That first Saturday of May 1997 after New Labour’s stunning election victory and after we’d seen the second edition of the Observer off-stone – “Goodbye xenophobia” ran the huge, now sadly doleful headline – we took to the courtyard of a local pub for a celebratory drink. We shared the same ache for change as our readers, and Tony Blair’s top pollster Philip Gould, along with an eclectic bunch of new cabinet ministers, showed up to celebrate with us.
It was a joyous moment. But the open question, prompted by watching the riveting if flawed BBC Two documentary series Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution, is whether any of us will ever experience it again. Do we live in a de facto, one-party state under “King” Johnson?
The series makers did not intend it – nor did the cast of New Labour politicians who speak so candidly – but one of the unintended consequences of the series is that it crystallises a widespread doubt about New Labour. Yes, it did good and was serious about winning. But Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s suspicions about each other, and thus the solidity of the foundations of the “project”, are foregrounded. Brown was, at heart, the tax-and-spend Labourite whom Blair thought he was, while Blair, as he himself suggests, was the true, if messianic, custodian of New Labour.
Yet Brown’s problem was that, despite their command of British politics, both shrank from a reform programme for British capitalism that had a serious chance of delivering a high-wage, high-productivity economy.
Reform of the City of London, for example, and laying the building blocks of a stakeholder capitalism – creating value for others beyond shareholders – might have been considered “anti-business”. Instead, they tinkered at the edges while launching a massive programme of redistribution based on tax credits and public sector investment, one that they did not dare to own politically and which was quickly reversed by their successors.
The British capitalist status quo was not to be disturbed, which was at the core of Brown’s refusal to join the euro, a lost turning point, given only cursory treatment in the programme. It would have forced Britain to make structural reforms for which Blair, despite his pro-Europeanism, had little sense and not much appetite – but neither did Brown. He glowered menacingly, absorbing too much governmental energy in assuaging his anger, without really a defining political dividing line. He became a convert to reform too late, after the financial crisis in which New Labour, abjuring reform of the City, had been complicit.
For all its success this side-stepping of fundamental reform was a central problem. The salient political truth about the run-up to the 1997 election was the growing collective hunger for change. I have never doubted that John Smith, had he lived, would have won big in 1997 too, and, judging from my conversations with him, he would have led a reforming government that might have tackled the issues from which New Labour shrank. The New Labour revolution was unnecessary: a majestic political stunt, originating from an Alastair Campbell doodle, arising less from conviction than insecurity.
In the week when a poll revealed a formidable 10-point Tory lead, it can seem as if there are endless obstacles to change for Keir Starmer: Boris Johnson’s charisma, Labour’s evisceration in Scotland, the challenges in the red wall, the ongoing aftermath of the Corbyn debacle, the chronically weak starting point, with only 199 MPs. But still, that ache for something better is present again. William Hague believed there were four stages through which New Labour would move in the public’s mind – fascination, admiration, disillusion and contempt.
The same holds for Johnson. Admiration is now fading and disillusion beginning in earnest, with three triggers – the abysmal handling of Covid, compromised by too many concessions to the libertarian right; the chaos of Brexit; and the accompanying emergence of a stagflationary, low-wage, low-investment economy. A government that allows too many deaths of its own citizens and pursues policies that make them poorer will soon be held in contempt.
There is wisdom in the old Westminster adage that it is governments that lose elections rather than oppositions winning them and the signals are that the Conservatives, for all their opinion poll lead, are beginning to fall seriously behind on key indicators such as prime ministerial approval, the handling of Covid and the energy crises.
Starmer may have neither the flair nor easy fluency of Blair or Johnson, but he is palpably serious, an alternative to whom the country can realistically turn. He needs to build on that asset. Last week, a City seminar of 50 business leaders deplored not only Johnson’s policies and scapegoating of business but, more tellingly, the lack of any intellectual rationale. A leading diplomat who knows Britain inside out returned from Labour’s party conference impressed: it was beginning to be a proper party, again in contention. The shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, he told me, in particular won his admiration, as she is doing from a growing section of British business.
One of the key lessons of the BBC series is that Starmer and Reeves need to fashion themselves as a political partnership, an epitome of thoughtful seriousness and competence, right for the times, in contrast to Johnson. They need to describe a route to a high-wage, high-investment economy and genuine levelling up. They should contrast Europe’s low Covid death rate, won with Covid passports, vaccination of children and extensive social distancing, with Britain’s libertarian disaster and, in the process, start to rehabilitate the EU. Brexit’s many failures should be mercilessly attacked and improvements advocated.
The next election may not see a Labour landslide like 1997 – the necessary swing is at the outer limits of possibility – but, rather, an implosion of a riven Conservative party that will leave Starmer, like Olaf Scholz in Germany, in pole position to form a coalition or minority government. It may not feel like 1997, but it will be the change we need. If so, I hope the Observer editor comes up with a headline that better stands the test of time than mine.
Will Hutton was editor of the Observer from 1996 to 2000