Keep the Union flags flying: New Labour supporters cheer Blair as he arrives in Downing Street, 2 May 1997
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1996 and all that: the triumphalism of the Blair era is in marked contrast to today

When Tony Blair addressed the 1996 Labour conference he knew he was on the verge of a big victory. By contrast, Ed Miliband arrives in Manchester with the nation facing a constitutional crisis and hatred of Westminster running high.

“. . . Friends, colleagues, this year we meet as the opposition. Next year, the British people willing . . . we will meet as the new Labour government of Britain.”

When he delivers his pre-election conference speech in Manchester, Ed Miliband must seek to convey a message similar to these two rousing sentences. However febrile and stormy the wider context, a leader of the opposition must appear prime ministerial at a pre-general-election conference, as if already equipped for the tasks ahead. In fact, it was Tony Blair who opened his speech with those precise words at his pre-election conference in Blackpool in 1996, the last time a Labour leader sought to leap from opposition to power.

On one level the context in which Blair made his intoxicating pitch is incomparably different from that of today, almost as if we were viewing a distant planet. The declaration at the start of the speech was greeted with thunderous applause, a rapture unimpeded by ambiguity or doubt. Among the journalists standing at the sides of the Blackpool conference hall, copies of the speech in their hands, there were no cynical smiles or instant mockery in the face of hyperbolic ambition. Like the ecstatic party members sitting nearby, they knew Blair’s words were true, almost too modest with that qualification about the people being willing. Labour was on the verge of a big victory. By the autumn of 1996, the people were willing and everyone knew it. If and when Miliband makes the same claim in his speech there is bound to be more doubt in the hall and beyond. In contrast to the autumn of 1996, British politics is today defined by near-apocalyptic doubt. On several fronts no one knows quite what will happen next. In 1996 everyone did.

And yet there are surprisingly many echoes from Blair’s speech months before his landslide victory. Everyone agrees now that a deep mistrust of so-called Westminster-based politics fuels the blaze that has erupted in 2014. Campaigners on both sides of the Scottish referendum came together on one point: that “Westminster is toxic” with the voters. Whenever David Cameron, Miliband and others paid increasingly panic-stricken visits to Scotland, Alex Salmond hailed the appearance of the “Westminster politicians”, knowing the term would count in his favour and not theirs. Nigel Farage also plays the outsider’s card, never having been contaminated by winning an election to Westminster.

In this pre-election conference speech, Miliband will make the breakdown in trust one of his main themes. He gave a preview in July, during what he sometimes calls in private his “bacon sandwich speech”, the one in which he listed some of the presentational characteristics that he lacked, including the ability to eat a sandwich elegantly in front of the cameras. At the beginning of the speech, Miliband noted that on the doorsteps voters were not calling for the election of a Conservative government but were expressing a mistrust of politics across the board, and that was Labour’s challenge.

“Our biggest obstacle isn’t the Conservative Party,” he said. “It is cynicism. The belief that nobody can make a difference.”

He was speaking after the UK Independence Party won the European elections in numbers of votes cast and before the Scotland referendum reached its nervy climax on 18 September.

But here is the twist. Mistrust was deep and pervasive when Blair spoke at Labour’s 1996 pre-election conference. The planet is not so distant as it seems. Intense mistrust of “politics as usual” is not new at all.

The wider background to Blair’s speech was a dying Conservative government tormented by allegations of “sleaze”. Ministers had resigned. Various Tory MPs were in trouble. Rumours of brown envelopes and dodgy assignations in hotel rooms were part of the background hum.

The prime minister, John Major, a figure who had personified modest integrity when he replaced Margaret Thatcher in 1990, had since been fatally undermined. Voters had ceased to trust him. In 1996 Blair seized on voters’ disillusionment in ways he would later regret. In the climax to his speech he promised a new politics:

“No more sleaze. No more cash for questions. No more lies. No more broken promises. I say to the Tories: enough is enough! Be done, be gone!”

The biggest beneficiary of the intense mistrust then was Blair. He was the equivalent of the fresh outsider in the eyes of voters, in a way Miliband cannot be. Although he had been an MP since 1983, Blair had never been in government. He was youthful, charismatic, offering a fresh break with the past. The last time Labour had been in power was nearly 18 years ago. Blair was “new”. His party had been rechristened as “new”. With growing excitement, disillusioned voters turned to him in their disdainful mistrust of the supposedly sleazy Major administration as they would fleetingly do to Nick Clegg during the 2010 general election campaign. There was Blair mania – followed, of course, by deep disillusionment from some of the worshippers.

With memories of the last Labour government still fresh and after more than four years of Tory-Lib Dem rule, the whole of “Westminster” is contaminated by power, and so disillusioned voters look elsewhere. But the capacity for disillusionment was as great in 1996 as it is now.

Even then, Blair was obsessed about securing the trust of voters, just as Miliband is today. Blair framed his conference address as his contract with the British people, a covenant he could not break. In an extraordinary climax to the speech, he made his “vows” to the electorate:

“I vow that we will have increased the proportion of our national income we spend on education.

“I vow that we will have reduced the proportion we spend on the welfare bills of social failure.

“I vow that we will have reduced the spending on health service bureaucracy and increased it on patient care.”

There were several other vows. Afterwards I said to one of those who had been involved in writing the speech that I thought the idea had been over the top, as if we were attending an evangelical wedding. With some justification the senior adviser said to me, “You don’t understand. There is this problem with trust across politics. Tony has to make it clear that he can be held to account. Voters know he cannot break vows.”

At one point in the run-up to the 1997 election, Blair suggested that even if ministers were perceived merely to be not “purer than pure” they would have to go, a preposterous hostage to fortune that would doom the victims of any indiscriminate media campaign.

In making such a pledge, Blair highlighted inadvertently the dangers of leaders focusing excessively on “trust”. Voters’ mistrust has been an issue for a long time, preceding the Iraq war, the MPs’ expenses scandal and the economic crises of recent years. If Blair had acted on perceptions of impurity, he would have had to sack himself. Evidently this was an absurdly high bar, but one he felt compelled to set.

Miliband needs to be careful that he does not promise a “new kind of politics” that raises the bar too high, simply in order to assuage the present anti-Westminster fever.

There is another twist. Blair’s vows were an attempt to overcome mistrust. Yet, in their overblown tonal exuberance and incremental caution, they became part of the problem. By his pre-election conference speech, Blair had discovered a genius for generating excitement over what, on closer inspection, were relatively small, incremental proposals. Note his vow on the National Health Service. He would cut spending on bureaucracy, but there was no pledge to increase overall expenditure on the NHS. At a time when public services were crumbling, Blair vowed to cut class sizes in primary schools. Such a vow was significant but it was not a fundamental challenge to 18 years of radical Tory rule.

Here were the seeds of electoral triumph, and subsequent deepening of mistrust. Some voters were so excited by Blair – his powerful oratory, the prospect at last of a change of government – that they chose not to notice the caution. Others did not notice the exuberance but were reassured by the modesty of the policies. By 1996 Blair had formed a very big tent of support.

The displays of public frugality from Blair and Gordon Brown in 1996 reassured parts of conservative England, and enabled the duo to play England’s juvenile pre-election tax-and-spend games without falling into a single trap. But we can trace from that period, the heady optimism of 1996, the later disillusionment of Labour’s core supporters, not least in Scotland.

At a fringe meeting a few years after the 1996 conference the Scottish MP Robin Cook, who was then foreign secretary, made a devastating observation – or, at least, so it seems in retrospect. Cook noted that the Labour government had redistributed money through tax credits, but because the word “redistribution” was never used and no cabinet minister highlighted what was happening, his poorer constituents assumed they were better off because of a technical change introduced by the Inland Revenue. Disillusionment is the default position for voters and some Labour supporters quickly concluded that they had been let down; that the Labour government was no different from the Conservative one.

In the first election for the new Scottish Parliament, early polls suggested that Labour was heading for humiliating defeat. That was in 1999, three years after Blair’s mesmerising speech. Even then, 15 years ago, there were parallels with events around this month’s independence referendum. Brown dropped everything at the Treasury to run Labour’s faltering campaign. Scottish Labour was becoming vulnerable.

The introduction of a Scottish parliament was arguably the boldest proposal in the 1996 speech, yet it merited only one sen­tence: “I vow that, with the consent of the people, we will have devolved power to Scot­land, Wales and the regions of England.”

He got the consent in Scotland but his earlier decision to hold a referendum had caused uproar in the Scottish Labour Party.

In the spring of 1996, Blair used to take time off to study forensically every policy in order to ensure the manifesto would be “bomb-proof” for the 1997 election campaign. He noted a huge inconsistency. Labour was arguing that a referendum was necessary before the UK joined the eurozone because the policy involved significant constitutional change. But Labour was not proposing to hold a referendum on devolution, an overt constitutional reform. He took a deep breath and announced a plebiscite knowing that parts of the Labour Party in Scotland would erupt with fury.

Blair made the right call. He bomb-proofed the manifesto, and with hindsight it seems a very big stretch to unleash the start of a constitutional revolution without a referendum. But Blair’s mindset is revealing on a different level. In 1996 he would take no risks with so-called Middle England voters and the newspapers they read. Yet he was willing to take a very big risk with the Labour Party in Scotland. The broad calculation was understandable. The Conservatives were already dying in Scotland. Labour was still the dominant force. It had to target lost voters in parts of England with a new, reassuring message. But the Labour Party in Scotland, already a fragile beast, went into decline in the years that followed.

***

Ed Miliband arrives in Manchester, facing challenges not different from those that confronted Blair in 1996 but almost the same ones. Of course he has no choice in the current drama but to insist that there can be no return to politics as usual. That’s the easy bit, although finding ways to bring this about will be far more problematic. Miliband’s bigger task is to find ways of convincing “natural Labour supporters” that there is a point in voting for him, that he is not the same as the Conservatives, while attracting enough support from the wider electorate. This is the fundamental challenge, one that goes well beyond handing over powers from Westminster. In Scotland during the referendum campaign, senior Labour figures were told too often for their comfort that they were “all the same”, that there was no difference between Conservative governments and Labour ones.

Like Blair and Brown in 1996, Miliband and Ed Balls have faced the same dilemmas in addressing the silly, mendacious but pivotal “tax and spend” pre-election debate. What can they say without being accused of launching “tax bombshells”?

Yet if they do not address the obvious need for investment in health and elderly care, for instance, how do they convince some voters that they are significantly different from the Conservatives?

One of Blair’s vows was the pledge to “keep government borrowing and inflation within the low and prudent targets we set within the economic cycle”. Miliband will make similar assurances and Balls will be even tougher in tone. Like Blair and, indeed, Gordon Brown, Miliband likes to steal language more associated with the Conservatives. New Labour claimed the Union flag as its own. Miliband speaks of “one nation”. The right-wing newspapers might be less powerful than in 1996 but the Labour leader, like his two predecessors, will want to secure at least some positive coverage.

The overall theme of Blair’s speech was highly optimistic. He sought an age of achievement for the many and not just the few. Miliband is determined to strike an upbeat note, too, but in doing so he must address the most fundamental cause of the present cynicism, the perception that “they’re all the same”. This is a different challenge from the one faced by Blair, who worried that Labour had been so different from the Conservatives in the 1980s that it had become unelectable.

And there is that other difference. In 1996 everyone knew there would be a Labour government. As John Prescott put it in his conference speech: “You know, this week you can really feel the anticipation in the air. You can feel it running through conference.” And you could. At their conference hotel senior figures in the shadow cabinet strode around loftily as if they were already ministers. When they spoke in the conference hall and elsewhere they made the front pages as if they were announcing policies that were about to be implemented.

Yet the seeds of disillusionment were being sown even then. Now it is Miliband’s turn to face the same issue of distrust, a very different leader at a time of constitutional upheaval; but when he speaks in Manchester there will be echoes, lessons and warnings from nearby Blackpool in 1996. 

Steve Richards, chief political commentator of the Independent, was political editor of the New Statesman in 1996

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

***

The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

***

The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

***

Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

***

Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

***

Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?