Socialist Worker

Eleven years on from Labour's 1997 victory - how hope turned to despair

by Simon Basketter
Issue No. 2100

The appalling election results last week have sparked a refreshing, if slightly panicked, debate inside the Labour Party.

While Gordon Brown mumbled about listening, and cabinet ministers expressed their loyalty and warned of the futility of turning left, others in the party reflected the anger and disillusionment of the members and voters.

The leftish Labour grouping Compass wrote, “New Labour is now dead.

“The strategy that saw the party continually triangulate interests and concerns, tacking endlessly to the right, doing what the Tories would do, only doing it first, fixating on a mythical middle England and denying that free market policies are having a damaging effect on society is now finished.”


In a damning critique, Labour MP Jon Cruddas said, “Our people are abandoning us, we’re sinking fast and no amount of hand-wringing and promises of ‘listening and learning’ from election night will change that.

“The New Labour attitude that you can kick the workers from pillar to post because ‘they’ve got nowhere else to go’ has reached its ludicrous conclusion.”

Left wing MP John McDonnell said, “After the worst results in 40 years it is intellectually unsustainable for ministers to simply tell the electorate that the government is listening.

“Prevarication will only lead to a Tory government. What people want is decisive action to change the policies immediately.”

Unfortunately, there is an underlying theme to some of the critique which accepts elements of New Labour spin.

For instance Cruddas also said, “There are things we can learn from Boris Johnson and from David Cameron as well. They seem to be more emotionally literate than us.

“Boris Johnson is connecting with people emotionally and it’s not just because of the celebrity.”

Johnson, he said, offered voters “a sense of optimism”.

This reflects mistaken assumptions about why New Labour was elected in the first place.

The initial success of New Labour at the polls was not based on a successful appeal to the middle class, but rather on ordinary people’s opposition to the right.

So from the early 1990s people joined Labour and voted for them, not so much as a positive affirmation of New Labour’s rightwards drift but as a reflection of a deep desire to dump the Tories.


That’s why people were joining Labour precisely up to the 1997 election.

Its membership and vote have been declining dramatically ever since.

Labour now begins from a very low base.

It had been lucky up to now as the collapse of the Conservative Party enabled it to hold parliamentary majorities on a declining vote.

This no longer holds true.

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