Election 1997 20th anniversary: “Who the hell is Claire Curtis-Tansley?”

In a series of pieces, Uncut writers look back at election day 1997. Atul Hatwal was a press officer at Millbank HQ and gives a personal take on the day.

By May 1st, party HQ at Millbank tower was almost empty. Most staff had been shipped out to key seats to knock doors in the last week.

The press desk was silent. The morning dragged by with a couple of international press  queries on timings but other than that I wiled away the time looking out of the window at the glorious blue sky and ringing people I knew in committee rooms in various key seats, bothering them for updates on whether the vote was coming out.

This wasn’t official business mind, just curiosity and something to do.

These were the days when pagers were modern and the internet was still called the information super-highway. The equivalent of Twitter was sitting, staring at Lotus notes (that’s what we had rather than Outlook) on a desktop screen, waiting for an e-mail to appear.

I was rostered to work the morning through to late afternoon; then some time-off before coming in for the evening shift at eight, on duty for results and at the party through to the morning.

The time-off wasn’t really time-off though – all staff working these sorts of shifts were expected to spend their downtime knocking up in a key seat.

Earlier in the week the whole key seat operation had been refocused with canvassers moved out to an entirely new list of seats with much higher Tory majorities.

At the time the decision was announced I had committed a minor heresy.

I asked one of the key seats team why we were shifting at such a late stage? What did we hope to achieve with 4 days of canvassing in seats that hadn’t been touched in years.

The party line had been that all resource needed to be devoted to key seats. Nothing elsewhere, just key seats because time was needed to mobilise the vote.

Now, with four days to go, everything was different.

Suffice to say, the questioning was not taken well. Margaret McDonagh was general secretary, a formidable woman for whom there were two rules: everybody knocks doors, nobody questions why.

The clock ticked by towards four when I was meant to go to my allocated key seat – somewhere north of Watford I seem to recall.

Hmm. Roughly one hour to get there, same to get back for my night shift, which left two hours of knocking-up. I dutifully left Millbank just before four.

Except it wasn’t a key seat I was headed to. Instead, I walked in the lovely sunshine, from Millbank tower, past the House of Commons, up Whitehall, along St.Martins Lane to Leicester Square.

To many in the party this will still seem like heresy, disobeying orders, shirking the doorstep responsibility.

But I figured that if the wave was coming, it was coming with or without a couple of extra hours on the door from me, in a virgin seat.

For my downtime, rather than knock-up, I went to the Odeon Leicester Square and saw Return of the Jedi for the umpteenth time.

It was utterly magnificent.

I can still recall the air conditioned cool of the hall after the warmth outside, a perfect calming interlude.

By the time I was back at Millbank, there were even fewer staff on the floor. The clock hit ten and the exit poll was announced. Nervous looks as people gathered in the middle of the floor by the TVs. Margaret McDonagh was there and staffers were taking their cues for the most minor reactions from her. Even at this stage, after votes had been cast, after the exit poll was public, we were still petrified of seeming complacent. Peak New Labour.

Reports streamed in from committee rooms of what looked like huge gains in prospect and then the results started to be called. Sunderland South and Birmingham Edgbaston confirmed the huge swing.

Constituencies beyond the revised key seat list were falling. One sticks in the mind particularly: Crosby.

Maybe because it was the seat that Shirley Williams took in a by-election for the SDP in 1981, maybe because it was the size of the swing – the Tories had held it in 1992 with a majority a shade under 15,00 (contested for Labour by a young Maria Eagle) and Labour had taken it with a majority of just over 7,000. A swing of over 18%. Either way, it’s indelibly etched in my memory.

Most of all I remember the scramble for the big book.

The big book had all of the constituency profiles and candidates and was huge. Five or six inches thick.

As Crosby was called, Margaret McDonagh asked, “Who the hell is Claire Curtis-Tansley?”

Claire Curtis Tansley was the Labour candidate in Crosby and nobody in Millbank had ever heard of her. The big book was next to me and into it I dove.

“Is she mad?” asked the general secretary.

The question wasn’t literal. “Mad” meant, well, having politics of a similar stripe to the current Labour leadership.

I read out the candidate profile but no-one had any answer on the politics of the candidate. This was all uncharted territory.

Variants of this pattern were repeated for the coming hours before I was on duty at the party at the Festival Hall.

I was to be a non-specific body, there to do whatever I was told; to shepherd and mind whoever Jo Moore, head of the press office, told me.

I was also smashed within twenty minutes of arriving.

I’d been sipping beer conservatively at Milbank but pretty much as soon as I arrived at Southbank I necked a bottle and a half of wine.

I didn’t turn up to the meeting point to receive my orders and by the time Jo Moore found me I was swaying around wildly. Needless to say, she wasn’t pleased.

The equivalent of detention was being sent out of the party to mind the snappers.

At the back of the area where Tony Blair would make his memorable speech as the sun came up, was a bank of photographers.

Unknown to my press office bosses, I’d got myself another bottle of wine.

Everything gets sketchy from that bottle onwards.

Memories blur into themes and feelings but three things still stand out.

First, falling over.

My gyro was properly broken by the wine and after some staggering and swaying in front of the photographers, over I tumbled.

A gazillion flash bulbs lit up the moment. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me. The snappers were set-up, Blair was running late and in the hours of waiting, a pissed press officer landing on his arse was as eventful as it got.

Today, the image would have been tweeted and shared instantly. Then, it was just another non-newsworthy shot to be discarded.

Second, the Daily Mail front page.

After the party wound down, people rolled on to Borough Market where the pubs would be open. A group of us wandered up to Waterloo to get a cab and there I saw the Daily Mail’s first edition front page.

They couldn’t even bring themselves to mention the British general election. Instead the whole page was devoted to something impossibly bizarre, piracy in the pacific seems to ring a bell.

That they couldn’t even bear to reference the biggest electoral result in two decades said it all. This was the definition of victory over the likes of the Mail.

Third, falling asleep in my beer.

It was quarter to nine in the morning, May 2nd.  I was talking and then I wasn’t.  My head was lolling about like a Gerry Anderson puppet and I’d passed out, beer in hand, sat in the corner of the pub.

It wasn’t dignified, and any semblance of professionalism had been abandoned many, many hours earlier, but it was a fitting way to close out election day – every last drop of that moment drained and imbibed.

Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut



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3 Responses to “Election 1997 20th anniversary: “Who the hell is Claire Curtis-Tansley?””

  1. Tafia says:

    and the internet was still called the information super-highway.

    No it wasnt. It was called the internet or the web strangely enough.

  2. Matt says:


    It was Claire Curtis THOMAS in Crosby. I recall the next day Mandelson was again asking about who these people were who had been elected and Martin Liptrot the NW Press Officer had sent a note describing her as ‘certifiably insane’. I think such was the surprise at the scale of the seats we had won, that all the regional press officers were asked to send in a quick run-down of who they all were. You can imagine Mandelson’s expression.

    Good account – brings back great memories of when we were disciplined, on message and absolutely determined. You may remember a handful of us, led by Matthew Taylor went round to Smith Square in the middle of the night, just to witness the Tories exiting power after 18 long years and history being made. We weren’t crowing at all, in fact we were remarkably quiet and non-triumphalist (new Labour training) as we silently watched a beaten Hezza departing from Tory HQ. Some journo, recognised Matthew I think and asked us if we were from Millbank which of course we all denied and then made a quiet retreat…we had seen enough of the Tories.

    I lost my glasses jumping up and down that night to Things Can Only…which must have been played six times. And seeing TB being led off later surrounded by a Prime Ministerial entourage and Special Branch and thinking: ‘it’s all going to change for you now’. He was not going to be ‘our Tony’ anymore, but PM. Then of course, it was all round to No 10 the following afternoon, for what was a truly memorable occasion and extremely emotional. Tim Allan was in tears, David Bradshaw was hobbling on crutches still, but waving them in the air with joy and I don’t think I could speak I was so tired and rung out. But I wore a purple polo shirt in the sunshine – it was our colour in the final week. We went out that night for a quiet drink with Jo Gibbons and we could hardly stay awake we were so knackered. The next day I packed my bags and returned to Manchester after being away since January. Job done.

  3. Editor says:

    Great comment Matt & vivid memories. As you say, a world away from today. Clare Curtis Thomas was her name as an MP but she ran as Clare Curtis-Tansley. Think married when selected but then different situation by the time polling day came around. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claire_Curtis-Thomas – Atul

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