Paul Foot

It’s been a long time coming

(May 1997)

From Election special, Socialist Review, No.208, May 1997, p.5.
Copyright © 1997 Socialist Review.
Downloaded with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The sheer extent of the Labour landslide shocked everyone in authority, not least the new prime minister. Addressing the cheering crowds which collected outside the Festival Hall in the early morning of his victory, Tony Blair reacted to the astonishing and unprecedented size of his majority with a word which comes easily to him, ‘responsibility’.

He had hoped to win a working majority. He had ‘targeted’ key seats like Gloucester to ensure that majority. He had expected a strong Tory opposition and had anticipated working on key matters with the Liberal Democrats. All this had suddenly and dramatically changed. Seats which no one had ever imagined as Labour had swung to the left in swings far greater even than in the ‘targeted’ areas. Scarborough, Lowestoft, Wimbledon, Harrow, Hastings, Edgbaston ­ nowhere was safe from the relentless nationwide swing to Labour. The Tories were a ridiculous and squabbling rump and the Liberals a profound irrelevance.

At once, almost in self protection, the victorious Labour leader sought to explain their triumph. It was, first, a victory for ‘New Labour’, with the emphasis on ‘New’. It was the ‘unshackling’ of the Labour Party from the bonds of Clause Four and the trade unions which had rescued it from the political wilderness. The magical leadership of Tony Blair and the spin skills of his ubiquitous lieutenant Peter Mandelson had created the earthquake in popular opinion which set off the landslide.

The analysis led inevitably to the warning about ‘responsibility’. Since the huge majority was the exclusive work of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, nothing should be said or done to threaten their hegemony.

This ‘follow the leader’ analysis, the suggestion that the masses who supported Labour in such extraordinary numbers voted for the man rather than the politics of the party, is not just insulting. It is also, by any available measure, entirely wrong. Blair’s high ratings in the polls are no higher than those of his predecessor, John Smith. Indeed, there is no convincing evidence to suggest that Blair has ever been more personally popular than Smith.

The huge shift in popular opinion against the Tories does not date from Blair’s election as leader in the summer of 1994. The decisive shift came much earlier. It began with the crises of the pit closures and ERM and continued with the breaking of the Tory tax pledges and the imposition of VAT on fuel. The wipe out of the Tories in the county council elections and in London came before the emasculation of Clause Four or the attack on the unions inside the Labour Party.

Every single pointer in the polls suggests that the majority of British electors quickly woke up to the awful mistake they made in 1992 and resolved, whatever the changes in personnel in whatever party, that they would rid themselves of the Tory menace at the earliest possible opportunity. All this happened when Blair was a relatively unknown front bench spokesperson on home affairs, and when Mandelson had been cast into outer darkness.

For reasons which are easy to understand, John Smith detested Mandelson. He saw Mandelson’s obsession with media manipulation as corrosive of any social democratic politics, even the right wing social democratic politics which Smith represented. Indeed, Smith held Mandelson partly responsible for the loss of the 1992 election, during which Smith tried to promote the arguments for more egalitarian tax policies and was stopped in his tracks by Kinnock and Mandelson.

Nor can it be argued for a single moment that the tone and style of Labour’s election campaign contributed seriously to the result. The real swings to Labour took place in areas untouched by the campaign. Moreover, these swings were positive moves to Labour – not just protest votes. The point about the ‘tactical voting’ which has so absorbed the pundits was not just that voters ganged up against the government. If the fashionable view that the vote was a triumph for right wing Labour were true, then the swing to the Liberals would have been just as great, if not greater. In fact the swing to the Liberals was much less pronounced than the swing to Labour.

It is as though the shocked pundits are seeking any explanation for the landslide save the most obvious, repeated over and over again in Socialist Worker and Socialist Review, that there has been a marked and substantial shift to the left in popular political attitudes. The shift has moved most Labour voters, indeed most people, to the left of Blair and Mandelson.

All the indicators show that the majority think that the Tory union laws should be repealed, that the utilities and especially the railways should be taken back into public ownership, that there should be more socialist planning.

The shift has been accompanied by a popular determination and confidence which pushed the Labour vote to landslide proportions almost in defiance of the Labour leader’s caution and moderation.

Blair says interminably that he will act for ‘all the people, not just the privileged few’. But the hallmark of the society bequeathed by Thatcher and Major is the exploitation by the privileged few of the rest of the people. To act for both sides is impossible. To try to do so will result inevitably in acting only at the behest of the rich.

If Blair and Co. carry on where the Tories left off they will be ignoring the message from the majority of the electorate, and kicking their own supporters in the teeth.


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