Election 1997 20th anniversary: Fear and loathing in Conservative Central Office

In a series of pieces, Uncut writers look back at election day 1997. Mark Stockwell was a staffer at Conservative Central Office.

Twenty-odd points behind in the polls. Divided, discredited, and despised. Doomed to defeat, a whole generation of talent set to be swept aside in an electoral tsunami from the south of England to the highlands of Scotland, and all points between.

That was the situation facing the Conservative Party on 1 May 1997. And although the eventual share of the vote was closer than the polls suggested, the impact in terms of seats won and lost was every bit as devastating.

In the early hours of the morning of 2 May, as the scale of Tony Blair’s victory became clear, a small crowd of ‘well-wishers’ gathered outside the then Tory HQ. Some maintain that they were chanting “You’re out and you know you are” (to the tune of ‘Go West’). From inside the Smith Square bunker, I think it was the more traditional football-terrace lyrics I could hear. And while some were outraged at this impertinence, and still shocked at what had unfolded during the course of the night, a good deal more were inclined to shrug and think to themselves, “fair enough”. Eighteen years of Conservative rule had come to a shattering end and those who had hastened its demise were in no mood for an insincere display of magnanimity.

Earlier, preparing to hunker down for a sleepless night of election coverage and (let’s be honest) steady drinking, a few Central Office staffers in the ‘war room’ had printed off a list of marginal seats and pinned it to the wall in order to keep track of the results as we went along. (Even the memory of this quaint, paper-based approach seems to tinge the whole scene with sepia. I don’t think we even had Excel in those days.)

After a handful of early results had filtered through, the extent of the swing to Labour and the patterns of tactical voting had become obvious. A few of us began to exchange anxious glances. I can’t recall exactly who said it first, or at what stage in proceedings, but pretty soon the conclusion was unavoidable: “We’re going to need to print out another sheet.” And pretty soon, another one. I recalled the words of Pitt the Younger on hearing of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz: “Roll up the map; we will not be needing it these ten years.”

Such was the force of the tidal wave that some of us felt able to cheer not just the occasional unexpected survivor – although I struggle now to name one – but also the electoral demise of some particularly unloved candidates. In truth, though, the destruction was indiscriminate, good and able candidates drowning alongside some of the more unsavoury elements. Some, including senior ministers, who had joined the ‘chicken run’ – fleeing obviously endangered lowlands in the hope of finding safer ground elsewhere – nonetheless perished as the floodwaters broke the meagre Tory defences and flattened previously redoubtable outposts.

To some, in spite of the consistent message of the polls throughout the campaign and for several years before, the result nevertheless came as a shock. I remember passing people on the stairs of Central Office (men’s and ladies’ loos were on alternate floors) with tears streaming down their cheeks, utterly bewildered. Mostly, these were not naive youngsters but the grizzled veterans of 1987 and especially 1992, who had seen Labour poll leads evaporate before and had hoped against hope that the same would happen again.

They were not alone in suffering delusions, however. Even for those of us who had feared the worst, there was an expectation that Blair would founder and fail before long. Labour governments always had done before, hadn’t they? We would be back in power soon enough, electoral arithmetic and precedent notwithstanding.

In reality, the rump that remained after 1997 was so wholly unrepresentative of the country and of the people living in large parts of it, that it was difficult even to formulate opposition policy effectively. There were practically no Conservative MPs representing urban areas (outside London, at any rate) and even the leafy suburbs had largely fallen for Blair’s charms.

Some of the MPs on the Tory benches were inclined to think that their survival was a mark of their own innate abilities and that the attitudes and policies that ‘played well’ in their affluent, often rural constituencies would somehow also prove wildly popular in the rest of the country. It had been the failure of the party nationally to espouse these policies with sufficient conviction that had caused the defeat.

For all the attempts of the high command under William Hague to ‘listen to Britain’, ‘concede and move on’ and embrace ‘kitchen table conservatism’, all too often the party had little or nothing to say to the large numbers of people who wanted, for example, more affordable housing or better public transport, to say nothing of the “schools ‘n’ hospitals” that were so central to New Labour’s pitch. It has been a long road back, and even now many are inclined to view the Prime Minister’s insistence that she wants to focus on the needs of “ordinary working families” as little more than window-dressing.

The general election of 2017 seems likely to deliver a similar blow to the Labour Party. It is not quite a case of history repeating itself – although it must be admitted that the notion of Ed Miliband as tragedy and Jeremy Corbyn as farce does have a certain intuitive appeal. For one thing, Labour has already suffered two painful election defeats and has already adjusted psychologically to being in opposition. Indeed, it could be argued that the mentality of the party has shifted altogether too far in that direction.

It is clear, in any case, that Labour will face many of the same difficulties the Conservatives had to contend with 20 years ago, as well as confronting once again some of the demons that plagued Neil Kinnock’s efforts to make the party electable in the 1980s.

Finding the successor to Kinnock, never mind Blair, will be an important first step. I have seen it rumoured that staff at Labour HQ are contemplating going on strike after the election in protest at Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Back in 1997, John Major – who continued to enjoy considerable personal popularity and affection in the country and his party – resigned immediately and went off to watch the cricket. It is apparently inconceivable that Corbyn, for all that he betrays so little vim and enthusiasm for his role, will simply shuffle off his political coil and crawl back beneath one of his manhole covers. Desperate times call for desperate measures and it may be that when a Labour leader – a Labour leader – is reduced to facing down strike action from his own workers, this may provide the impetus the party needs to choose a new figurehead.

So what of those party staffers, the humble functionaries who collectively do so much (on all sides) to oil the wheels of democracy? What will become of them in the years ahead? For some, the clouds will no doubt seem exceedingly dark. But all is not doom and gloom.

My own contemporaries from those times have taken a variety of paths. Some – especially those who had enjoyed some seniority – soon found their way into lucrative private sector roles largely unrelated to politics and, I suspect, cast ne’er a backward glance.

Many more have followed the tried-and-trusted path from politics into policy, communications and ‘stakeholder engagement’ roles, in the public, private and voluntary sectors. This is as good a way as any to make a perfectly respectable living while persuading yourself, and sometimes even others, that you are doing something good and worthwhile with your life.

For some though, this is not enough, not the life they had planned for themselves. Westminster is in many ways a small village but it exerts a huge gravitational pull on those for whom politics is more than a game but every bit as addictive.

But even those who have been bitten particularly hard by the political bug need not despair after a heavy defeat. The lower ministerial ranks currently feature a number of survivors from the class of ’97. Indeed, if memory serves, the Northern Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire, was among our number at Central Office during that campaign, and has lived to tell the tale.

So, to despondent Labour staffers who nonetheless dream of a career in politics and high office, fear not.

Dig in. Go off and do something else for a bit if you must. But if you keep your head while all about you are having theirs unceremoniously removed from their shoulders by the electorate, you could be a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State playing a not inconsiderable part in the Labour government of 2035 as it leads us back into a new Confederation of European Nations and helps negotiate a trade deal with the unified Republic of Korea. Oh yes.

Mark Stockwell is a former adviser to the Conservative party

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