The last Labour government is one we can all be proud of, write Richard Angell and Conor Pope. This is the introduction for the Record pamphlet, marking the 20th anniversary of the 1997 election victory
‘If we don’t say the last Labour government was good, why would anyone vote for the next one?’ That question was recently posed to Progress readers by Harriet Harman.
The obvious answer is that no one will.
Yet the prevailing mood within the Labour party today towards that period of power is one of measured indifference – or, at worst, open disdain. It is what Tony Blair describes ‘as the tragedy of Labour over the past decade’.
On the 20th anniversary of the 1997 general election landslide, it is worth once again taking stock of what was achieved. It is a period that saw the Labour party’s two largest ever parliamentary victories. It is a period that saw three consecutive working majorities, when Labour had never before won two in a row. It is a period that saw Labour govern uninterrupted for more than twice as long as it had ever previously managed.
The electoral achievements, remarkable as they are, are not all of it. The New Labour government made history in changing Britain through the most consistently progressive policy agenda this country has ever seen. Though it is worth saying, too, that the policy agenda would not be possible without the election wins. It not only put Labour in a position to get things done, but it focussed the party on making progressivism popular. People did not just give Labour the opportunity to put its values into practice; they agreed with the values.
What that popularity – not populism – presented Labour with was an opportunity the party had not previously had to shape society in a long-lasting fashion.
Over the following pages, our writers attempt to take as full an audit as possible of those policies. What is included should show what an incredible government it was, and what is left out – and much is – should remind us how broad those successes were.
As Blair himself says, the idea that New Labour was ‘some neoliberal government’ does not stand up to scrutiny: record investment in the National Health Service, a national minimum wage, civil partnerships, millions lifted out of poverty, doubling the aid and education budgets, the Human Rights Act, Sure Start, the Good Friday agreement, a record fall in homelessness. It was a government that every social democrat should be proud of. ‘That’s not a betrayal of principles, it’s the implementation of it.’
The legacy of these achievements is something we still live with today. That is why we cannot forget who achieved them, and how. We did it, and it was not easy. There was nothing inevitable about the victory, and after 18 long years in opposition it did not come on a plate. An election win is not given but taken. We did not win because the Tories were not good enough, but because we were good enough – and a success such as the one in 1997 meant that Labour needed what Peter Mandelson has described as a ‘Rolls Royce machine’.
But excellence in organisation will only take you so far. You need to have a clarity of vision for the country: a coherent project that the public understands. You need strong values that allow your solutions to modern problems to be flexible, rather than rigid, unchanging ideology that merely aspires to relevance rather than attempts it.
Those remain the lessons of the New Labour government. To reflect on and celebrate its achievements, both before and after 1997, is not merely nostalgia. It sharpens the mind to remind us what we can do, and how we can have the opportunity to do it.
Richard Angell is director of Progress and Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress. You can read the full pamphlet, Record, here.
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