General Election memories 6: 2001

POLITICS Blair 8

Peterborough, June 7th 2001

One of the big myths Tories that like to make up about the Blair-Brown years is that they were an unholy period of tyranny in which the nation was held to ransom by a debauched and malevolent cabal of godless devils and perverts.

Or at least this is what Michael Gove says.

There are a few problems with this theory, however. Namely:

  1. Barely anybody seems to have felt this way at the time.
  2. Secondly, if the government was so horrible, why on Earth did the people re-elect the government not once but twice by fairly hefty margins?

Take 2001, usually considered a fairly dull General Election. Labour were re-elected with a majority of 166! This is only slightly less than their famous victory in 1997 and still more than any other victory achieved since 1945, including those won by Thatcher, Attlee or anyone else.

2001 poster 2

This was partly the Tories’ own fault. No one had had time to forget the balls up they’d made of attempting to run the country under Major. They had also foolishly rejected the popular and experienced Ken Clarke as their leader, opting instead for the foolish and inexperienced young William Hague. These days, Mr Hague is held in high regard after his stint as Foreign Secretary. But he was viewed as geeky and weak when he was party leader. The best that can be said of his leadership is that he was slightly better than his successor Iain Duncan Smith. The main Tory complaint at this time was that Labour was crippling the stock markets with unnecessary restrictions. The Tories would give the markets all the power they wanted. What could go wrong?

Blair 2001 small

But, it should be said, the first Blair Government was a big success too. If I was largely politically inactive for a Politics student at this time, perhaps it’s because I had little to complain about. The government achieved a lasting peace in Northern Ireland, introduced the minimum wage, reformed the Lords, introduced devolution, steered us away from the recession which engulfed most of the world at the start of the century and launched a well meant intervention in Kosovo. To quote the film, The Wild One if asked: “What are you rebelling against?” I too, would have replied: “what have you got?” as it turns out, not much. Labour were barely even behind in the polls for a whole decade.

Not everything was perfect, of course. I disliked the introduction of tuition fees even though they were nowhere near the obscene levels the Cameron-Clegg coalition hiked them up to. I was lucky to be unaffected by them (I started my degree at Aberystwyth in 1996). My four older nephews and nieces were all born while I was at university during this time. Thanks to Cameron AND Clegg, any of them who go to university will pay a far greater price than I or indeed Cameron and Clegg themselves would have done themselves.

John-Prescott-2v1.jpg 2001

I was nearing the end of my academic career in 2001 anyway. I was 24 and about to return to Aberystwyth for the summer to finish my final Masters dissertation on the historiography of the Cold War (zzzzz). In the meantime, I was working part-time at home in the privatised section of Peterborough Passport Office (woeful). I had enough free time to see William Hague entering the Bull Hotel on a campaign visit. His visit was ineffective. Helen Brinton (later Clark) beat the Tory candidate Stewart Jackson to win the seat for Labour for a second time. As the late  Simon Hoggart reporting on Hague’s Peterborough visit put it: “The local Labour MP is Helen Brinton, whom I like personally but whose wide mouth, always slathered with scarlet lipstick, makes me long to post a letter in it.”

2001 poster

2001 is the only election I stayed up all night to watch to date (2017 update: this is no longer true). My parents must have been on holiday as I camped out downstairs with a female friend (not in a rude way) in the living room and watched the whole thing why she mostly slept. I don’t entirely blame her. Compared to 1997, it was a fairly dull night even if the “Prescott punch” during the campaign is still one of the best things to happen in the world ever.

Boris Johnson, David Cameron and David Miliband all became MPs for the first time that year. My old Head Boy David Lammy was already an MP. September 11th was just around the corner. The 2001 campaign already seems to belong to a more innocent bygone age.

Hague 2001

 

 

Advertisements

John Smith: Twenty-five years on

a

The Labour leader John Smith died suddenly of a heart attack, twenty-five years ago this month, on May 12th 1994. Had he lived, he would now be eighty. He would also, no doubt, be remembered a former Prime Minister, rather than an Opposition leader whose tragic premature death prevented him from getting to the top.

Smith only led the Labour Party for two years. I don’t recall much popular excitement about his election as leader in July 1992. The contest against the perfectly decent left-winger Bryan Gould (who subsequently returned to his native New Zealand) was a foregone conclusion and a dull affair.

There was also some feeling that after losing for the fourth time in a row in April 1992, Labour might never win again. After all, if Labour couldn’t win during a Tory recession when could it win? Surely the economy would have recovered by 1996 or 1997 ensuring yet another win for the Tories? Satirical show Have I Got News For You… meanwhile pointed out, Labour was electing the very man whose tax plans had arguably led to their recent defeat in the first place.

c

Such fears proved misplaced. Simply by electing Smith, Labour had made an important step towards recovery. In the month of Smith’s election as leader, Labour gained a poll lead over the Tories which it would maintain for the next decade. The April 1992 election result in fact turned out to be the last Tory General Election win achieved until 2015.

John Smith is sometimes accused of laziness and complacency: of being happy to let the Tories lose the election for themselves. In fact, during the Major years, this was the perfect tactic to adopt. Within months of their victory, the Major Government virtually disintegrated amidst a sea of divisions over Europe, sleaze allegations, and perhaps worst, the total economic incompetence exhibited by Prime Minister John Major and his Chancellor Norman Lamont on Black Wednesday in September 1992. Labour had double digit poll leads from the autumn onward. Hopelessly divided and weak, torn apart by self-inflicted wounds, the Major Government never recovered.

This is not to deny John Smith any credit for Labour’s recovery. Although he did not launch any “New Labour” style revolution, he was certainly not lazy either. For one thing, he proved the finest performer as Opposition leader in the Commons of the post-war era. Only Harold Wilson in 1963-64, William Hague in 1997-2001 or perhaps Tony Blair in 1994-97 have come close to matching him. “No wonder we live in a country where the Grand National doesn’t start and hotels fall into the sea!” he derided Major in 1993 (referring to two recent news events which, of course, the hapless John Major, for once, could not really be blamed for). More seriously, he attacked “the devalued Prime Minister of a devalued government” after Black Wednesday.

Then there was the One Member One Vote reform to end the union block vote in autumn 1993. Smith privately planned to resign if the party voted “no”.  They did not, partly thanks to  a spirited Conference defence of the OMOV proposals from John Prescott. As it turned out, this would ensure Prescott would defeat Smith’s Number Two Margaret Beckett in the then entirely unforeseen Deputy Leadership contest the following year.

Ultimately, Smith’s strength was a self-assurance which both his predecessors the terminally un-telegenic Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock as well as his successors Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband all lacked. True, the party experienced a huge surge in support following Tony Blair’s election as leader and a decisive move to the right for the party. But, in retrospect, Labour was already clearly heading for victory under John Smith. Maybe not the 179 seat majority achieved by New Labour but a substantial win nevertheless. There was no need for the creation of New Labour or the campaign to win over the Murdoch press. Labour had a 20% lead over the Tories in May 1994.

d

Counter-factual history is a risky business. Would the Blair-Brown rivalry have taken new form in a Smith Cabinet? Would the Tories have fared well enough in 1997 for Michael Portillo to escape the humiliating loss of his seat and thus succeed Major instead of Hague?  Would Blair, Brown, Cameron and May still have become Prime Minister anyway? Would the Good Friday Agreement have still happened? The 2001 and 2005 Labour victories? Devolution? Kosovo? Afghanistan? Iraq? Brexit?

We will, of course, never know these things. While I would not wish to romanticise Smith’s leadership (every Labour leader before or since has, after all, been accused of “betraying socialism”. Smith, unfairly or not, would doubtless been accused of this just the same, had he lived) there seems little doubt that John Smith would have led Britain into the 21st century had he survived.

His death remains a great tragedy. The question of what a Smith-led Britain would have turned out like remains a fascinating mystery, twenty-five years on.

b