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Things can only get… worse? Why 2024 is no 1997 for the Labour Party

One of the characteristic features of the 1997 Labour Party general election campaign was their use of D:Ream’s song “Things Can Only Get Better” in their campaign video. This song was selected to conjure optimism following what many saw as eighteen years of Conservative failure which had left the country at an all-time low. Labour had been far ahead in the polls since as far back as 1992, following the failures of “Black Wednesday’, when the Tories shed their reputation as reliable managers of the economy. Unemployment, despite being lower than certain peaks under Thatcher, had also spiked at 10.7%, since the previous general election in 1992. All of this while a civil war over the European Union rendered the Conservative party divided.

Sound familiar? 

Over the last few months, there has been growing speculation about the similarities between the general election of 1997 and the one to be held in a month and a half’s time. Ostensibly, such comparisons appear warranted: we, too, have a floundering conservative government whose long stretch in power has left them without ideas. They have had to deal with crisis after crisis, are nearing the end of their term, and are marred with a mounting number of accusations of corruption and mismanagement that have led to economic despair, not least the paragon of economic incompetence that was Liz Truss’ mini budget. Ever since that disaster struck, the Conservatives have been unable to make up a vast gap in the polls with a Labour party who claim to offer ‘change’ in an attempt to give hope to a country that appears to be pinballing between crises with little sense of a long-term plan. 

However, the pundits are wrong to project the results of the 1997 election onto this year’s contest. It will be of little surprise that the tempting comparison is overly simplistic, and leaves a number of fundamental differences in the politics of today compared with that of 27 years ago unconfronted. 

The first glaring difference concerns the ideologies of the two major parties. A lot has been made in recent times of the seeming dearth of ideas among politicians, with particular focus on voters not really knowing what Labour’s platform will be going into the general election. While they have been vehemently opposed to almost everything the current government does, there seems to have been little in the way of a clear plan as to what they would do differently to solve the numerous crises running riot through the country. Indeed, during Hilary, the Oxford Union held a debate in which members voted at a ratio of almost 3:1 in favour of the motion: “This house does not know what Labour stands for”.

Those who back Labour’s vacant policy platform highlight that when Starmer has introduced potential flagship policies, they have been vulnerable to theft by the Conservatives, who then make sly U-turns. Take, for example, Labour’s long-standing aim to abolish non-dom tax status, a move which it was recently announced that the Conservatives were also exploring despite having previously strongly opposed it.

Again, however, this example demonstrates precisely one of the reasons why 1997 is so different from 2024. The fact that the policy platforms of the two parties are similar enough for the Conservatives to poach the ideas of Labour says a lot about the dearth of ideas in British politics. In 1996, New Labour published New Labour, New Life for Britain, which set out, in detail, the party’s centrist vision for the future of the country. Included in the ‘pre-manifesto’ were promises to cut infant class sizes to 30, reduce backlogs in the NHS and the justice system, and get more young people into work. 

They were able to own these policies because they knew their justifications would be ideologically distinct enough from anything the Conservatives would be able to support. Indeed, when New Labour, New Life for Britain was released, it was met with horror by the Conservatives, who responded with their own tagline: “New Labour, New Danger”. Contrastingly, both parties being unwilling or unable to make any significant promises this close to an election because they fear their opposition appropriating them indicates a severe lack of integrity and ideology in politics. This bodes badly: “more of the same” will not be enough to get the UK out of its current slump. 

Of course, from Labour’s point of view, it might be argued that this fear of ‘policy theft’ does not represent a lack of ideas in their own party, but purely from their opposite numbers in the Conservative party. After all, being the party in government, the Conservatives have the means to ‘steal policies’ by enacting them through parliament, while Labour, currently, do not.

However, even where Labour have made promises they have been forced into several u-turns. For example, when Keir Starmer ran for leadership of his party, he promised renationalisation of major public services such as mail, energy, and water, promises he has since largely abandoned.  Even where they have not fully cast aside core pledges, a number of promises have been heavily watered down, including in pledged green investment, which was reduced from £28 billion a year to just £4.7 billion a year

Major pledges for constitutional reform have also fallen victim to U-turns. In 1997, when coming to power, the Labour Party promised and delivered major constitutional reform through its devolution settlements for Scotland and Wales. Under Starmer, the reform ‘promised’ by Labour was the abolition and replacement of the House of Lords. Once again, however, this pledge has been shelved, under the argument that constitutional reform is a drain on both time and energy for governments.

Another potential reason for Labour’s weakness on these core promises is the UK’s current bleak economic forecast. Growth in the UK has essentially flatlined, the national debt is at 98% of GDP, and the tax burden has hit record post-war highs. The economic dire straits the country faces hint at another crucial difference between the incoming Labour government and that of 1997: spending. Indeed, any incoming government will be very limited in how it can increase spending. As of now, the only way to do so would be to either raise taxes – which is politically unpopular – or to borrow more – which has longer-term negative implications. By contrast, despite the chaos of Conservative rule, when the Labour party came to power in 1997 economic growth was strong and unemployment and inflation were both falling, which gave a much stronger fiscal base for the incoming government.This outlook allowed the New Labour government to increase public spending by 4.4% per year between 1997-2010, which was largely directed towards the NHS, education, and transport.

As I write, Labour have announced that they would plan to effectively renationalise all rail services within five years of coming to office. This significant statement suggests that we might get a reasonable platform of policies announced before the general election, but regardless, the party has a long way to go for voters to truly gain an understanding of what the party stands for. The party has also gone on to announce its six core ‘pledges’ that they would enact once in power. One of these pledges is to provide 40,000 more NHS appointments and operations per week, which is to be funded through closing tax loopholes. Eyebrows will be raised, however, at the fact that earlier this year Starmer and his Shadow Health Secretary, Wes Streeting, said Labour would hold the door ‘wide open’ for the private sector in the NHS. Such a move marks another significant U-turn from Labour policy as recent as 2021, which pledged to end outsourcing to the private sector entirely.  

Regarding election campaigns, it is crucial to note that the UK is today a very different cultural landscape from where it was in 1997. New Labour’s use of “Things Can Only Get Better” to reinforce their image as the ‘cool party’ capitalised on a trend that swept the country in the latter half of the 90s. “Cool Britannia”, typified by developments like Britpop, Euro 96, and a new wave of British cinema, represented a revival of national pride following two decades of division. “Things Can Only Get Better” succeeded in typifying this pride, capturing a popular and persistent desire to feel, as Blair often said, like Britain was a ‘young country’ again. Set against John Major’s sleepy vision of Britain as the eternal land of “warm beer, green suburbs” and “old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning midst,” Blair did a fine job of claiming this newfound British “coolness” for the Labour party’s own core values. He morphed Labour into the ‘hip’ party which embraced a modern Britain which had become significantly more diverse in the preceding twenty years. Through this leadership, he also won the support of major, traditionally Conservative, newspapers like The Sun, which allowed the party more room to announce policy without the threat of significant criticism. 

By contrast, the Labour party under Starmer appears significantly less dynamic, weighed down by a deflated national spirit. Not for want of trying, that is: Starmer has also attempted to bring to the fore ideas of British identity and its place on the world stage, vying relentlessly to reignite a sense of national pride. However crass his adoption of British national symbols might seem, Starmer’s incessant plastering of the Union Jack all over his campaign videos and speech platforms doubtless speaks to a real desire to claim for Labour a patriotism which consists in serving the interests and welfare of Britain’s people, rather than in anachronisms about our ‘glorious’ past. However, Labour cannot alone drive a wider cultural revival: today, Britain’s structural economic woes, its lingering divisions over the political taboo of Brexit and its crumbling public services could not be a further cry from the rose-tinted optimism of youth that Blair captured in his campaign. National pride is declining, and is being replaced by widespread confusion about what it should mean to be British, and why we ought to continue being proud of our country. 

One important question to ask is whether an emulation of Labour’s 1997 administration would be so desirable. While Blair’s New Labour provided hope to many during their election campaign and did indeed deliver on many promises, his governance had its failings. 

The Blair administration can be credited with the birth of a modern era of spin doctoring which aimed to nullify every blunder or failing and avoid political accountability. While politicians have always been seen as relatively untrustworthy, faith in our representatives is at an all time low, and at a minimum New Labour contributed to the development of the conditions to make that possible. They also, of course, had major failings such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the fact that income inequality grew during their thirteen years of power – not a very ‘Labour’ development. 

With a general election now set for July 4th, the campaign circus has begun. It was much cause for amusement that Sunak’s bizarre rain-soaked statement announcing the election was drowned out by protesters blasting “Things Can Only Get Better”. Given that they are over twenty points behind in the polls, it seems like a strange time for the Conservatives to call an election. Not that it was a unanimous decision of course: for many Conservative MPs, Sunak’s announcement comes as a shock, and a concerning one at the very least. But, as Martin Rowson so aptly represented in last month’s cartoon on the Rwanda bill, the survivor’s game is an exhausting one. And then there is the consideration that the longer Sunak leaves the election, the weaker he makes the Conservative party look. 

Image Credit: UK Prime Minister CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

On the prime minister’s logic, it really does seem like things can only get worse for the Conservatives. Where does this leave Labour? 

If current polling is correct, then Keir Starmer will take the premiership in July with a comfortable majority. Nonetheless, Labour cannot be complacent. As demonstrated in 2017, when incumbent Theresa May was forced unexpectedly into coalition with the DUP after a disastrous campaign, polls can be misleading. What is guaranteed is that the outlook for whoever ends the year in charge will be significantly bleaker than it looked in 1997, even if inflation is under control and everyday goods are – slowly – becoming more affordable again. Rachel Reeves recently said that Labour will not be able to “turn things around straight away” – possibly a slightly less optimistic catchline than “Things Can Only Get Better”. Whatever happens come July 4th, what the people of the United Kingdom need is hope, and it is in the hands of politicians to give it to them.  

Calling on all Cherwell readers to REGISTER TO VOTE! In the 2019 general election, under half of young people aged 18-24 made their voices heard. Let’s get those figures up.

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