Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Review – The monumental impact of ‘the man at the back’

As general secretary during the early New Labour years, Tom Sawyer made a big impact in readying the party for power. Ivor Caplin reviews The Man at the Back: The Life and Journals of Lord Tom Sawyer

There are three main areas to this fascinating insight into one of the key figures in the labour movement of the last 30 years: the life of Tom Sawyer up to 1987; the Labour party’s path to electability between 1987 and 1993; and taking power, covering 1994 to 1998.

For any political junkie two things strike you straight away: the intense determination to change, and the desire to create a modern party way before the mid-1990s. Sawyer was clearly a key figure during this period, first with his trade union being on Labour’s National Executive Committee, and then when he accepted the position of party general secretary.

We have direct quotations from Sawyer’s diary followed by commentary from author Christopher Massey. And the pictures used (my personal favourite is Sawyer with the late Mo Mowlam) as well as some of his private letters lay out the relationships that were at the heart of the party for a very long period of time.

During the early part of his period as general secretary, it was Sawyer’s determination to bring in help for the shadow cabinet to prepare for government that saw the party turn to the Cranfield Management School for advice. It is perhaps a lesson for today’s shadow cabinet. The move certainly worked, as Labour hit the ground running when the general election came.

I particularly enjoyed the revelations about the opening of Labour’s headquarters in Millbank Tower in January 1996, and the year leading up to the decision being made. Millbank showed the party in a modern and determined light to the country, which was the main aim that Sawyer details.

There are also insights into the 1997 general election. Sawyer appointed deputy general secretary Margaret McDonagh (who ultimately replaced Sawyer) as the election campaign chief which, as he writes in his diary, left him with a ‘backstage’ role. This in no way diminishes from the preparation that he had undertaken in both the party and among members of parliament, and even with Blair, Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Robin Cook to make sure that it was action from day one.

One thing that makes this book so enjoyable is the use of the private letters – especially those from Blair to Sawyer, which include a thank you note immediately after the 1997 election and a private letter confirming Sawyer’s elevation to the House of Lords in 1998. The peerage was a well deserved end to his four years as general secretary which, we discover, was a pre-planned end to his time in the role.

The relationship with Blair had ups and downs over the years, but both men always had the same aim for the Labour party and ultimately the government. The conclusion by Massey says it all: Sawyer ‘had a monumental impact on the creation of New Labour and led the party by 1997 to be in a position to achieve a landslide election victory after 18 years out of power’.

Things really did get better in 1997 not just for the party but for the people of this country. Much of that can be attributed to Tom Sawyer.


Ivor Caplin was member of parliament for Hove from 1997 to 2005. He tweets at @ivorcaplin  


The Man at the Back: The Life and Journals of Lord Tom Sawyer by Christopher Massey

Teeside University Press | Limited edition | 262pp


Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Ivor Caplin

Sign up to our daily roundup email