The Labour party’s successes do not come by chance, and nor does its failures, writes Progress deputy editor Conor Pope
‘If I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor,’ sang James in their most famous single, Sit Down, which was released 26 years ago next week. Four minutes of jangly pop guitar and a singalong chorus that would go on become a football terrace at the 1998 World Cup, it was an instant hit, going straight to number two and becoming one of the highest selling singles of 1991.
It is that line, in particular, that has been coming back to me more and more recently. On the bus; out shopping; in the bath; at 3.30 in the morning when I heard the result from the Copeland byelection; and, most of all, when I see the @newdawn1997 Twitter account pop up in my feed.
An 18 point lead here, a 20 point lead there. The account, which is livetweeting each day of the run-up to the 1997 election, certainly brings an air of sadness to the memories of the landslide victory. For it is impossible not to juxtapose those poll leads with the poll deficits we suffer now. The 17-point swing in the Wirral South byelection that March, which saw Labour take the seat for the first time, is difficult to view outside of the context of the Copeland defeat this month. Such riches, what poverty.
The 179-seat majority two months later was an extraordinary feat; a pinnacle for the party. But it was not an artificial high. It had come from years upon years of hard work. Of listening to the voters and working towards building a platform both rooted in our values and responsive to their wishes. Dragging the party out of the wilful electoral obscurity of the 1980s was a long and arduous task, and only one that could be undertaken by those who could be convinced by what was being undertaken. As Harriet Harman puts it in our interview with her and Jess Phillips in the new edition of Progress magazine: ‘In the 1980s we were not going “are we going to be in government again?” We were like: “we are going to be, and this is what we need to do to make that happen”’.
But it is important to remember that both the early 1980s and the late 1990s were the exceptions, not the norms. Labour is not always as mournfully irrelevant as it was following the defeat in 1979, nor as electorally successful as in 1997. Or, for that matter, 2001. Or 2005, come to think of it.
Yet the theory of longterm decline has gained some traction in the week and a half since the defeat in Copeland, promulgated by those who seek to downplay the historic low. It is an embarrassing argument I visited in short last week: ‘Since 1983, Labour has received between 40 and 50 per cent of the vote [in Copeland] except for four occasions: 1997, 2001 and 2005, when we got over 50 per cent; and 2017, when got under 40 per cent.’
The decline following the years in government was simply a return to the exceptionally low period out of office in the 1980s. The further decline is last month’s byelection was, in fact, a new exception to the norm: a nadir not previously plumbed.
It is easy then, to reluctantly agree with what Phillips said to Harman in that same interview, a few hours before the polls closed in the recent byelections. ‘Maybe I’ll never see a Labour government again’, she said. Maybe. It is certainly something I have felt.
That is why it is so important to remember the hard work that was put in over years and years before 1997. Not just from the people you have heard of, but of those you have not.
That is what felt like the important lesson from the leaving speech of Mike Creighton, who has worked for the Labour party for 27 years. Retiring last week, his farewell finishes with a touching story of meeting two young single mothers whose lives had been changed by the introduction of Sure Start centres, and who had wanted to send a simple message of thanks to those who had made it possible. Creighton concludes:
‘We can be a party of protest. On the other side of the road. On the other side of the barriers. Or we can be a party of power, this side of the road, this side of the barriers. Changing hearts; changing minds; changing lives.
‘I know which side I have tried to be on.’
It is worth remembering, when hope seems far away, how many others are working so hard to reach the same goal as you; how the Labour party’s successes do not come by chance, and nor does its failures.
There is one small thing about the James song I omitted. Sit Down was also released 28 years ago, in 1989. In its original, slightly indulgent seven-and-a-half minute form, it could only find its way to number 77 in the charts. There was nothing inherently wrong with the band or the song, but it still needed a drastic change in order to be a success, two years on. It was probably not an easy decision to make. Sadly, an obvious analogy to the Labour party today escapes me.
Conor Pope is deputy editor at Progress. He tweets at @conorpope
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