Tony Blair had his finger on the modernising pulse of Britain in the 90s, identifying the UK as a country’ that was increasingly progressive and outward-looking, and with little time for passing judgement on the basis of gender, race, sexuality or disability. And it was this analysis which caught the public mood and helped sweep Labour to its historic landslide victory on 1 May 1997. As a party with equality at its core, the new government was eager to get on with advancing the fairness agenda and building on the work done by pioneers such as Barbara Castle.
In 1997 the Disability Rights Task Force was established to advise government on how to meet Labour’s manifesto commitment to secure enforceable civil rights for disabled people, resulting in the establishment of the Disability Rights Commission two years later. The following year the Human Rights Act was passed, giving domestic legal effect to the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 14 provided a right to enjoy any other convention right without discrimination “on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status”.
A number of employment regulations entered the statute books which made it unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation, religion or disability. Statutory paternity pay was introduced and maternity pay extended. Women would disproportionately benefit from Labour’s numerous measures to assist the low-paid, such as the minimum wage. Child tax credits boosted women’s incomes, especially for single mothers. For the first time ever, budgets actually mentioned the needs of women and advanced them. Parliament itself was becoming a less male-dominated environment with the election of 101 female Labour MPs in 1997.
This trend continued throughout Labour’s three terms in government. Civil partnerships were introduced for same-sex couples and the odious and damaging Section 28 was repealed after massive effort at the third time of asking. The age of consent was also equalised but not before the Parliament Act had to be invoked to overcome the fierce resistance of the House of Lords as the most rabid tabloids asked if there was a gay mafia at the heart of the Government. Laws related to sexual offences, domestic violence and anti-discrimination were re-written or introduced.
These progressive changes culminated in the Equality Act 2010 – legislation, which embraced everyone. The duty it put onto public authorities to mainstream equality and advance opportunity includes, at a strategic level, reducing unequal outcomes caused by poverty. This was landmark legislation which would have transformed society but we had left it too late.
Theresa May proposed a move that would have killed the bill stone dead. She said that the House of Commons should refuse the bill a second reading – it was ‘unnecessarily onerous on business’ and the Tories attacked it again in the Lords.
A magnificent team effort got this great Labour bill into law before the 2010 general election making it difficult for the Tories to abandon it completely. But, true to Theresa May’s stance then, the coalition and the Tory government have implemented just the bare bones. They have failed – of course – to implement the clause on socio-economic equality, with a half baked version of gender pay gap reporting and without banning multiple discrimination, such as that against older women or younger black males. Our Equality Act honoured the struggles of many people and it was only a Labour government which saw them fulfilled.
Labour’s general election victory in 1997, and the euphoric mood that accompanied it, now seem like a very long time ago. Politics in the 1990s was suffused with a sense that social progress was inevitable, and that the barriers which had for so long divided society on the basis of gender, race, disability and sexuality were being inexorably eroded. This assumption now seems uncomfortably distant and, with the election of Trump and stirrings of the far right in this country, the zeitgeist of 2017 is now arguably moving in the opposite direction. The backlash has well and truly begun, and it is clear that those of us who believe in equality before the law have a huge battle on our hands even to keep the gains we have made.
The mood has darkened in recent years, with Go Home vans and Breaking Point posters, a divisive form of rhetoric around immigration legitimised by the rise of Ukip, and the disturbing increase in hate crime after Brexit. Tory cuts have blazed through the public sector with scant regard for the consequences for the most deprived people in the country. An uncaring system penalises those with disabilities through cost-cutting assessments, while those on benefits are vilified as ‘scroungers’ and ‘skivers’.
And yet, despite all these threats to the more decent, tolerant society Labour did so much to shape, it is important to remember that much of the Labour government’s legacy still stands. Landmark pieces of legislation, including the Equality Act, remain, albeit watered down by the Tories. For now the Human Rights Act remains in place. The coalition government’s introduction of gay marriage would surely not have happened had it not been for Labour’s reforms and a shift in the terms of the debate, which helped drag the Tories into the 21st century.
There are many who seek to traduce the record of the last Labour government. In the areas of equality and diversity we need to be especially vocal about our achievements in government. The long list of Labour’s equalities reforms should not just be viewed as individual achievements, but as a sea change in direction which made Britain a more progressive country. It is this overarching direction which highlights how much a Labour government can achieve.
So let’s remember that we made a real difference and be proud that our party changed equality for the better for future generations. Let’s fight to win the right to do it again.
Angela Eagle MP and Vera Baird have written a contribution for the new Fabian Society book This Woman Can: 1997, women and Labour published today.