Election 1997 20th anniversary: Then and now

In a series of pieces, Uncut writers look back at election day 1997. Jonathan Todd looks at then and now with an eye to the Mayoral votes coming this Thursday

“I don’t know what I was hoping for.”

I don’t know for how many people the words of Nick Cave’s beautiful We Came Along This Road apply to Labour’s 1997 victory.

My family have never been political. I cannot comprehend childhoods snatched under tables in committee rooms. I spent my first 16 years kicking a ball against a wall.

As a sixth-former in Barrow-in-Furness, the hopes that I had for Labour in 1997 did not reside in family inheritance. They did, though, grow out of family circumstance.

While Ken Clarke delivered macroeconomic improvement in advance of May 1997, unemployment was a spectre that ever more encroached on my ball kicking.

In the north of my youth, people were made redundant in middle age and never worked again, youngsters left school to go on the dole. This created a pervasive sense of thwarted hopes.

In the same way that 1945 was about saying “no more” to the economic depravities of the 1930s, my Labour hopes in 1997 grew out of unnecessary economic injustice.

While I was specific about the unemployment that I wanted to leave behind, I was vague about how Labour might fulfil these hopes. I enjoyed A-Level Economics – and was much more Keynes than Friedman – but neo-endogenous growth theory did not much illuminate, at least as I recall my youthful mind, the intensions of Blair and Brown.

1997 is as far removed from today as the second year of Wilson’s premiership was from 1945. By the mid-60s, while Attlee’s achievements, such as the NHS and the welfare state, were immense, they’d long been banked by the public. As much taken for granted as the minimum wage now is.

In 1945, 1964 and 1997, Labour was a breath of fresh air, defined as a vanguard of national renewal, not by what it had done decades previously. Blair will be as irrelevant to the next Labour government as Attlee was to 1964. Or Wilson was to 1997.

From the National Health Service to the National Minimum Wage, Labour achievements have tended to be top-down. Labour Mayors offer a more bottom-up source of renewal, befitting less deferential times and a heightened sense the distinct character of different places.

Rhodri Morgan depicts devolution to Wales as socialism with a Welsh accent. Socialism in Brummie, Manc and Scouse are all part of the same language but spoken in different accents, reflecting particular priorities.

Attlee, Wilson and Blair all gave voters licence to project upon them their own hopes. Labour Mayors will be props to Labour leaders again attempting this.

“If we can do this in the West Midlands, imagine what we can do across the UK…” Government prose in regional accents, giving colour to national campaign poetry.

We must not only hope that the likes of Andy Burnham, Steve Rotheram and Siôn Simon are elected on Thursday but – as per the character in Cave’s song – they hit the road at a run.

Jonathan Todd is deputy editor of Uncut

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