General Election memories 5: 1997

tony_blair_1997-cherieAberystwyth, May 1st 1997

“Bliss it was that dawn to be alive. And to be young was very heaven.”

William Wordsworth on the French Revoution.

Why was the 1997 election so great?

Was it simply because I was young? It was not only the first time I was able to vote in a General Election (I was twenty) but the first election where Labour had won in Peterborough or nationwide in my entire life. Indeed, it was the biggest Labour victory ever and still the biggest victory achieved by any party since the Second World War. But just as everyone tends to like the music that was popular when they were young, is my own memory of the election blighted by similar nostalgia?

Perhaps. But, if so, I am certainly not the only one. Many people, some much older than me, seem to have fond memories of it too. Ultimately, it may be the best election many of us ever experience in our entire lives.

It is easy now to forget just how hated the Tories were by 1997. Blair never came close to being anywhere near as unpopular, nor has David Cameron (yet). Gordon Brown and Margaret Thatcher did come close, Thatcher particularly towards the Poll Tax lunacy of her final year in office. But neither were as widely disliked as the Major Government in 1997. The proof is in the results: Labour won a majority of 179, bigger than any other party since 1945 (including any victory by Attlee, or Thatcher). Their margin of victory in terms of share of the vote was also the second greatest since the war (nearly 13% over the Tories).

The problem with the Tories wasn’t so much John Major himself, an amiable figure, despite being a very weak leader. It was the fact that the Tories had been in power for eighteen years and had given everyone a reason to dislike them.

True, if you hated their poor treatment of the NHS, schools and public services, you would probably have already been against the Tories before 1997. Many more were converted to Labour after 1992 by the total catastrophe that was rail privatisation. Nobody wanted it, it was clearly a stupid idea. The Tories did it anyway. The Major government even sold off the railways at knockdown prices. It was a disaster. One we are still living with today.

gordon-brown-tony-blair

Even traditionally Tory groups had cause to hate the Tories. If you had been in the services, you resented the defence cuts and the shoddy treatment of those with Gulf War Syndrome. If you were a farmer, you were furious over the government’s disastrous handling of the Mad Cow crisis. If you were in the business community, you were grateful the economy was doing so well. But after the economic incompetence of Black Wednesday in 1992, many felt our economic recovery had occurred in spite of the Tories not because of them.

If these things hadn’t put you off the Tories, the sleaze, the hypocrisy of the Back to Basics campaign and the government’s total paralysis as the Tories waged a bitter civil war with itself over Europe would have done. The Major Government was a worthless, hateful  shower of mediocrities and richly deserved the fate which befell it.

British Prime Minister John Major (L) and his de

Some deduce from this that Labour thus barely needed to lift a finger to win in 1997. This isn’t true. Contrary to popular legend, governments do not lose elections, oppositions win them. Nobody elects an alternative government without being sure that as the great political philosopher Kylie Minogue put it they are better than “the devil you know”. And Tony Blair and New Labour didn’t put a foot wrong in the three years leading up to 1997.

This is what made the General Election night in 1997 so glorious. The odious Hamiltons: gone, in one of the strongest Tory seats in the country. Sleazemaster David Mellor: gone. Norman Lamont: gone. Thatcher’s old seat Finchley: gone to the Lib Dems. Peterborough gone to Labour. My future home of Exeter fell to Labour’s Ben Bradshaw after a bitterly homophobic campaign by his Tory opponent Dr. Adrian Rogers backfired. The Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind gone.

And best of all,  the most likely next successor to the Tory leadership, Michael Portillo was gone! Today he is an amiable TV presenter who wears odd pink clothes. Readers have indeed proven fascinated by his sexuality making my earlier post https://chrishallamworldview.wordpress.com/2013/05/24/the-rise-and-fall-of-michael-denzil-xavier-portillo/ The Rise and Fall of Michael Portillo (which barely mentions his personal life) consistently the most read piece on this blog.

But in 1997, Michael Portillo was a power-hungry Thatcherite yob. Trust me: we had a narrow escape there.

Major had left the Tories with fewer than half of the number of seats he had inherited in 1990. Justice had been done. New Labour had been elected. A new era had begun. “Bliss it was that dawn to be alive” indeed!

But what about me? I was twenty and as youthful and energetic as ever. I was finishing my first year at the University of Aberystwyth, a seat which actually fell to Plaid Cymru not Labour in that year. And, yes, I was as apathetic as ever.

On the one hand, I met the Labour candidate Robert “Hag” Harris. He seemed decent and looked a bit like Lenin, which at the time I took to be a good sign. I was sorry to tell him I was registered to vote in Peterborough and so could not vote for him. I am disappointed to see now that he has never become an MP in the years since.

new-Labour-because-Britain-deserves-better-1997

I also wrote letters to friends and family about the election: yes letters! Remember them? My brother even got a pager for his 16th birthday that year! I would not send many more letters, however. I sent my first email the following year.

I saw the New Labour battle bus while travelling between Peterborough and Aberystwyth, presumably with many of our nation’s future leaders on board.

I studied History and in 1997 switched to International Politics. I know I argued with lots of people about politics during that period and who knows, may have even convinced a few instead of pushing them in the other direction.

But officially, yes. I was lazy. I spent the last and one of the most important UK General Election nights of the 20th century, drunk in either the Student Union building or watching the results in one of the hall TV rooms (I am not confused, I was in both of these places).

And yes. I did vote Labour but I was registered to vote in Peterborough not Aberystwyth. There, Labour’s Helen Brinton replaced Tory Party Chairman Brian Mawhinney who, in a huge show of confidence for the party whose national election campaign he was officially running, had fled the seat he had represented for eighteen years for a neighbouring safer Tory seat. It was known as “the chicken run”. So he remained as an MP even though Peterborough was won by Labour.

And even in this, I was lazy. I had arranged for my father to vote on my behalf by proxy. He cast my first fateful vote, not me.

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General Election memories 4: 1992

Peterborough,
April 9th 1992

Margaret Thatcher and John Major in 1991

The world changed a lot between 1987 and 1992.

The Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, ending the Cold War in the process. Nelson Mandela was freed in South Africa, but a new threat emerged in the Middle East in the form of Saddam Hussein.

In Britain, there was less change. I was fifteen now, but Britain was still under the same government as it had been under when I was two years old.

But even there, there had been change. By 1990, the Tories finally recognised that Margaret Thatcher (by then intent on promoting the Poll Tax and inclined to speak about herself using the royal “we” as in “We are a grandmother”) was far more bonkers than anyone on the supposed “loony left” had ever been. Keen to avoid certain defeat, they brutally dethroned her. A necessary measure, certainly, but one the party does not seem to have ever fully recovered from, even now.

defence 1992
Instead, we now had John Major of Huntington, Peterborough’s neighbouring seat as Prime Minister: a far more agreeable choice. Amiable and pleasant, Major would turn out to have no aptitude for leadership whatsoever, but we didn’t know that in 1990. He hadn’t been tested. Even with a recession on, the Tories surged from a position of certain defeat under Thatcher to the point of being virtually neck and neck with Labour under Major. But this still represented Labour’s best chance in my lifetime up to that point. Labour were about 2% ahead of the Tories throughout the 1992 campaign. At least, that’s what the opinion polls said.

Of course, as mentioned, I was now fifteen, not ten, so was undergoing a bit of change myself. My voice was wobbly and would often break at the end of sentences. I drew, swam and cycled less. I still read comics (now, arguably more grown-up ones like 2000AD: I had two letters published in the Galaxy’s Greatest comic at around this time). I was also starting to move onto “grown-up” novels like 1984 and Catch-22 although still mostly read Terry Pratchett books, meeting the great fantasy author himself during a book signing in Queensgate shopping centre. I ignored his younger friend completely: someone called Neil Gaiman. I’d also helped write a comic (“Flob”) with some friends. My contributions were I think mostly Viz-like and I doubt they have stood the test of time very well.

Home life had changed little. My older brother was about to get married and my sister, also now in her twenties, was close to the same situation. I was so self-absorbed at this point, I’m surprised I even noticed.

We had an Amiga computer and a Sega Game Gear. But this was 1992. Unlike teenagers today, I had never been online, sent an email, written a text or played a Wii. If you had told me I would one day be a blogger or work on a DVD magazine, I would not have not have understood what you were saying. A better, simpler life? No. It was rubbish. For one thing, if I wanted to know who directed Flight Of The Navigator, today I could find out in seconds. In 1992, I would have to go to the library (assuming it wasn’t a Sunday) and look it up in Halliwell’s Film Guide. And yes, that is the sort of thing I like to know (it’s Randal Kleiser, incidentally. He also directed Grease).

1992 SunKinnock390-7712

Change was not a key feature of life in my secondary school either. The Third Year became Year 9 (my own year) but that was about it. The headmaster was very traditional. We were required to stand every time he entered the room until he told us to sit down again a few seconds later (presumably we would have got in serious trouble if we’d refused to stand? Nobody ever attempted this).

Our school’s founder Henry VIII stared down at us from his expensive Holbein portrait in the dining hall. We were not a public school but there was a boarding house nearby mostly filled with the sons of those employed on nearby airbases. These jobs mostly no longer exist. Homework was called “prep”.  The arrival of “short sleeve order” was occasionally announced in assembly. God knows what it meant. I never understood. It may have actually been called shirt sleeve order. I don’t remember getting in trouble over it anyway.

The school was hardly very representative of Peterborough’s large Indian and Pakistani population either (the Polish influx had not yet arrived). David Lammy (later a minister in the Blair and Brown governments) had been the school’s first black head boy a couple of years earlier but he had been exceptional. There is barely a brown face in any school photos at the time.
School election: 1992.

I did not excel in my new secondary school environment doing badly early on and quite well by the Sixth Form. I was in between these two points in 1992 and was doing moderately well. The school Mock Election held a week before the actual one piqued my interest although I would have been far too self conscious to stand myself.
Our school was relatively small: about 750 pupils. About 600 or so voted. In reverse order of success, the candidates/parties (people’s names are changed) were, as far as I remember:

The Meritocrats: A silly novelty party fronted by the older brother of one of my friends (I don’t think the younger brother even voted for them). They had funny posters featuring identical pictures of the candidate over a statement saying: “Ian cares for the environment” or “Ian cares for babies.”But the “silly vote” was entirely swallowed up by the Revolution Party (soon to be discussed) and this one only got about 25 out of six hundred and something votes.

Labour: The Labour candidate was actually a friend of the Tory candidate in my 1987 Junior School election. I was incredibly socially awkward at this point but I attempted to hang out with her and a couple of boys who were running their campaign. I didn’t contribute anything meaningful. I attempted to submit some cartoons of John Major (about the only politician I could ever draw, then and now) but these weren’t great and understandably were not used. I couldn’t colour in and am not sure the jokes worked anyway: one was an attempt to parody the famous ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ poster from 1979.

That said, the posters they DID use – “hilarious” ones featuring a photo they had found of the school Tory candidate standing next to a wheelie bin beneath the legend “Is this man looking for a new job?” were crap too. Presumably they were suggesting he was looking for a job as a bin man? Of course, standing next to a bin wouldn’t achieve this. And he didn’t need a new job anyway? He was still at school. It didn’t work. That said, the Labour bunch were an intelligent well-meaning bunch but my school was always overwhelmingly, hopelessly Tory. My younger brother who was at the school then confirms that the Conservatives even won heavily at the school in 1997. Yes, even in 1997! I don’t think Labour got even a tenth of the vote in 1992.

tax bombshell 1992

The Lib Dems: A boy from a lower year whose name I ‘ve forgotten. He did well as a candidate and got about 120 or so votes I think. I’m doing pretty well to the remember the campaign as well as this, to be honest. I doubt many other people can, probably not even those who were actually candidates at the time.

The Tories: Another boy from my year, a Scot, a Christian who despite my fledgling socialist and atheist tendencies, I was on friendly terms with. He came a good second and now, I believe, has a politics-related job.

The Revolution Party: Peterborough was teetering very close towards electing a Labour MP (potentially its first woman MP too) one Julie Owens, just as the national election seemed poised to give Labour the keys to Downing Street. But my school was not very representative in this respect. A debate on banning fox-hunting in one class ended with a clear vote opposing any ban: pretty unusual for any group of urban British 1990s teenagers then, or I would suspect, now. The news that Thatcher had fallen in 1990 was greeted by concern amongst some classmates that Labour might get in by many, some fearing this would lead inevitably to a nuclear war. In short, most pupils like their parents, were Tories. But they were still teenagers (mostly) and there was a hint of rebellion in the air. The general feeling was that our traditionalist headmaster who was widely assumed – quite wrongly I later learnt – to be a Tory and would be most annoyed by a silly gimmicky party hijacking the election (this last bit probably is true).

So this is what happened. Fronted by a Sixth Former, the Revolution Party had the best election poster (which stated simply that “Lenin was a chap”) and used cheaply bought stickers featuring the dog Odie from the Jim Davis Garfield cartoon strip as their symbol. Although hardly very anti-capitalist in retrospect, this really took off as a gimmick. For about an hour or so during one lunchtime, I got slightly carried away and briefly wore an Odie on my maroon lapel myself. But I didn’t repeat my 1987 betrayal. I still voted Labour. I wasn’t that disappointed when Labour almost came last after all. The real result during the school’s Easter Holidays would be different, I knew. Neil Kinnock would lead Labour back into power.

John Major in 1992

The real election.
I did not stay up to watch all the results for some reason: a fortunate move in retrospect, although my younger brother, by now eleven but still indifferent to the result, camped out in our back garden in a tent. This wasn’t because of the election. It was just something he liked to do. Apparently some people still like to go in tents for fun today.

Like most people I expected Labour to win narrowly. While as the ITV puppet-based comedy Spitting Image pointed out, “You can’t hate John Major” the Tory campaign seemed weak at the time. Initially Major began with staged unconvincing “informal chats” with party supporters. “What would you say to younger people to warn them of the dangers of a socialist government?” was typical of the challenging questions the PM met with. The Tories thus soon resorted to the “Major standing on a soapbox in the street” strategy. This is now remembered fondly. But even this was attacked at the time notably by Edwina Currie, in retrospect, probably vengeful after the end of her affair with Major in the Eighties. She complained Major looked more like an Opposition leader than a PM on his soap box.

maj 92

The great irony of Labour’s Neil Kinnock’s career was that having effectively saved the Labour Party from destruction in 1983, he had now become their biggest obstacle to power. John Smith, Robin Cook, Margaret Beckett, Jack Straw, Jack Cunningham, Bryan Gould, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair: the frontbench otherwise looked hugely talented in 1992. Kinnock meanwhile seemed to have greatness within him but was flawed. He was a great orator on occasion and as with Ed Miliband tabloid attempts to smear him as “devious” never really seemed convincing. But he rambled too much and basically didn’t inspire confidence.

kinnock 92

And the polls were wrong. The Tories won again.

Ultimately, even the news that the architect of Tory victory Chris Patten had lost his own seat in Bath (and unlike Portillo five years later had the decency to look thoroughly miserable in public about it afterwards) was no real comfort. “It’s a Tory Major-ity!” punned the pro-Tory Peterborough Evening Telegraph above a picture of grinning Brian Mawhinney who had also unexpectedly won in Peterborough. Julie Owens would never become an MP while the father of a friend standing for the Liberal Party (which, like most people, I endlessly confused with the new Liberal Democrats) came fourth.
I was already developing an interest in US politics and switched my attention to Governor Bill Clinton’s increasingly promising campaign over there.

For Britain seemed lost. If Labour couldn’t win during a recession when could they win? I was going through changes but the nation wasn’t. The Tories seemed destined to rule forever.

But, in fact, almost the opposite would turn out to be true. I was 15 then. Now I am nearly 38. And it is the Tories not Labour who have failed to win a single General Election in the twenty or so years since.

As John Major would have said: “Who’d have thought it?”

John-Major-1992

General Election memories 2: 1983

Margaret Thatcher, Dennis Thatcher

Peterborough, June 9th 1983
I was six by the time of Margaret Thatcher’s second election victory in 1983.  I certainly remember the year if not the election itself.

I remember going to the Isle of Wight on holiday and falling over outside the saloon area of the Wild West Zone of Blackgang Chine (all now, apparently, under the sea). I remember my older brother (then 17) dragging me to see Return of the Jedi. I remember Bananaman, Danger Mouse and my teachers at Queens Drive Infants School. I actually remember being conscious that it was the year 1983, the first year I think where this ever happened, even though my memory banks seem to start in 1980. But other than noting that Labour leader Michael Foot’s surname was “Foot” and that this was, of course, funny, I don’t remember anything political at all.

This is perhaps a good thing.

thatcher 1983

Conditions were ripe for a landslide Labour victory. The Thatcherite monetarist experiment had failed dramatically. 1981 had been a good year for my family: my father got a new job, we moved from the then modern and acceptable area of Longthorpe to a big house in a more central and very nice part of Peterborough (no, this last bit isn’t an oxymoron). My younger brother was born and I started school, both developments that doubtless delighted me at the time. Helped by the Trotskyite adventurer known as “Roger Redhat”, I soon learned to read.

But aside from Charles and Diana’s wedding, 1981, seems to have marked a major low point in the fortunes of the country as a whole. Margaret Thatcher became one of the most unpopular leaders on record as a major recession kicked in. Unemployment surged to a post-war high, inflation went nearly as high as it had in 1974. Callaghan’s predictions of rioting on the streets if Thatcher won, were soon vindicated in Brixton and Toxteth. Alan Moore predicted a Labour victory (as well as a second Kennedy presidency) in V For Vendetta. Chris Mullin predicted a Tory-SDP Coalition in A Very British Coup.

Two years later, Margaret Thatcher led the Tories to their largest ever post-war election win. Labour were smashed. The Tory majority of 144 was smaller than Attlee’s in 1945 and Blair’s in 1997 and 2001, but was basically huge. What on Earth happened?

200203031254019Basically, the Falklands War happened. As Andrew Rawnsley has pointed out, Thatcher would definitely have had to resign had she not re-invaded the South Atlantic islands. But her strong war leadership gave a boost which effectively kept her in power for the rest of the decade.

But it wasn’t just that. The economy was starting to recover. And crucially 1981 was also the year Her Majesty’s Opposition pretty much collapsed completely.

Put simply: Roger Redhat proved too “red” for some, so Jonathan and Jennifer Yellow Hat broke away and formed their own group. But this weakened both, enabling Billy Bluehat to win.

Or put a bit more plainly: Labour coped very badly after their 1979 defeat. Labour has a tendency to go into a state of civil war after leaving government (and to Ed Miliband’s credit this didn’t happen at all in 2010. 2017 update: Ahem…) and in the Eighties this happened worse than ever. With the increasingly troublesome left winger Tony Benn opting out, the 1980 party leadership election was between two men Michael Foot and Denis Healey. Both were sixty something intellectuals first elected in the great landslide of 1945. Both would live into their late nineties (Healey is still alive. 2017 update: he died in 2015 age 98). But the left-winger Foot won unexpectedly, beating the more populist Healey. Many on the Right (some of whom may have sneakily voted for Foot to strengthen their own argument that Labour had slid into the loony Left) jumped ship forming a new centrist party, the Social Democratic Party (SDP). By the end of 1981, they were more popular than the “evil” Thatcherites on one side and the “Loony lefties” of Labour on the other. The SDP’s allure quickly faded after they unwisely allied with the Liberals.

1983 michael-foot

The practical upshot of this was that three parties went into the 1983 election.

Mrs Thatcher’s Tories were less popular than in 1979 (their share of the vote fell). But boosted by the jingoistic fervour of the post-Falklands War mood, a slick campaign and the keen support of the Murdoch press, they won handsomely. The only awkward moment of the campaign for the Tories was the public grilling the Prime Minister received during a TV phone-in over the sinking of the General Belgrano. But this was not from Labour but from a member of the public.

Labour’s campaign, in contrast, was a gaffe-prone shambles. Michael Foot was a thoroughly decent man, intellectual and ultimately less of a “loony” than Thatcher would prove to be. But he looked terrible and scruffy on TV. Labour were furthermore undisciplined and all over the place. It is obligatory to repeat Gerald Kaufman’s remark that the manifesto represented “the longest suicide note in history” at this point and I will happily do so as it is very clever. The manifesto was indeed unusually long and supported unilateral disarmament. The world has only occasionally been closer to nuclear war than it was in 1983 but only a fifth of the UK saw full nuclear disarmament as a solution.  Labour came close to coming third behind the SDP vote-wise but the unfair electoral system ensured the SDP barely won any seats.

1983 everett

Would Thatcher have been re-elected without the Falklands War? I actually suspect she would have been, though the margin would have been narrower. Did the SDP deny Labour victory? Again, I suspect the answer is “no”. Labour were heading for defeat anyway. Had Healey been elected leader, Labour wouldn’t have split, the defeat would have been smaller. Labour may have recovered earlier, perhaps returning to power in 1992.

1983 Blair

As it was, the election was a disaster. New Labour MP Anthony Blair surely observed that Labour had a long way to go policy and presentation-wise but to his credit never seems to have considered joining the SDP. Tony Benn lost his seat.

And for me this is the most recent General Election I have no memory of.

And frankly, I think I was lucky to miss it.

London Tony Benn

 

Book review: Just A Simple Belfast Boy by Dr Brian Mawhinney

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George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury makes a bold claim on the back of this book. “Brian Mawhinney is one of the truly outstanding politicians of his generation.”

Bearing in mind, Dr Brian Mawhinney was born in 1940 putting him in the same mediocre vintage as Lord Archer, John Selwyn Gummer, Jonathan Aitken and Neil Hamilton, perhaps this is faint praise. But what about John Smith? Ken Clarke? Chris Patten? Robin Cook? No, Carey’s claim is ridiculously over the top. One suspects Mawhinney would be embarrassed by it himself.

It’s probable Mawhinney’s intense religious fervour swayed Carey. Dr Brian Mawhinney was the Tory MP for Peterborough from 1979 until 1997 (I grew up there during that period myself). Before his selection as candidate, Mawhinney, like Joan of Arc, heard voices. Specifically a voice in Peterborough Cathedral saying: “I need you here”. Mawhinney may have imagined it or overheard somebody instructing a choir boy. Either way, Mawhinney remained MP for Peterborough for eighteen years. Presumably another voice then told him: “Labour are going to win your seat! Peterborough’s too full of lefties these days! Ditch them. Switch to North West Cambridgeshire!”.  Mawhinney did so, remaining MP there until 2005. He was appointed Chairman of the Football League in 2003.

On paper, Mawhinney’s record isn’t sparkling. He was Minister of State for Northern Ireland under Margaret Thatcher. Unlike under Major and especially Blair, no progress was made in the Troubles under Thatcher at all. He moved to Health, at a time of intense strife for the NHS (the Thatcher/Major years remain the historical nadir ofthe NHS). Now in the Cabinet, he oversaw the disastrous farce of rail privatisation as Transport Secretary. As Tory Party Chairman he presided over the Tory Party’s largest ever 20th century defeat in 1997.

None of these things were wholly Mawhinney’s fault, to be fair. The Tories were clearly heading for a big fall in 1997 already. It is doubtful any non-Cabinet minister could have secured peace in Northern Ireland in the Eighties.  Mawhinney is wrong about many things (gay marriage, Tony Blair) but his dedication cannot be faulted.

The book is not very well written and was almost completely overshadowed on its April release date by the reaction to Lady Thatcher’s death. But Mawhinney is clearly a genuine and dutiful public servant and fundamentally decent in a way one suspects most modern Tories are not.

I would have changed the book’s name though.”A Simple Belfast Boy” stinks of false modesty. The book barely focuses on Mawhinney’s childhood anyway. ’Life of Brian’ is probably out due to his religious convictions. How about “Doctor in the House”?

Or “God Told Me To Do It”?Image