New Labour at 20: too soon for history?

In Uncategorized on April 30, 2017 by kmflett

The People’s History Museum in Manchester is running an exhibition and a series of talks on the 20th anniversary of Labour’s election victory on May 2nd1997.

It is certainly an occasion worth remembering. Whether it is yet history is a rather different matter.

The London Socialist Historians Group ran an event to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1984/5 miner’s strike at the Institute of Historical Research and I well recall comments that it was really too soon at 20 years distance to be attempting a history.

In the case of the Manchester exhibition, talks by Polly Toynbee, Jacqui Smith and Lord Mandelson amongst others underline the point. These are people who were active players in 1997 who still have a political agenda to pursue.

This is not to say that contemporary history cannot be written but when it comes to participants the more normal convention is for only documents of the time that are already in the public domain- diaries for example-to be openly used.

That said we will no doubt see a deluge of comments about Blair’s victory 20 years ago to the effect that he knew how to win Elections when Jeremy Corbyn, in the eyes of hard core New Labourites, does not.

The historical reality does not, as usual, fit the spin.

Firstly Labour had been expected to win and in fact only narrowly lost the 1992 General Election. Hence the Tories were already in a weak position. Secondly most thought the Tories had been going to lose since 16th September 1992. On that day interest rates rose to 15% as the Tory Chancellor Lamont was forced to pull Britain out of the ERM, a European currency system which was the forerunner to the Euro.

This places the election winning genius of New Labour in perspective. By 1997 it would have been rather difficult for Labour to lose.

Blair had become Labour leader after the death of John Smith in 1994 and many on the left had voiced doubts from the start. Blair was seen as too pro-business and too keen to move the Labour Party away from its working class roots. It turned out the left was correct, although I’m not sure anyone quite envisaged the Iraq War before 1997.

After the 1997 Labour Government started out with Robin Cook’s ethical foreign policy. Exactly how ethical it was may be questioned but it was certainly an innovation.

All that said on that morning of May 2nd 1997, there were lots of people with considerable hangovers.

After all the Tories had been in office since 1979. They were now out and the scale of Labour’s majority made it clear that they would not be returning anytime soon. That was a reason to be cheerful.

As John O’Farrell in his book which chronicled the period, Things Can Only Get Better, underlined by 1997 nearly everyone on the left was fed up with losing to the Tories time after time. Blair was certainly far from the ideal replacement, but the point was, he was not Mrs Thatcher.

I well recall listening to the Shadow Cabinet appointments on Friday 2nd May on a portable radio (mobiles and the interwebs did not exist) and hoping.

As it turned out the words of William Morris in the Dream of John Ball were right ‘men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name’.



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