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7 February 2024

Labour is haunted by the ghosts of 1997

Also this week: Why Keir Starmer isn’t boring, and dancing with David Miliband.

By Steve Richards

Labour appears to be on the verge of power, a rare occurrence in British politics. I was political editor of the New Statesman the last time there was an overwhelming expectation that the party would move from opposition to form the next government.

The run-up to the 1997 election is long ago, but so much is suddenly familiar again. This is partly because the Starmer project is in some respects an act of imitation. Distant phrases reappear in slightly different forms. “We will campaign as a pro-business party and we will govern as a pro-business party” is only the most recent declaration with echoes from the past. Meanwhile, the media questions asked of Keir Starmer as a probable prime minister are those that framed a thousand columns in the mid-Nineties. Who was the real Tony Blair? Would he be more radical in power? Was he too cautious or breathtakingly bold?

For all the speculation about what a Starmer government would seek to do, I suspect the answer is in front of our eyes. Most answers in politics usually are. Take a look back at the 1997 Labour manifesto and it provides a fairly good route map as to what happened. Where Blair and Gordon Brown were precise in the manifesto, the policies were implemented. Where they were evasive, there was trouble ahead. I recall the BBC’s Evan Davis whispering to me at the manifesto launch: “They’re saying we all live in this terrible run-down castle… We plan to change the ashtrays.”

Voters are more restive now. In the Brexit referendum, in recent UK elections and in Scotland they have shown a greater hunger for sweeping change. Over time, New Labour did much more than replace the ashtrays, but given the wild past 14 years the need to convey hope, as well as reassurance, is even greater now than in 1997.

Mission in remission

There is an additional question asked of Starmer: why does he not show the clarity and sense of mission that marked New Labour as it strode towards power? Here is an example of how the recent past gets mythologised. On many of the raging issues in 1997 no one knew where Blair stood. Would a Labour government join the euro? Did Blair support electoral reform, a big theme at the time? How would his party improve public services while sticking to Tory spending plans? It is a fantasy to suggest that there was much greater clarity about what would happen when Blair moved in to No 10.

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Murmur on the dancefloor

Starmer is as interesting as Blair was then. He is the first Labour leader not to be defined by a position taken in internal party battles, but as an impartial director of public prosecutions. He’s not “boring”, a lazy cliché. Even his age marks him as unusual. Starmer is older now than when Harold Wilson retired as prime minister in 1976 at the age of 60. Wilson looked exhausted and old, burdened by the demands of leadership. The older Starmer still has his mountainous political challenges ahead of him.

He shows no sign of exhaustion or stress, but already seems overly worried by any Conservative onslaught, even though the Tories are in a much deeper crisis now than they were in 1997. The constant briefings that Labour is dropping this policy or that make his project seem far more defensive than the Blair equivalent, even though some of the policies are bolder. Endless election defeats have bred nervy caution. Senior figures in the New Labour era feared that they were fleeting imposters, disturbing the natural order in which the Conservatives ruled.

I recall that journalists were invited to Labour’s big party at the Royal Festival Hall on election night in 1997 and somehow or other I ended up dancing opposite David Miliband. As we were gyrating elegantly, Miliband observed to me: “I’m sure I’ll wake up in the morning to discover this was a dream and the Conservatives have won again.” The Labour leadership seems to dream the nightmare with an even greater intensity these days. It can lead to fearful paralysis that makes the bad dream’s realisation more likely.

An electric public square

The fragmented media context is far more vibrant and exciting now than it was back then, with podcasts, Substack, YouTube and the stage, a favourite outlet of mine. I’m on a never-ending tour with my one-man show, Rock & Roll Politics, and it’s a great way of delving deep while having a few laughs. Today, there is at least space for more intelligent and empathic scrutiny than in 1997, healthier for followers of politics and for those who might be on the edge of power.

Steve Richards presents the “Rock & Roll Politics” podcast. His latest book is “Turning Points” (Pan Macmillan)

[See also: Why Barbie wasn’t snubbed]

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This article appears in the 07 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Who runs Labour?