Show Hide image

Things can only get bitter

The 1992 general election was the moment when a generation gave up on politics.

Twenty years on from 1992, and the effects are still being felt. Some of these are so global in their scale that they cannot be ignored. It was, for example, the year when the Maastricht Treaty was signed, setting in train the process of creating a single European currency. It was when Yugoslavia began to break apart in a series of civil wars and the doctrine of liberal interventionism was brought into being. It was also, less obviously, the year when a generation finally turned its back on politics. These were the people born a few years either side of 1960 - the biggest demographic bulge in British history - whose adult political experience was of a seemingly permanent Conservative government. Disillusioned by the un­expected victory of the Tories in the 1992 general election, this lost generation turned its attention instead to capturing the commanding heights of national culture. For a brief period it was successful, creating a renaissance that reshaped the identity of the country. In so doing, however, it sowed the seeds of its own destruction, and its absence from politics ceded the field to a group of homogenised professional politicians who were allowed to emerge unchallenged.

If you were born in, say, 1961, you would have reached the age of 18 in 1979, probably just too late to cast a vote in the May election that brought Margaret Thatcher to power. It was to be a further 18 years before the Conservative government fell, so that by the time Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997, half your life - and all your adult life - would have been spent under a Tory administration for which you were unlikely to have voted.

You were born the year after Harold Macmillan's "wind of change" speech announced that the British empire was finished, the year after Lady Chatterley's Lover had been declared fit for public consumption, and the year after National Service came to an end - you were part of the first generation in 80 years that ran no risk of a military call-up.

As a child, you started primary school a few weeks after the England football team won the World Cup, though if you were aware of that event, you wouldn't have imagined that it would be the last trophy they'd lift in your lifetime. You were almost certainly not aware of the wider cultural and political events of the Swinging Sixties, though you would be subjected to tales of this wondrous era, and what you had missed, for years to come.

You started secondary school in 1972, the year when a miners' strike resulted in a state of emergency and in power cuts that impacted upon everyday life; you would remember eating your tea by candlelight and interruptions to the television schedules. It was the year of Bloody Sunday, the worst year in the history of the Northern Ireland Troubles. The old currency of pounds, shillings and pence had just been abolished, and the country was shortly to join the Common Market, as the future European Union was then known. Jon Pertwee was the star of Doctor Who and the nation's favourite film was Mutiny on the Buses. Skinheads roamed the streets and glam rock was storming the charts.

Your school, incidentally, was likely to be part of the old selective system - less than half of secondary-school-age children attended comprehensives in 1972 - and you were among the first to know you would remain there until you were at least 16: the leaving age was raised the year after you started.

You were 15 when the Ramones and the Sex Pistols unleashed punk rock on a disapproving country, 17 when Tom Robinson released "Glad To Be Gay", and 18 when the Comedy Store opened in London, providing a home for the first alternative comedians.

If you were among those who went on to further education, you would have been a student - on a grant - in an era when, following on from the Anti-Nazi League, it was fashionable to be opposed to things: racism, sexism, nuclear weapons, apartheid. And you would have emerged from college, part of the most numerous generation in British history, into a world of mass unemployment, where work was in short supply and where academic qualifications that a few years earlier would have guaranteed a comfortable career were suddenly of little practical use. By the time the economy recovered, there was a fresh tranche of graduates with whom to compete.

Your experiences, and the youth culture that surrounded you, would probably have inclined you to the left, in terms of sympathies if not necessarily of activism, at a time when politics was defined and dominated by Margaret Thatcher. Britain was going through a political polarisation greater than any it had known for 50 years, and a huge gulf existed between the prime minister's vision of society and that of the Liberal/SDP Alliance, let alone between her and a Labour Party whose most articulate and inspiring figure was Tony Benn. When Billy Bragg revived the 1930s trade union anthem "Which Side Are You On?" during the miners' strike of 1984-85, it felt like a particularly pertinent question. It was also, of course,
a largely rhetorical one, since the song was only likely to be heard by those who already agreed with its sentiments.

Because by this time youth culture itself had similarly polarised, split between a shiny, apolitical, Live Aid mainstream on the one side and on the other a dissident, disgruntled minority, espousing the causes of alternative comedy, identity politics and an increasingly emasculated indie guitar music that only rarely made any impression on the outside world. Thatcher held no appeal for either side, but it was to the latter faction that she became an undying hate figure.

And in this camp were many who, in another generation, might have expected to be among society's success stories, the should-be middle class, which instead now found itself surplus to society's requirements.

As the 1980s drew to a close, the Labour Party no longer felt like the natural home for such people, even if they were still members. In general they remained on the left in their thinking and they could still be found in single-issue campaigns, but the heady days of Benn's crusading socialism were dimming in the memory. Now, under the leadership of Neil Kinnock and the stage management of Peter Mandelson, Labour was engaged in a painful process of reinvention. The presentation seemed more important than the policies, and those policies that did emerge were drifting to the right.

Even so, come election time, there was no­where else to go. The comedian Jeremy Hardy explained it best: "To me, voting Labour is like wiping your bottom: I can't say I like doing it but you've got to - because you're in a worse mess if you don't."

And there was still the figure of Thatcher as a unifying object of loathing. Not content to rest on past glories, she continued to launch initiatives, until she found the nation's breaking point with the introduction of the poll tax. And then, in the space of two extraordinary weeks in November 1990, she suddenly wasn't there any more, sacked as prime minister by her own MPs and replaced by John Major. Now, surely, there was hope, for who could imagine the electorate choosing to stay with a man so undistinguished that his Spitting Image puppet was sprayed all over with grey paint?

In 1992, as a general election approached, it genuinely felt as though all those years of principled, if often ineffectual, opposition were drawing to a close, as though dawn might yet break on the long night of Tory rule. An opinion poll published on the day that Major called the election showed Labour 3 points ahead of the Conservatives. No government had ever started a campaign behind in the polls and gone on to win and there was little reason to suppose that the trend would be bucked now.

The most recent recession was officially over, but the economy was still in deep trouble, with rising unemployment and 1,200 businesses going bust every week. The amount owed in consumer credit was twice the level it had been a decade earlier. And the previous year had seen 75,000 homes repossessed, with many more mired in negative equity as house prices failed to rally; among those people who had responded to the Thatcherite dream of a new property-owning democracy, many were left feeling cheated.

All that Neil Kinnock and the Labour Party had to do, it appeared, was to hold their nerve and avoid any serious gaffes. Pretty much everyone expected the government to fall, including most of those serving in that government.

Around half past twelve on election night, the shadow trade secretary, Gordon Brown, was seen smiling on television and announcing that the Tories "have lost their mandate to govern". His analysis was based on the BBC's exit poll, published just after the polling booths closed at 10pm, which predicted a hung parliament, with the Conservatives still the largest party but 25 seats short of an outright majority and just three ahead of Labour. Had that been the case, then a government that had achieved a three-figure majority last time round could truly be said to have lost the election.

But the BBC's exit poll was misleading. Not, perhaps, as misleading as most of the opinion polls published during the campaign, yet still suffering from the same fatal flaw: it transpired that many who voted for the Conservatives could not bring themselves to admit the fact to strangers bearing clipboards, either before or after the event.

As the votes were counted around the country, there was a slow, cruel collapse of hope for those who had come to identify the Tories as the cause of all that was wrong with Britain. By the end of the night, John Major had been returned to office with a reduced but still workable majority of 21 seats. The Tories were 7.5 percentage points clear of Labour, and had won the largest popular vote ever achieved by a British political party. Amid the economic ruins of a country laid waste by a second recession during the Conservative incumbency, Major had persuaded more than 14 million voters that the alternative - Neil Kinnock in Downing Street - would be even worse.

The narrator of Patrick Keiller's 1994 film London captured the mood of depressed resignation that settled across much of the left: "It seemed there was no longer anything a Conservative government could do to cause it to be voted out of office. We were living in a one-party state."

The horrified realisation that the period of Tory government was not finished - not yet and perhaps never - meant that 1992 felt like the worst defeat of all, harder to bear even than the humiliation of Michael Foot in 1983, since the contrast between expectation and reality was so appallingly stark. Mark Steel wrote of that night: "Without any doubt it was one of the most awful experiences of my life."

Elections are not the only measure of the nation's mood, and the fact that the opinion polls were so distorted suggested that all was not quite as it seemed; it implied a sense of apologetic embarrassment about voting Conservative that didn't augur well for the party's prospects. But such comfort was not immediately apparent in April 1992.

The anti-Thatcher generation, now moving into its early thirties, had long been characterised by a degree of cynicism, a scepticism about organised politics and about the country itself. Now the dem­oralising kick of the election seemed to vindicate that attitude; the massive vote for Major was the authentic sound of the suburbs, reasserting its claim to be the dominant cultural force in Britain.

The events of 9 April 1992 persuaded the Labour Party finally to accept that the Tories had won virtually every major ideological battle. Never again would there be talk, as there had been two decades earlier, of a "fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families". Impossible now to imagine a Labour manifesto containing the confident declaration of February 1974: "The aims set out in this manifesto are Socialist aims, and we are proud of the word." One of the first to recognise the new order was Margaret Thatcher. Asked on the morning after the election what she made of her successor's remarkable victory, she was exuberant. "It is a great night," she proclaimed. "It is the end of socialism."

Among those with only childhood memories of Labour victories, the idea that progress might be made through political campaigning was also largely abandoned. "I had always known it was impossible for one person to change the world on their own," wrote the comedy scriptwriter John O'Farrell. "But I felt so bitter about the outcome of the 1992 election that I stopped particularly trying."

Henceforth, there was a shift of emphasis. There was little attempt now to address issues of political economy, of the balance between capital and labour, or the proper mechanisms through which to organise society. The social struggles of the 1980s - the campaigns against sexism, racism and homophobia - would continue but the battles were to be fought primarily on the field of culture, with a seemingly deliberate move from the fringes to the mainstream. If society couldn't be changed, at least some space should be carved out for creativity.

This involved a turn away from the austere alternative of the 1980s, symbolised for the comedian David Baddiel by a screening of the film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer that was followed by a debate on the movie's merits. During the discussion, a woman was railing against the violence in the movie - about which, she said, she had received no warning - when she was interrupted by a man in the audience. "For fuck's sake, what did you expect?" he called out in exasperation. "It's not called Henry the Elephant, is it?" Baddiel was convulsed with fits of laughter, and later reflected: "I think it was at that point that the 1980s fell away for me, or at least that seriousness fell away for me, seriousness as in that adolescent, or post-adolescent, concern about everything. I was never going to be intense again."

So opened an era in which anti-Thatcherite culture began to break out from its isolation in the underground. And the signs were promising, with a rapid growth of its influence and visibility.

The foundations of what became known as Britpop were built by groups whose leading figures were born in the years either side of 1960 - Pulp, Denim, the Lightning Seeds - and by fellow-travellers such as Suede, the Manic Street Preachers and the Auteurs, who similarly drew on the glam rock and new wave sounds of the 1970s. No longer content to inhabit the indie ghetto that had been the preserve of British guitar bands, these groups came with ambition on their minds. "We always knew the kind of band we'd be," explained Suede's bassist, Mat Osman, a whole two singles in to their career, "which was an important, celebratory, huge rock band. A really old-fashioned thing."

Much of the crossover dance music of the time was made by those of the same vintage: Norman Cook, Andrew Weatherall, the Orb, the Shamen and the Stereo MCs. So, too, were the early incarnations of the "new lad" phenomenon that became so big in the mid-1990s: Men Behaving Badly and Fantasy Football League on television, Loaded magazine on the news-stands. Meanwhile, Danny Boyle and Michael Winterbottom were reinvigorating British cinema and Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and the rest were doing the same for British art.

Elsewhere, Jack Dee was the first stand-up comedian to make the transition from the alternative Channel 4 to the family-friendly world of ITV, without losing his original audience. Again, this was no accident. "I know I'm doing a good job when I'm appealing beyond my peer group," Dee said in 1992. "I love it when people my parents' age compliment me."

Perhaps most striking of all was the impact on the literary world made by Nick Hornby. His book Fever Pitch, chronicling his life through the fortunes of Arsenal Football Club, was published in 1992 and inspired a slew of other everyday memoirs by men in their thirties, reflectively filtering their lives and times through the medium of a single subject, whether politics (O'Farrell's Things Can Only Get Better), rock'n'roll (Giles Smith's Lost in Music), comedy (Mark Steel's It's Not a Runner Bean) or fashion (Robert Elms's The Way We Wore).

Hornby's second book, the novel High Fidelity, also transferred that obsessive mindset to the world of music, and similarly opened the way for other writers to tackle themes of the lost boys of the anti-Thatcher generation seeking to re-engage with society. In one of High Fidelity's key scenes, the hero, Rob, goes to a dinner party with people of his own age who have, unlike him, followed the middle-class path mapped out for them. The realisation dawns of how far he has drifted: "They have smart jobs and I have a scruffy job, they are rich and I am poor, they are self-confident and I am incontinent, they do not smoke and I do." Rob broods, silenced and dissatisfied, until he identifies the point where it all went wrong - the year when he dropped out of college and, coincidentally, when Thatcher came to power - and he concludes: "I want to go back to 1979 and start all over again."

The mid-1990s, in short, saw a renaissance in popular culture that was largely informed by the attitudes of what had been a marginalised minority in the previous decade. All that was needed was an umbrella that could cover all these disparate strands. It was found with the brand name Cool Britannia, an advertising fantasy that the Swinging Sixties could be re-created and resold, even if the original note of progressive optimism couldn't quite be echoed.

Inevitably this cocktail of nostalgia and commerce proved toxic and the creativity began to drain out of the decade. The change was first noticeable in the bellwether world of pop music. Suede's decadent glamour and Pulp's art-rock were rapidly supplanted by the lumpen Beatles obsession of Oasis as Britpop slid into dad-rock, with the blessing of Labour's new guitar-playing leader, Tony Blair.

The scale of this cultural shift's success could not be denied, however, and increasingly that - rather than any note of dissidence - seemed to be the point of Cool Britannia. The second Oasis album, (What's the Story) Morning Glory?, sold upwards of 20 million copies worldwide, and in August 1996 the band played two gigs at Knebworth to a quarter of a million people; had everyone who applied for tickets been successful, it would have been a three-week residency.

The pursuit of mass appeal helped create the conditions for a new celebration of the multitude, a reaction perhaps to the atomisation wrought by modern technologies and a refutation of Thatcher's comment about there being "no such thing as society". The seeking of comfort in the anonymous democracy of the crowd could also be seen in the fervour for the National Lottery, the proliferation of replica football shirts, the rise of festival culture and the very public enthusiasms for figures as diverse as Harry Potter, David Beckham and Tim Henman. And, of course, most notably in the communal mourning for Diana.

In the process, the last traces of political commitment were jettisoned from what had been the alternative. What emerged was little more than a radio phone-in show writ large, an outpouring of ill-informed opinion and unthinking emotion.

The democratisation of mass culture of the late 1990s also brought about an elevation of the everyday, manifest in the fashion for video diaries and in the "docusoaps" that were the forerunner of reality television. "Anyone can play guitar,/And they won't be a nothing any more," Radiohead had mocked in 1993, and the internet - the "information superhighway", in the language of the time - suggested that this might indeed be where the future lay. As the journalist Emer Brizzolara recognised as early as 1995: "Whether or not we want it, we are
going to have access to the words and music and art of Joe and Janet Average."

Politically the beneficiaries of this democratisation were Tony Blair, with his persona as “a pretty straight sort of guy", and New Labour, with its nebulous appeal that promised something for everyone; the latter was, according to its 1997 manifesto, "the political arm of none other than the British people as a whole". And that was the year the party won a general election for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century, achieving a landslide majority in the House of Commons.

But there was a curious structural anomaly in British politics, a gap where the anti-Thatcher generation should have been. When William Hague was elected leader of the Conservative Party in 1997, it seemed as though it was the dawning of a new political generation. The Labour government was dominated by those born in the ten years following the Second World War - both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown date from that decade - and Hague was the first representative from the next period to reach the front rank of British politics. He was also, however, pretty close to being the last.

In the 13 years of New Labour rule, just one MP born between 1955 and 1964 - Jacqui Smith - occupied one of the four great offices of state. The Blair-Brown generation, by contrast, gave us nine Labour politicians in the top jobs, including the likes of David Blunkett, Jack Straw and Robin Cook.

A logical interpretation is that the next tranche of MPs had yet to break through to the highest levels. Except that the current leader of the opposition, shadow chancellor, home secretary and foreign secretary are Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper and Douglas Alexander; all were born between 1967 and 1969. And the rising stars - Sadiq Khan, Chuka Umunna, Rachel Reeves - are younger still. The sense of a generation having been skipped is inescapable. The same is largely true on the government benches. Hague, now the Foreign Secretary, is joined by his contemporary Theresa May in the Home Office, but David Cameron and Nick Clegg are children of the late 1960s, and George Osborne wasn't born until 1971.

It would make sense if the ranks of that 1955-64 generation had been notably thin. In fact, the birth rate was rising right through the period, reaching a peak in 1964, the only year in British history when more than a million babies were born in the country. Put another way, it took more than three times as many people to produce a front-rank politician from that decade as it had from either of the ten-year periods that preceded it.

The effects of that gap were apparent even during Blair's first term as prime minister. "I need some better people at the top," he cried. "Where are they?" The answer is that far too many had already turned their backs on the electorate and on party politics.

And the absence was felt most keenly on the left. When Neil Kinnock stepped down as Labour leader after the 1992 defeat, Ken Livingstone attempted to enter the race to be his successor. The party's rules stipulated that a can­didate had to be nominated by 20 per cent of Labour MPs, which in 1992 meant 55 nominations were required; Livingstone secured just 13. The centre-left candidate who made it into the contest, Bryan Gould, was comprehensively trounced, even in the constituencies section of the electoral college.

Livingstone's election as mayor of London in 2000, when he stood as an independent, demonstrated the continuing appeal of the alternative left in the capital at least, but many of those involved in the campaign came from beyond Labour. For the truth was that there was precious little remaining of a left within the party. The generation that should have been supporting Livingstone, and producing the next wave of leaders, had absented itself.

In consequence, Blair was allowed to stage an unopposed coup in the Labour Party and to centralise power in such a way that potential disagreements were negated in advance. Policies that were self-evidently antithetical to the history of Labour - the enthusiasm for war, the attacks on civil liberties, the hostility to the trade unions - met with scant resistance, passing effortlessly through the party machine in the name of unity and modernisation.

And the creed of this modern world was what Daniel Finkelstein, then director of the Social Market Foundation think tank, called "Blajorism", a new post-Thatcher consensus. To this doctrine the Tories donated policy on industry, taxation and the economy, as well as rhetoric about the need for a tougher line on criminals and benefit claimants, and a blurring of the boundaries between private enterprise and public services.

Labour's role was merely to take these themes and develop them further and faster, albeit with the addition of a winning smile. "For 15 years we've done nothing but follow the Tory agenda," said the modernising MP Frank Field as he called for a reduction in income tax, shortly after Blair's election as leader. "We can now leapfrog the Tories and make them follow our agenda." It was hardly a fair exchange of ideas, yet there were few prepared, or even present, to dispute the new settlement.

Rather, the 1990s brought a worrying homogenisation of politics, in which debate was actively discouraged. In 1992 a United Nations conference in Rio launched the Convention on Biological Diversity, but the lesson that diversity is life's greatest asset when faced with a hostile environment was not learned, either culturally or politically. The monolithic simplicities of Cool Britannia were mirrored by the control freakery of New Labour, silencing any dissenting voices with the denunciation of being "off-message".

As a result, the body politic was left vulnerable to infection, ill-prepared for any change in circumstance. When the long, post-cold-war, credit-fuelled boom finally collapsed in the 2008 financial crisis, the Labour Party found itself removed from office and in no fit state to provide a coherent ideological opposition to the Conservatives' age of austerity.

There were many factors contributing to the way this situation developed so easily, among them the moral enfeeblement of the media, the comfortably steady growth of the economy and the sheer weariness of the always unstable anti-Thatcher coalition. But perhaps most important of all was the absenteeism of a thirtysomething generation that might have challenged the blandness of Blajorism and argued for an alternative way forward. Instead, the mood of political defeatism, the refocusing on cultural change, left the field clear for a conformist takeover.

Because the chief element in the alternative's progress to mass acceptance was the abandonment of ideology and its replacement with nostalgia. Much of the groundwork for Cool Britannia was laid by a generation seeking comfort in a retreat to adolescence. The cliché of the stand-up comedian only having to mention Spangles, chopper bikes and space hoppers to get a laugh was not far from the truth, and reached a logical conclusion with the success of television series such as Top of the Pops 2 and I Love the Seventies. This was safe, neutral territory, and New Labour rushed to occupy it, simply relocating the wellspring of the nostalgia from the 1970s to the comfort zone of its own adolescence.
“The Blair image is of a 1960s modernism," wrote John Redwood derisively. "He is looking back to gain the future. He sees Britain as a land of Carnaby Street and the Beatles, of rock bands and fashion icons, of out-of-doors nouvelle cuisine restaurants by the Tower of London and singles by Elton John."

He was quite correct, and it was a successful enough ploy when it came to winning elections, but outside the polling booths times had changed. In 1996, the Daily Telegraph commissioned Gallup to repeat a survey investigating the mood of the nation, using questions that had originally been put in 1968. The picture it painted was dispiriting. In a reverse of the previous results, people believed that the country was becoming less healthy, less educated and less honest; behaviour was deteriorating and peace of mind was in decline. To this, one might add that there was little optimism about the ability of politicians to address such anxieties.

And so, as the decade wore on, the abandonment of formal politics spread, becoming particularly evident in Labour's heartlands. In the 1999 elections to the European Parliament, turnout in Liverpool Riverside - one of the party's safest Westminster seats - fell to just over 10 per cent: only one in ten registered electors was sufficiently motivated to cast a vote. Sunderland South, home of Chris Mullin, was another rock-solid constituency, but Mullin's election agent identified an institutional weakness in the membership. "I joined the party when I was 19 or 20," he said in 2000; "now I am 41 and I am still one of the youngest people in the party in Sunderland."

Along the way, there had been achievements as well as failures that could be credited to the generation that turned its back on Westminster. Changes in the law relating to gay rights, racial hatred, discrimination against disabled people - these were largely the result of con­tinued pressure from those who had swum against the Thatcherite tide in the 1980s. There was a growing popular tolerance of all kinds of minorities (perhaps best symbolised by the arrival of the transsexual Hayley Patterson on Coronation Street in 1998) in a way that would have been considered a fantasy of the "Loony Left" a decade earlier. By the end of the 1990s even Peter Tatchell, once the target of tabloid vilification, was being applauded by the right-wing press for his attempt to effect a citizen's arrest of Robert Mugabe.

The rise of green issues, too, was largely shaped by what remained of left idealism. Yet any real radicalism was discarded far too readily in exchange for purely symbolic reforms, so that when the Parliamentary Labour Party gathered in March 2001 to discuss what should be in the next election manifesto, its aims were not exactly revolutionary: the most popular issue was a ban on hunting with hounds.

There was also a residual anti-Toryism running through what was now mainstream culture, as seen in the second set of diaries by Bridget Jones, in which she discovers to her horror that her ideal man, Mark Darcy, is a Conservative. "Never, ever in a million years suspected I might have been sleeping with a man who voted Tory," she writes, in a state of shock. That the Labour government was returned in 2001, despite attracting the votes of less than a quarter of the electorate, was largely due to this prevailing current. So, too, was the choice of David Cameron as Tory leader in 2005, the Conservative Party finally bowing to cultural pressure and seeking to shed its reputation as the nasty party.

Cameron, in fact, had been a significant, if largely unrecognised, player in that 1992 general election. The Conservative campaign had been roundly ridiculed during the course of the election, but the results vindicated the team of young activists at Central Office. Among them were David Cameron and two of the men who would accompany him into Downing Street in 2010, Steve Hilton and Edward Llewellyn. Collectively this group was referred to - and mocked - as "the brat pack" and the unexpected victory of 1992 prompted one of Cameron's earliest public utterances: "The brat pack hits back!" he exulted.

This was the first stirring of the members of a new generation, born in the late 1960s, that would inherit British politics, rising rapidly because there was no layer immediately above them. And by the mid-1990s they were in pole position for the succession, acting as advisers to the leading figures in both major parties.

The likes of Derek Draper, assistant to Peter Mandelson, were already around in the Labour Party, and the arrival in 1994 of Blair as leader, following the premature death of John Smith, brought a host of others to the fore, including David and Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and James Purnell. Known as "the crèche" or as "Blair's babes" (long before that term was applied to the female MPs elected in 1997), these were career politicians, moving smoothly from university to think tank to Westminster, with little space between. "They may be young," noted Mike Marqusee from Labour Briefing in 1994, "but they are socially conservative, they exist in a self-enclosed world and they are utterly unrepresentative of young people."

Here was the triumph of managerialism, an era in politics marked by an absolute aversion to engaging in the ideological battles that had characterised the 1980s. With both sides now largely in agreement on policy, the only issue was one of competence, or rather the illusion of competence. "This generation exudes an air of responsibility," observed Dominic Loenhis, a friend of Cameron's and an adviser to Peter Brooke when he was national heritage secretary, "but I don't think there is any visionary feel or coherent philosophy."

There was, however, Blajorism. And it is proving to be impressively resilient, having already outlived the political careers of the two men whose name it bears, and having survived the collapse of the happy economic conditions in which it was spawned. Given that the current leaderships of both major parties were junior members of the cliques that created the creed, perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that they are unwilling entirely to abandon it. Were Ed Miliband to replace David Cameron as prime minister, there might be a change of pace - a temporary reduction in VAT, a postponement of some public spending cuts, less overt competition in the National Health Service - but the essential direction of policy would surely remain. Labour is hardly offering a programme of Keynesian fiscal activism.

Moreover, the party long ago lost its place in the popular imagination. By the 2010 general election, it had shed nearly three million voters since the days of Neil Kinnock (nearly five million from Blair's high point) and was registering levels of support last seen under Michael Foot. Indeed, its share of the vote fell below 20 per cent of the registered electorate, something that not even Foot achieved; in retrospect, the "longest suicide note in history" looks positively life-affirming for the party.

Nor was this an aberration attributable solely to Gordon Brown's doomed premiership. Under Blair in 2001, a government was returned despite securing fewer votes than there were abstentions - the first time such a thing had happened since universal suffrage - and then it repeated the feat in 2005. "One day the don't knows will get in, and then where will we be?" Spike Milligan used to joke. That situation has now become the norm, such is the public disillusion with politics.

Reflecting on his surprise election success, John Major came to the same conclusion as Margaret Thatcher had done. "Our victory ensured that our reforms over the previous 13 years were made permanent," he wrote in his memoirs. "Above all, our victory in 1992 killed socialism in Britain. It also, I must conclude, made the world safe for Tony Blair."

Twenty years on, as another era of mass unemployment dawns, the effects of that election can still be seen in the political world that is being bequeathed to today's school leavers and graduates. If you were born in, say, 1992, you would have reached the age of 18 in 2010, probably just too late to cast a vote in the May election that brought David Cameron to power.

This is an edited extract from Alwyn W Turner's ebook "Things Can Only Get Bitter: the Lost Generation of 1992", which will be available from Aurum Press in April

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of socialism