Twenty years ago this week the Labour Party won a general election by a landslide.
But under the leadership of Tony Blair it had also shifted drastically to the right. Labour spent its 13 years in government from 1997 attacking workers and launching disastrous wars.
It’s common sense in establishment circles to say that Labour’s election in 1997 showed that most people are right wing.
They say Labour only won in 1997 because it moved right—and that taking the party back to the left is a sure way to lose. They are dead wrong.
The Tories weren’t beaten because workers had huge enthusiasm for Blair or his “pro-business” rebranding of Labour.
The Tories were collapsing. Workers had recently fought big battles against the them over mine closures and the poll tax.
Public sector workers were fighting attacks on their pay—the latest in 18 years of job cuts and pay cuts faced by all workers. Public services had become worse and more expensive after privatisation.
There was anger at the police and racism too.
The Tories passed a bill in 1994 to give more stop and search powers to the police, which were used to target mainly young black people.
The Nazi British National Party had grown in the early 90s, and cops had sometimes violently attacked anti-Nazi marches.
At the same time, polls and surveys showed people's opinions in society were to the left of Blair's New Labour.
In the 1996 British Social Attitudes Survey, between 59 and 70 percent of people agreed that “ordinary people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth”.
And between 66 and 75 percent of people agreed that “there is one law for the rich and one for the poor”.
And when an ICM poll asked voters what social issues they felt most strongly about, racism, pollution and nuclear weapons were in the top four.
In fact on many issues there was a gaping chasm between what working class people said they wanted from a government and what Blair’s Labour promised.
While Blair promised to cut benefits, 55 percent of people in the social attitudes survey believed that “unemployment benefit is too low and causes hardship”.
Blair told Labour conference in 1996, “There are no longer bosses and workers, them and us.”
But 76 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll that year said they thought there was a class struggle in Britain.
Blair’s followers today shout loudest about how Labour has to adapt to what they think are workers’ right wing views in order to get elected.
In 1997, when most workers’ views were well to the left of Blair’s, he and his supporters ignored them completely.
From the point of view of Blair and the rest of Labour’s right wing leadership, this made perfect sense.
Until Blair, Labour had always promised to try and run society in the interests of workers.
But Labour in government always has to face up to those with real power in society—the bankers, the bosses and the big business owners.
They want Labour to show it can protect their interests too. And that usually means attacking workers.
Labour governments before Blair found this out to their cost. Harold Wilson was first elected on a raft of left wing promises. He gave them up pretty quickly when the governor of the Bank of England demanded wage freezes and cuts to social services.
The next Labour prime minister, James Callaghan, tried to cap workers’ wage to make them pay for an economic crisis—and provoked a massive wave of strikes.
By 1997 bosses were demanding a government that would continue Tory Margaret Thatcher’s job of privatising industry and driving down the cost of wages.
Blair’s answer was to reinvent Labour completely—as New Labour.
New Labour accepted Thatcher’s idea that competition and the market were better than planning and regulation, and tacked on vague promises about “social justice” and “redistribution”.
Two of its biggest champions Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle wrote at the time that New Labour’s job was, “to move forward from where Margaret Thatcher left off”.
Blair symbolically ditched Labour’s “Clause 4” commitment to public ownership of industry in favour of a more woolly “community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few”.
This vision of society didn’t involve trade unions, which Mandelson and Liddle complained had “impeded industry”.
In 1997 Blair insisted, “We will not be held to ransom by the unions. We will not cave into unrealistic pay demands from anybody. We will stand up to strikes.”
As Blair’s Labour got closer to government, even its vague promises about redistribution of wealth were dropped. And it turned out “social justice” meant giving police more powers and attacking benefits.
Blair and Brown’s Labour governments pushed through privatisation in schools and hospitals, introducing the disastrous Public Finance Initiatives and academy schools. They slashed public sector wages and jobs. They also failed to get rid of the vicious anti-union laws introduced by Thatcher.
As Unison union leader Dave Prentis said, “Labour built the bridge that the Tories are marching over.”
They built less council homes during their entire time in government than Thatcher did in one year. Meanwhile average wages fell, while the cost of living went up.
Blair gambled that Labour could oversee all this without losing its working class voters, simply because there was no one else to vote for.
Instead Labour haemorrhaged votes and members almost immediately—and it was made immensely worse by the war on Iraq, which eventually saw the end of Blair’s leadership in 2006.
Membership fell from 407,000 in 1997 to 109,000 in 2004—then its lowest recorded figure.
There were also signs that Labour was losing its trade union base too which, despite Blair’s hostility, still gave the party the bulk of its funding.
In other unions, such as the postal workers’ CWU, there were votes to reduce Labour’s funding. But most damaging for Labour was the collapse of its vote—it lost around five million in total.
Blair’s defenders cling to the argument that Labour won three elections under his leadership. But one of the only reasons Labour hung on for as long as it did was because the Tories were still in disarray.
Labour got less votes in its landslide in 1997—13.5 million—than the Tories’ 14 million in 1992.
Even before the Iraq war, in 2001 it was down to ten million, fewer than the votes Neil Kinnock lost with in 1992.
By 2005 it was down to 9.5 million, and in 2010 it was booted out with just over eight and a half million. This process at the heart of Labour’s crisis today.
The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader pointed to a possible way out for Labour. But the infighting caused by the right outraged at Corbyn’s election has only exacerbated their crisis.
And the complete hollowing out of Labour’s support under Blair and Brown means it can’t simply rely on anger at the Tories to win an election.
There would likely have to be a return of class struggle and big shift in wider society to turn things around.
Yet the answer that Blair’s disciples insist on today—that dragging the party back to the right is the only way to win—can only mean disaster.
They want to cure their party with the poison that almost killed it.