In the third of a series of blogs marking the 20th anniversary of New Labour coming to power, Crick Centre Deputy Director Matt Wood considers the 1997 election’s impact on anti politics
The 1997 general election is usually seen as a euphoric moment for the Labour Party, and a changing of the guard in British politics. While viewed with rose-tinted spectacles by some, for others it was the triumph of a sanitised version of politics that set the stage for Labour’s future troubles.
Shorn of firm ideological commitments, these commentators argue, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown embraced an independent Bank of England and fiscal ‘golden rule’, caving in to Margaret Thatcher’s economic settlement. Subsequently, they alienated their supporters further by disowning traditional ‘tax and spend’ economics, and collaborating in George Bush’s catastrophic Iraq war. Voter turnout dropped substantially in 2001 (59.4%) and 2005 (61.4%), and trust in government halved after the parliamentary expenses scandal of 2008 (from 18% to 9%), having stagnated for the best part of a decade.
The global financial crisis was their final undoing. Blair and Brown thought their version of technocratic centrism was impregnable, and could be defended on the basis of ensuring long-term credibility and stability. When the financial crisis came about, they found out they were not. Having adopted an ‘Anglo-liberal growth model’, Brown was left ideologically confused, and the Labour Party politically emasculated, by the crisis happening ‘on its watch’.
Brown did the right thing, injecting huge amounts of liquidity into the credit markets to keep them going, and bailing out failing banks. His great success was in preventing profound economic collapse; his great failure was gaining any credit for it.
Labour couldn’t find a narrative about why they’d intervened, because for the past decade they’d flaunted economic prudence as their primary electoral asset. As a result Labour, bizarrely, couldn’t successfully defend the decision to intervene, even though they should have been on firm ideological territory. More damagingly still, they didn’t get a hearing: voters had simply stopped listening. The Conservatives seized a narrative of Labour profligacy and the rest, as they say, is history.
This reading of the 1997 legacy is a story of an historic victory, followed by stagnation and betrayal, and eventual (almost certain) historic defeat in this June’s general election. The alleged lesson is Labour should never have left its roots. It created disillusionment and distrust, which later manifested itself in anger and finally in rejection. Given the likely forthcoming electoral Armageddon, Labour commentators tend now to baulk at this interpretation. “Look at the historic victories Labour won”, they say. Labour MPs now line up to defend the last Labour government’s legacy: Surestart, the minimum wage, NHS spending and so on. The problem is, they are too late. Disillusionment and disaffection during the Blair and Brown years meant that when the moment came to defend that government’s domestic legacy at the 2010 election, the defence went missing.
Blair and Brown’s mistake was not really in taking their traditional voters ‘for granted’, but lacking invention to renew the trust they had on the so-called ‘new dawn’ of ‘97. They embraced devolution, but saw it mainly in dry institutional terms. They could have carried through on electoral reform, but let their privileged place in government get the better of them.
There is nothing exceptional about Labour’s downfall. All governments get things wrong. Liberal democracies thrive on ‘kicking the bastards out’. If indeed ‘97 was a new dawn, we seem now to be witnessing its dusk cyclically turning to night. The dangerous thought however, is that by allowing distrust to grow, Blair and Brown might have set in train distrust not merely against Labour, but social democratic politics altogether. It could be a very long night indeed.
Matt Wood, Deputy Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre, Dept. of Politics, University of Sheffield
Notes: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series.