Quiet confidence was the watchword to those in the know in the run-up to the 1997 General Election. Nobody at Labour Party HQ, or those close to it, wanted to talk up a Labour victory too much just in case everything went pear-shaped at the very last minute. However, I can reveal that some preparations were undertaken to mark what was likely to be a historic occasion, when polls closed at 10pm on May Day, Thursday 1 May 1997.
A very minor artefact from these preparations has rested in my kitchen cupboard for the last 25 years. Some time before polling day, David Wilkinson, Deputy Secretary of the London Labour Party, rang me with a fund-raising wheeze. “Let’s get some celebration mugs made, to go on sale straight after the election. People are bound to want some souvenirs and I’m sure we will sell out.” There’s quite a long production lead-time needed in the souvenir mugs trade, so we had to get the design ready right away, which I duly did. I culled a few words from the manifesto – thereby removing the need to send the text to be approved by the Leader’s Office, always a complicated process – and produced the artwork. I waived my fee, asking for half-a-dozen mugs instead, and everything went ahead. I picked up the mugs a few days after 1 May, and gave them all away except for one, which has been in my house ever since.
I have seen virtually no publicity marking the silver anniversary of Labour’s greatest ever election victory. There are local elections in the UK this coming Thursday in which, whisper it softly, the party could do well. But superstitious lot that us political groupies are, we don’t want to jinx the results. So fingers crossed for a good result that night.
The 1997-2010 Labour governments did achieve a huge amount, something that has been conveniently forgotten by those who took command in the bleak years between 2015 and 2019. One of those who held the faith throughout that period is Alan Johnson, postman, union official, politician and writer, who was first elected as an MP in 1997 and became a cabinet minister seven years later. Back in 2015, he wrote this piece in the Guardian, and it acts as a useful summary of some of the many achievements of the 1997-2010 years:
Before new party members become enmeshed in the “culture of betrayal”, it’s worth taking a second to examine the charge that Labour in government did nothing for working people.
Leave aside the transformation in health and education (plus additional jobs and extra pay for nurses and teachers), the 3,000 Sure Start centres, the Disability Discrimination Act, the Human Rights Act, civil partnerships, rescuing 1.2 million children from absolute poverty and 1.8 million from relative poverty, pension credit (which made the single biggest contribution to the fact that for the first time in recorded history being old is no longer associated with being poor), the Pension Protection Fund, the resuscitation of apprenticeships and the world’s first legally enforceable carbon reduction targets. Is it accurate to suggest that trade unionists fared badly in the Blair years?
Hardie’s vision of a national minimum wage wasn’t enacted by MacDonald or Attlee, Wilson or Callaghan; it was introduced by the Blair government along with the right to paid holidays (later extended by law to be in addition to bank holidays). Every single worker was given the right to be accompanied at a disciplinary or grievance hearing by a trade union official, regardless of whether the union was recognised and irrespective of whether the individual was a member. During the “virus” years, a woman’s right to paid maternity leave rose from 16 weeks to nine months. Paternity leave was introduced for the first time.
The ban on trade union representation at GCHQ was lifted along with the pernicious “check-off” legislation, which forced unions to re-recruit their members every three years. The Public Disclosures Act gave protection to whistleblowers, new rights were enacted to protect part-time and temporary workers, agency workers and those subjected to control by gangmasters. Legislation on union recognition insisted that if 50% plus one of the workforce was recruited, the union was automatically recognised. Prior to 1997 it had always been the case that an employer could sack striking workers en masse on day one of a dispute. The Blair government changed the law to prevent that happening. Far from being a period when trade unions were betrayed, it was the most benign period in their history.
Amen to all that. So charge your glasses on Sunday evening and drink a toast to the night when things really did get better. For a while.