The historic 1997 election victory: revitalising the progressive alliance?

In 1997, Blair’s Labour Party swept to power. The composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s threat to leave the country if Labour won failed to dissuade the British electorate. Blair’s party secured 13,518,167 votes (43.2 per cent of the total), an unprecedented majority in the House of Commons of 179 seats. Labour’s performance broke all records, although the party’s share of the vote was lower than it achieved in 1945 and 1950-51. The class composition of Labour’s support demonstrated that it had re-emerged as a national party: 47 per cent of white- collar workers voted Labour, an increase of 19 per cent since 1992; 54 per cent of skilled workers supported it, as did overwhelming numbers of homeowners and the young. The gender gap was eliminated.234 The BBC’s exit poll found that 87 per cent of voters thought Labour would be ‘good for all classes’, while 71 per cent believed the Conservatives were for only ‘one class’.

The seats won by the party stood out because they were so ‘redolent of Tory England’ with its ‘shady oaks, mock Tudor villas, well-watered lawns, and a Jaguar (or at least one of the larger Fords) in every drive’.235 New Labour forged an alliance across the English middle class encompassing those described by polling strategists as ‘comfortable greens’ and ‘urban networkers’ with ‘Daily Mail disciplinarians’ and ‘squeezed stragglers’ hurt by the recession of the early 1990s. It was the unexpected loss of the cabinet minister, Michael Portillo, at suburban Enfield Southgate that symbolised the scale of the government’s rejection by Tory England. Blair’s reforms made obsolete the central historical purpose of Conservatism in Britain - to contain the threat posed by socialism. New Labour was not a party middle England feared. It no longer posed any discernible threat to the prosperity or property rights of the middle class.

Of course, the scale of Labour’s victory was exaggerated by the electoral system. Labour won only 43 per cent of the vote, yet the party secured 419 out of 650 seats in the House of Commons, the consequence of tactical voting and differential turnout. Tacit co-operation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats helped both parties increase their share of seats. The Labour Party was assisted by James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party, a precursor to UKIP that won 3 per cent of the vote where it stood a candidate, disadvantaging the Conservatives. In the meantime, the Tory share of the vote fell to its lowest level since 1832. Of greater concern to observers was the dramatic decline in turnout, which sank to 72 per cent. Turnout decreased most in Labour-held seats. Some commentators claimed the party’s traditional supporters and the ‘urban poor’ were less enthused by New Labour’s agenda.236

Nevertheless, the magnitude of Labour’s electoral triumph proved to be significant in judging the party’s subsequent performance in office. Blair and Brown fought to manage expectations of what could be achieved in government. The leadership claimed that in the past, the party indulged in idle rhetoric about the possibility of radical transformation which inflated expectations that could not plausibly be met. Yet the sheer scale of Blair’s victory completely redefined Labour’s prospects, making talk of piecemeal and incremental reform appear delusional. With its overwhelming parliamentary majority, Labour acquired the mandate to undertake far-reaching reform of the polity and economy. In a moment of unguarded optimism, David Marquand enthused that after an eighty-year detour, the Left should now pick up ‘where Asquith and Lloyd George left off’.237

David Miliband believed that when New Labour came to office, it was effective tactically, but strategically unprepared. The party’s anthem was ‘things can only get better’, positioning Labour vaguely in support of political change and hope. Blair acknowledged: ‘The skill set that brings you into power is then redundant’.238 Echoing the former mayor of New York Mario Cuomo, Labour ‘campaigned in poetry’ but was compelled to ‘govern in prose’. Labour gained two further substantive majorities, but the party never anticipated such a decisive mandate for reform. Blair and his followers saw the Kinnock period as integral to Labour’s failed past, viewing the Policy Review with suspicion.239 Having entered government, Blair’s ministers struggled ‘to find the space to really build strategically on the first term’.240 The 1997 and 2001 manifestos were missed opportunities to define a bold agenda, given the palpable weaknesses of the Thatcher era. New Labour never faced up to the deep structural problems afflicting Britain, formulating a compelling rationale for activist government.241 Labour’s manifesto was derided for being light on detail, cautious ideologically, ‘painfully short and insubstantial’.242 Blair admitted the manifesto was ‘written essentially to capture a mood. . . . Details were deliberately and necessarily limited’.243 The 176 commitments were ‘bomb-proofed’ forensicallv to ensure no political hostages to fortune.244 Every potential vulnerability was dealt with.

In sticking to the Major government’s spending limits for the first two years of the Parliament, the prime minister and his chancellor emphasised their cautious instincts. As if to compensate for the absence of ideological conviction, the document was replete with grandiose rhetoric: ‘Our case is simple’, Blair announced:

Britain can and must be better. The vision is one of national renewal. In each area of policy, a new and distinctive approach has been mapped out, one that differs from the old left and the Conservative right. This is why new Labour is new. What counts is what works. The objectives are radical. The means will be modern. This is our contract with the people.245

The manifesto was effective electoral politics, but Labour’s idealism appeared to have dissipated.

New Labour as a party of opposition and power put ‘safety first’.24*’ Voters were asked to judge Blair’s team of ministers on delivery of their promises. An annual report was published auditing the government’s achievements. Yet as David Howell remarked: ‘There is no sense within this administration of an agenda of economic and social reform which can be implemented to achieve a new and durable economic and social settlement’.247 New Labour in 1997 had little desire to disturb the prevailing consensus in British society. The conclusive manner of its victory paradoxically encouraged Labour’s hesitant and at times indecisive performance. Blair had the appearance of a leader who in Roy Jenkins’s words was ‘like a man carrying a priceless Ming vase across a highly polished floor’.

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