An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward


1997 – The 1997 General Election


1 May 1997 – United Kingdom

TRIGGER WARNING: The images and video associated with this post may be “too nineties” for young children, and may also be unacceptable to other viewers. None of this should be recreated at home, at school, or anywhere. Even in ten years time, when people will think it’s cool to be all “retro”. No. Just don’t.

The 1997 General Election was the high point for “New Labour” and Tony Blair. It marked the beginning of 13 years of continuous Labour government, a feat that had never been achieved before. In the wake of the 2010 Election, however, it has come to signify much more. While there were traditional Labour supporters at the time who were worried about the party’s rightward march towards neoliberalism and Thatcherism, today the party appears to be fiercely divided between those who wish to continue Blair’s legacy, and those who believe the Labour Movement needs to re-connect with its democratic socialist roots.

In 1979, the Callaghan Government fell following a vote of “No Confidence”. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party won the proceeding election and, off the back of the economic recovery, ushered in an era of 18 years of Tory rule.

Thatcher offered an alternative to the “consensus” politics of the post-war era. The “Butskellism” of the 1950s was largely agreed on by the leadership of the two main parties. By contemporary standards, high taxation and public spending would buttress the economy. Planning departments would ensure that prices were controlled, and wages would be set through corporatist negotiations between the powerful unions, Parliament and business leaders. This formed the economic basis for the foundation of the modern welfare state in the 1940s, and supervised its expansion during the 1960s and 1970s. The narrative of “consensus” has been challenged by a number of historians1 – including this one2 – but there was enough accord in the public mind for it to act as a reasonably useful narrative.

By the 1970s, however, there was a sense that the post-war agreement was beginning to crumble. “Stagflation” (where the economy stagnates and inflation soars) was becoming more prevalent. Cycles of boom and bust were more frequent. Wilson faced a currency crisis in the 1960s in which the pound was devalued.3 Heath was forced to “U-turn” his economic plans in the face of mounting unemployment and union dissatisfaction in the early 1970s.4 And the death knell – The Winter of Discontent – saw bodies and rubbish bins piled up in the street as local council workers went on strike.5

Margaret Thatcher’s policies moved the country away from this. The unions were sidelined. Wages were to be a matter for market forces alone. Government planning and services were seen as inefficient, and where private companies could do the job state functions were privatised. The rhetoric was one of rolling back the state to allow the market to flourish. A new consensus emerged, in which nationalisation was seen as wasteful, and low taxation was seen as an end in itself to allow individuals and businesses to create wealth.

Whether or not Thatcher managed this – state expenditure increased under her tenure, and a host of new advisory bodies and standards agencies were created – the scene was set. The Labour party of Benn and Foot was a dinosaur. Any Labour leader committed to high taxation and nationalisation would fail.

And, indeed, they did fail. So unpopular was Thatcher and the Conservative Party as a whole that she was removed in 1990, replaced with the less-than-inspiring John Major. Labour, under Neil Kinnock, had already undergone a number of changes to make itself more relevant to the post-consensus political landscape. He still offered higher taxation and spending on services, however. And somehow – despite the polls going into the 1992 election – he managed to lose.

Neil Kinnock, Labour Leader in 1992. (Source)

Neil Kinnock, Labour Leader in 1992. (Source)

Kinnock was replaced with John Smith. But Smith was only leader for a short time before he died in 1994. In amidst the crisis, a younger generation of politicians vied for power. The two front-runners were Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

A lot has been written about the rivalry between (arguably) the two greatest Labour Prime Ministers of the twenty-first century.6 What was important was that they pulled the party towards Thatcher’s new consensus. Whilst still favouring increased public expenditure on services that would provide opportunity and protection for the working classes, this was to be done within a Thatcherite framework.

This included privatisation of services to allow the market to provide more efficiency. Maintaining a low income tax and corporate tax rate. Increasing spending gradually, rather than succumbing to the “boom and bust” issues faced by Wilson and Callaghan. In short, it tried to position itself to the mortgage owning, white collar, middle-income families of the south rather than the traditional unionised blue collar north.

Mandelson: "They have nowhere else to go." (Source)

Mandelson: “They have nowhere else to go.” (Source)

Peter Mandelson, one of the architects of this “New” Labour borrowed another tactic from the Conservatives – pragmatism. For the Tories, the most important political outcome was that the party wins elections. Because without political power, no change can be effected. This requires politicians to bend towards the “common sense” of the electorate.7 For Labour, this meant appealing to those who had left Labour for Thatcher in the 1970s, and hoping the traditional support would not leave. At the time, as Mandelson put it, they had “nowhere else to go”. In 1997, there was no Green Party pulling at them from the social-democracy angle; no UKIP claiming to defend working class jobs.

The 1997 Election was the first I was old enough to truly grasp (though it would be another 6 years before I was eligible to vote). Therefore, I grew up under Tony Blair. This version of the Labour party is the only I have really known; and until recently I had not really experienced what living under a Conservative one was like. For all the political arguments Blair caused – and trust me, guys, there’s going to be some doozies coming up over the next few weeks – he and his New Labour Party had a profound impact upon the political world in which we now live.

  1. Richard Toye, ‘From “Consensus” to “Common Ground”: The rhetoric of the postwar settlement and its collapse’, Journal of Contemporary History, 48(1) (2013)
  2. Gareth Millward, ‘Invalid definitions, invalid responses: Disability and the welfare state, 1965-1995’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of London, 2013)
  3. Michael J. Oliver, ‘The management of sterling 1964-1967’, English Historical Review 126(520) (2011), 582-613.
  4. Anthony Seldon, ‘The Heath government in history’ in Stuart Ball and Anthony Seldon (eds) The Heath Government, 1-20.
  5. Colin Hay,’The Winter of Discontent thirty yeas on’, Political Quarterly 80(4) (2009), 545-52.
  6. At the reader’s discretion, replace “greatest” with “only”.
  7. See: Philip Norton and Arthur Aughey, Conservatives and Conservatism (London: Temple Smith, 1981).
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