled prior to the First World War sought to achieve the radical modernisation of British political institutions and society. In the Edwardian era, as Howell has written, 'Liberal strategists constructed an electoral alliance of those they characterised as the useful people against those stigmatised as parasites and idlers'. 

As we now know, the opening available to New Labour in tackling fundamental disparities in the distribution of wealth, property, and assets was, by and large, squandered. It was reluctant to face up to the reality that major reforms always produce hostility from losers, notably the rich and powerful. 

While Blair found the assimilation of conservative values and morality relatively straightforward in the 1990s, as the Right surrendered its dominance over issues of social order (not least due to the apparently dramatic rise in the national crime rate), New Labour's reputation for illiberalism eventually ruptured its ties to the British Liberal tradition, a breach reinforced by the unilateral invasion of Iraq alongside the American President, George W. Bush, in 2003. The Government's approach to immigration and asylum was judged to be particularly punitive, as were its law and order policies. As such, the marginalisation of liberalism within New Labour's governing coalition meant the Progressive Alliance was fatally ruptured. Labour had little hope of achieving historic social reforms in its remaining term of office. 

1997 remembered

Photoshopped picture of Tony Blair and Keir StarmerThe road to modernisation and the 1997 victory scarcely provide unambiguous lessons that can be read-off by the current Labour leadership as the party clarifies its political and electoral strategy. Even so, the 1992-97 experience should focus Labour minds, since it demonstrates that the unpopularity of an incompetent Conservative incumbent is not sufficient to secure victory, particularly if voters do not trust Labour's instincts on taxation and public spending. 

What also seems apparent is that Labour is unlikely to be successful if it merely adopts a cautious 'safe-play' strategy ahead of the next election. The party needs to show it has the capacity to be audacious and imaginative in turbulent times. Keir Starmer must demonstrate that, rather than merely asserting Labour's dominance as the main centre-left party in UK politics, he is capable of placing himself at the centre of a national anti-Conservative coalition that has the capacity to carry out far-reaching constitutional, economic, and social reforms in the mould of Lloyd George and Attlee. 

A tactical 'progressive alliance' to beat the Conservatives would in all likelihood prove electorally counter-productive. Voters do not need to be told how to defeat the Tories in particular constituencies, while the threat of a coalition government relying on SNP votes would be used as a stick to beat Labour in England. 

Nonetheless, the Labour leadership must be aware that forging a radical coalition of ideas between parties that can unite the left-centre majority in Britain has never been a more urgent task. 

Dr Patrick Diamond is an Associate Professor of Public Policy at Queen Mary University of London and the Director of the Mile End Institute. 



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