For one proud moment, things did only get better

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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.

May Day 1997 memories

Tony and Cherie Blair arrive in Downing Street, 2 May 1997. The woman in a blue jacket in the foreground with her back to the camera is long-time Labour staff member Jackie Stacey. [Pic: BT]

About ten days ago I started drafting the piece below, intending to publish it this week before the 20th anniversary of the 1997 General Election on 1 May. But then, ‘events, dear boy, events’, as Harold Macmillan is supposed to have said, intervened. Nevertheless, it still seems worth recording what an amazing day 1 May 1997 turned out to be – both for me personally and, I still believe, for the whole country. In these desperate times we need to hang on to those memories and believe that good times will roll around again once more. Things can only get better.

It was just after 7am on a bright May morning when I left my house to go to the polling station. We lived in one of the less trendy areas of Stoke Newington, a row of Edwardian terraced houses facing a five storey council block. The polling station was in a community hall just across the main road, maybe a minute’s walk from our house. My vote for Diane Abbott safely lodged, I got in the car and drove to another small terraced house about 30 minutes away, off the Harrow Road.

I had volunteered to spend the day running a Labour Party committee room in the Regents Park and Kensington North constituency. This was the new name for a previous constituency called Westminster North (a long-time Labour target seat) which had had a bit of the old Kensington constituency added. The Labour candidate, Karen Buck, was an old colleague of mine from my days working for the party at Walworth Road. Keen to spend election day doing something useful I had rung her agent, the redoubtable Margaret Lynch, a couple of weeks before and put myself forward. The constituency had a notional Tory majority of about 2000, so it was very high on Labour’s key seat list. Karen had every chance of winning, given that Labour had been miles ahead in the opinion polls for years but by polling day everyone was very nervous that something would go horribly wrong.

My wife Jacqui’s parents had come over from Ireland the previous week. They were between houses back home so were happy to stay with us in London for a while, and mind our two children (Patrick aged 4 and Aisling 17 months) while we gallivanted around town working and politicking. So I set about preparing for the day ahead while Jacqui gave the children breakfast and took Patrick to nursery.

I checked on the two polling stations which my committee room was covering. The Labour volunteer tellers were already in place taking the voters’ numbers, as instructed. At one station there didn’t seem to be a Tory teller. So had they had given up on the seat already? It seemed a bit early to presume that. There is an agreement between the parties that tellers co-operate in taking numbers (no point in pissing off the public by asking them twice), but if they weren’t there on time then we certainly wouldn’t give them any numbers they had missed out on.

Back at the committee room, everything seemed to be in place. I guess that now everything is completely computerised but in 1997 we still relied on manual processing of what we were learning to call the Get Out The Vote operation. This meant that the names of those who had promised to vote Labour were printed out on Reading Pads. Named after the town of Reading whose then MP Ian Mikardo is supposed to have devised the system, these were pads made up of five or six leaves of carbonised paper, so anything typed on the top page is copied through to the lower pages.

The lists of ‘promises’ were printed out onto the pads in numerical order, and divided up by streets. They were then taped down on a large table in the committee room. When the numbers arrived from the polling station they were checked against the pads. If the number appeared the name was recorded as being ‘For’ and crossed out. If it didn’t appear, it was recorded as ‘Against’. The organiser kept a running total of the numbers For and Against, which were then reported back to the constituency campaign HQ.

Once you were up to date with the numbers coming in from the polling stations, you tore off the top sheets and gave them to the teams of volunteers who went out knocking on doors encouraging those who haven’t yet voted to do so as soon as possible. The plan was to cover the whole of your patch three or four times during the course of the day, which is why you needed a steady stream of people who didn’t mind knocking on doors and issuing polite reminders to those who hadn’t yet voted. If you are reasonably organised and like to spend a day bossing people around (and who doesn’t) then being a ward organiser can be very satisfying and even great fun.

Margaret Lynch had certainly done her stuff, as everything seemed to be pretty much under control, and within an hour of me arriving in the house a woman from the Communication Workers Union also turned up saying that she had been seconded for the day. So the two of us stayed in the committee room and co-ordinated the work of the many other volunteers who would drop in for several hours at a time over the course of the day.

More and more people came by. A team arrived from Brent North constituency, a supposedly safe Tory seat whose Labour Party members had been twinned with Regents Park and Kensington North to give the key seat extra help. They worked away assiduously for several hours. Also, because we were the closest key seat to central London, people who had been working at head office also arrived to do their bit for a while. One of these was someone I knew slightly, a young researcher in Gordon Brown’s office called Ed Miliband.

More names were crossed off, more sheets torn off the Reading Pads, more teams were dispatched. The big rush of voters which always occurs between about 5 and 7 pm was well under way when the Brent North people had a phone call. Apparently things were going surprisingly well back there, and it looked as though the Labour vote was soaring. Would it be OK if they went back? This was when I got my first inkling of the scale of what would occur later on in the night.

About 8pm Ed Miliband said that he had to go, because he needed to help Gordon Brown write his speech for later on. That was also fine by me, since nearly all the names seemed to have been crossed off the pads by now, and we were sending out teams to find only one or two people at a time. There comes a moment on an election day when you have already called at all the addresses you have four or five times already. You simply can’t go knocking on the same doors again.

At 9pm Margaret Lynch was still encouraging us to send teams out but about half an hour later the CWU woman and I called it a day, sent the last of the volunteers home and opened some beer. We did some tidying up and turned on the TV to wait for the exit poll. Then as Big Ben sounded ten, David Dimbleby announced that the experts were predicting a Labour landslide. We shared a brief hug, and toasted the result. We also laughed as we noticed that the VCR belonging to the owner of the house had clicked into action. Another political junkie.

Jacqui had already taken our car home so after we locked up I went off to the Harrow Road to get a taxi. By the time I got back, the first results were coming in. It wasn’t long before safe Labour seats like Sunderland declared huge majorities, and soon after the first Labour gain came through. If I recall correctly, it was Birmingham Edgbaston which meant that the honour of making the first victory speech fell to Gisela Stuart.

After a while, with results coming in thick and fast and Labour regularly winning unlikely seats, Jacqui and I walked round to a nearby house where some local party members had gathered to watch the results. As we approached, we could tell from the cheers you could hear on the streets that more Labour wins had come through. At 3.10, up in Enfield Southgate, the Portillo moment occurred (an event so pivotal in political history it now has its own Wikipedia entry) and Stephen Twigg lifted his eyes to heaven as he became a new MP. At some point, Karen Buck’s result must have been declared – she had won by almost 15,000 votes in what was supposed to be a marginal constituency.

At about four in the morning, I decided it was time to head to the official celebration party at the Festival Hall. I only had one ticket, so Jacqui had no option but to go home to bed, but by this stage she was quite happy to do so. So I got a taxi to the South Bank, and as it dropped me off at the entrance, I realised that there were several dozen people outside clapping and cheering as guests arrived. This was the most humbling moment in the day – the sheer joy, the sheer relief that the Tory years were finally over was so infectious.

Inside, newly elected MPs were comparing results with each other, and with those who had been re-elected. Some old hands had got results which looked more like those from the South Wales valleys. Diane Abbott had won by almost 15,000, Frank Dobson by just under 18,000. There were all sorts of unlikely guests, like the well-known socialist Richard Branson. Then at some point, with the skies lightening outside, we were all told to go outside onto the terrace as Tony Blair was expected very shortly.

These sort of things never happen quickly, as I should have known, but once you were penned outside it was well nigh impossible to move. So we listened again and again to Things Can Only Get Better, which was on continuous loop. Peter Mandelson, Robin Cook, John Prescott and a few others were all in the front row, everyone else was squashed in somewhere behind them.

Finally, Tony and Cherie Blair and their entourage arrived. Early commuter trains were rattling over the Hungerford railway bridge and the sun was streaking the sky. ‘A new dawn had broken, has it not?’ Blair asked as he began a short speech. We were elected as New Labour, we will govern as New Labour, he went on.

After he finished, it was fully light and people started drifting away. I said my goodbyes, and walked over to Waterloo. I bought the morning papers, but they had gone to press too early to catch the full extent of the political earthquake which had occurred in the previous few hours. I sat on the top deck of a 76 bus, papers falling off my lap, as it jerked its way through the City, on into Islington and past Dalston Junction to Stoke Newington Road.

I went to bed for an hour or two, but was still too excited to sleep properly. When I got up, Neil Kinnock and Jim Callaghan were being interviewed in the BBC studio and their genuine pleasure as they watched the Blairs arriving in Downing Street was great to see. I caught a glimpse of my old colleague Jackie Stacey in a smart blue jacket as she marshalled the arrival with her usual efficiency. She told me later that they had persuaded the police to let members of the public through the gates so that the enthusiasm which you could feel on the streets was properly transmitted.

What a day it had been. As Wordsworth almost said: ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be there was very heaven.’

If you have your own memories of 1 May 1997 and would like to share them, then please do so in the comments below. Or you can contact me by email.