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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.

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“. . . 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 appears in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?