Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The Portillo moment

The defining image of the 1997 election night should give us ambition, writes Stephen Twigg

I joined Enfield Southgate Labour party in 1982 when I was 15. It was very much a ‘true blue’ Conservative stronghold. In 1992 there was a healthy four per cent swing from Conservative to Labour but that still resulted in a Tory majority of over 15,000.

When I was selected as Labour’s candidate (by just one vote) in 1996 I had absolutely no expectation that Labour might actually win the seat. Indeed, only in my wilder bouts of optimism did I dare to imagine that perhaps we could reduce Michael Portillo’s majority to below 10,000.

In the run up to the 1997 general election the main focus for campaign activity in Enfield was on the borough’s other two constituencies – Edmonton and Enfield North. Many Southgate activists campaigned in these two crucial Conservative-held seats.

It was only on the final weekend of the short campaign that attention shifted to Enfield Southgate. The Observer published a series of opinion polls in a range of constituencies including ours. The poll suggested a close vote with the Tory lead of 32 per cent in 1992 slashed to just four per cent. We put out a last minute leaflet reproducing the poll as a bar graph – designed both to motivate the Labour vote and to attract tactical voting.

Despite the opinion poll and the truly amazing response Labour was getting in our campaigning I still expected to lose. When it came, the result was extraordinary. Of course it was just one of dozens of unexpected Labour gains across the country that night.

‘Were you still up for Portillo?’ became a catchphrase as well as the title of Brian Cathcart’s excellent book about the election. Twenty years later and people still talk about it. For me personally I had eight years representing in parliament the area in which I had grown up. When I lost in 2005 I said that I had been the first ever Labour member of parliament for the constituency but I was confident that I would not be the last.

Ten years ago local Labour members in Liverpool West Derby selected me. I must confess that my campaign leaflets gave prominence to ‘that photo’ from election night 1997. Constituencies like West Derby remind us of the positive difference that Labour makes in government – for example via Sure Start children’s centres and increased investment in the National Health Service and schools. It also reminds us of the damage that Tory policies can do – for example the impact of the bedroom tax on some of my most vulnerable constituents in Liverpool.

People often ask me: ‘Will we ever see an election result for Labour like 1997 again?’ Of course the political context (both here and globally) of 2017 is so different to 1997. Our challenge is to shape a programme that is both true to our values and relevant to today’s political context. If we get this right then of course we can win again.

I remember how I felt on the morning after the 1992 election. Labour had suffered its fourth consecutive defeat. John Major’s Conservatives had secured the highest vote tally ever recorded by any party at a British general election. For Labour people the gloom was palpable. Yet five years later we had the 1997 landslide.

Yes, the context today is very different. Yes, the degree of public disenchantment with politics poses a real challenge. However, as we look back to the ‘Portillo moment’ let us renew our hope and optimism that Labour’s historic mission – to create a fairer and more equal society – is as relevant today as it was in 1900 or, indeed, 1997.


Stephen Twigg is member of parliament for Liverpool West Derby. He tweets at @StephenTwigg

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Stephen Twigg MP

is chair of the international development select committee

1 comment

  • Oh I remember it well….. Loved the line under Portillo’s name where his title should be ‘CIVVY STREET’. Someone at the Beeb couldn’t contain themselves. I didn’t know who you were but at that moment I loved you. Ah, the joy in my heart as I remember that….

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