As a Labour Party supporter since the 1970s and an active member for much of the 1990s, like so many I felt cheated and disheartened that euphoria of the celebrations in 1997 soon led to disappointment, as we thought, “This is not what we worked and hoped for! This isn’t Labour!”
The party which we believed was built on improving the lives of ordinary working people, and whose ideals were set in supporting the vulnerable and a fairer distribution of wealth, was no longer representing those people and the gap between rich and poor was getting greater. Agreed, there was investment in education and in health care - which was well overdue and welcome - and there was an introduction of a minimum wage but in reality there was little, if any, progress made in redistributing wealth and creating a real equality of opportunity. I was not alone, and if Labour party members were disappointed, then it should come as no surprise that eventually the electorate would turn its back on those who purported to represent them.
For me personally the first signs appeared in 1983. Michael Foot was the leader of the party and he was ridiculed by the press. I had met Michael shortly before he became leader and I had tremendous respect and admiration for him; he was a genuine socialist and was loved by the Labour Party but he was presented by the media as being too left wing, not a strong leader and especially not strong on image. The notion of media image was still quite new and the Labour Party had not come to terms with it and, as such, could not deal with the criticism of its policy of unilateral disarmament, for example. Thatcher, on the other hand, had worked the idea that Labour in power meant the unions controlled Britain meaning that Trades Unions and workers’ co-operatives were unpopular. In the media, Labour ideas were presented as “old fashioned”. The words socialism, solidarity and comrade were branded as communist principles and not regarded as supportive of the lives of working men and women in Britain nor of uniting them for their common good. The idea that the unions were representing people’s rights seemed to be lost. Quite simply, the media were winning the arguments.
After 1983, Neil Kinnock, as Labour’s leader, started making changes to the party. The target was Militant Tendency as this seemed to be the answer to the media criticism that the party was too far to the left. Personally I have never thought that the Labour Party were too far to the left however I was very much aware that the Conservative Party, which had been in power since 1979, was destroying our society: Trades Unions were being smashed with the resultant diminution of workers’ rights, there was massive unemployment and a whole generation had no hope. We accepted that changes had to be made within the party because we wanted socialist Labour in power to start to build opportunities for ordinary people again, much like it had done in 1945. This was the beginning of a top down re-organisation of the Labour Party; the beginning of the party becoming less democratic with members having less influence on policy.
Yet along with so many Labour activists in 1992, I worked to try and get Labour back in government. We believed the electorate had had enough of the extreme right wing government and of Thatcherism. Neil Kinnock, I believe, was a socialist and believed in Labour. He spoke passionately about his policies, but the power of the right-wing establishment, the media and the wealth of the influential few was insurmountable. The infamous Sheffield Rally meant that the election defeat in 1992 was a devastating embarrassment for Labour. The media had won the argument, and Labour’s media image was blamed yet again.
John Smith was a very popular leader of The Labour Party with a good “screen image” which the party now realised was important if we were to counteract the power of the media. Smith nevertheless continued the modernization process set in train by Kinnock when he reduced the union influence by abolition of the union block vote in 1993. As a Party delegate that year, I met a young Tony Blair, a very articulate speaker, a handsome man with a clever wife. I admit that I shook his hand, unaware of the changes he would make to the party and even more unaware of the influence he would have in Britain and beyond.
When John Smith died in 1994, Labour was hungry for what it believed would finally beat the Tories. And that was all about image.
Labour hardly flinched at removal of the Clause IV, and the announcement of the title New Labour.
That it was possible to make this change at all was because ordinary members had far less power to influence policy. The annual conferences became staged affairs. We, the ordinary members were remembering the devastation of 1992 and the criticism of Michael Foot. We were fearful of yet another defeat. In 1997, most ordinary members still believed in socialist ideals; our new leader did not. He had no connection with Labour’s history like Kinnock, he had no foresight like Tony Benn and he had no honest belief like Michael Foot.
But he could handle the media. He could spot an opportunity which he took. He had an image which Labour fell for and our message did not matter any longer.
Nationally, the Labour movement was dead.
For members of the Labour movement it was a collection of people not just politicians; we were workers, union members as well as activists knocking on doors. Solidarity was a good word and people felt collectively protective and protected. It belonged to us. And we spoke to each other. This should be a warning.
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