I remember it all like yesterday. Our new born baby girl (now 20) was just over a month old. My parents-in-law were visiting – mother-in-law to support her daughter; father-in-law enroute from New Zealand where he had been for a few months with his eldest son. As a retired diplomat he too was interested in politics and so as usual, as the polls closed, we sat glued to the television watching the marathon broadcast of the election returns chaired by the magisterial David Dimblebey, aided by the grand inquisitor of the BBC Sir Robin Day.
Time for Change
As always on election night, there was also another race for the first constituency to declare its results. In elections since 1979, David Amess’s constituency of Basildon in Essex had gotten ahead of everyone to be first to announce. This was no meaningless race: it was a portent for how the night might unfold for the parties. Basildon held the record for being first to declare, and each time in recent years returned a Tory MP and the Conservatives romped home to victory.
On this occasion, May 1st, 1997, however, the Tyne and Wear constituency of Sunderland South was the quickest to count its ballot papers and declared Labour’s Chris Mullin winner, with a majority of 49 percent and an electoral swing of 10 percent. It was the start of a momentous evening. After 18 years of Tory rule and three unsuccessful party leaders, the prospect of a Labour comeback now seemed real. Unlike John Major’s surprise victory in 1992 over an over-exuberant Neil Kinnock, this time, with an English leader middle England could relate to, it was surely Labour’s turn.
One by one, the great and the good of the Tory party who had dominated British politics for much of my adult life were swept-up in an electoral tsunami. Malcolm Rifkind, the former Foreign Secretary; Tony Newton, Majority Leader in Parliament; Norman Lamont the former Chancellor; Michael Forsythe Secretary of State of Scotland; Ian Lang President of the Board of Trade; William Waldegrave, former Chief Secretary to The Treasury; Jonathan Aitken former cabinet minister and ex-convict; and, Edwina Curry, former Health Minister among others.
How the mighty fell
But even as they fell like dominoes, the extent of the defeat that would keep the Tories out of power for the next thirteen years was not fully understood. Until that is, the studios turned their attention to the North London constituency of Edmonton and Southgate. If the Tories were to lose, as was expected, one sure bet was that Michael Portillo, the MP of the constituency, would become leader of the Conservative Party. Despite the Tory electoral headwinds the then Secretary of Defence and standard bearer of the Eurosceptic right was odds-on favourite to succeed John Major.
But as the David and Goliath of the 1997 elections walked up the stage for the returning officer’s declaration, Twigg’s somewhat suppressed, self-satisfied smile and Portillio’s forced cheerfulness suggested something ominous was in the air. And within minutes as the returning officer spoke, it was clear that the mightiest beast of all in the now bare Tory jungle had fallen. This was no ordinary defeat- it was a bloodbath!
The End of Thatcherism
The country was on the cusp of change from nearly two decades of Thatcherism – the embodiment of the evisceration of the state and much that mattered to Labour voters; from the NHS, public education, welfare, unemployment to even state ownership of vital services like utilities. Having abandoned Clause IV of the Labour Party’s constitution that committed the party to public ownership, Blair was going to be a different kind of Labour leader.
For a brief period I was enamoured by him when he gave his thumping speech at party conference in 1992 and implored us to mean what we say and say what we mean. I had followed him on the campaign trail, asked him questions and had him sign one of his books for me and so I was well aware of what he represented. Even so he would be different from the rapacious Tories and carry out the pledges he had committed himself to: enact the UK’s first minimum wage legislation; opt into the Social Chapter of the EU’s Maastricht treaty to protect workers’ rights; focus on education, education, educational as he had promised; devolve power from Westminster to Scotland and Wales; reform the House of Lords and rid it of hereditary peers; investigate the Police’s mishandling of the investigation into the killing of Stephen Lawrence; and many other progressive policies.
With the fall of Portillo, one finally understood the extent of the breach of the Tory Dam. History was unfolding right before our very eyes! And while I enjoyed the experience of watching the results on TV with my father-in-law, the desire to be part of it and to live to tell the tale one day was so irresistible I jumped into the car and drove the fastest I could, from Pinner to the Southbank, where the Labour leadership and supporters had gathered to celebrate this historic victory.
A new dawn has broken
Naturally the place was packed. Blair was rumoured to be travelling down by helicopter from his Sedgefield constituency to the Southbank and we waited with heightened anticipation. I dumped my car somewhere and rushed to the join the teeming crowds as we sang along to D.Ream’s “Things can only get better”. Outside, I spotted my former MP Harriet Harman, Peter Mandelson, Labour’s image and Communications guru and grandson of Herbert Morrison. Neil and Glenys Kinnock were singing along too. Ever the master of political sound bites, Blair’s opening words in his speech after he landed around 2am – “A new dawn has broken, has it not?”- captured the historic moment perfectly!
But standing outside was not enough for me. My mission was still incomplete until I was inside the Hall, where all the great Labourites were gathered but it was strictly by invitation only. I summoned all the charm I could to persuade the security guards to let me in but they would not budge. The comedian Eddie Izzard pitched up and I pretended to wave knowingly at him but he ignored me. After several minutes of milling around idly, a Land Rover pulled up with a noisy bunch. As soon as we found out the people in it included Stephen Twigg, the man who had just slain the Tory beast, the vehicle was assailed by hordes of supporters. We jumped around, sang till our voices were hoarse and carried the hero of 1997 election high on our shoulders. It was exactly the ecstatic moment of history I longed to savour.
When Twigg and his team made their way into the hall, I decided to tag along. I got away for a while until one of the security guards pulled me back and asked who I was. My response? “I am with the Stephen Twigg party”. Which constituency? the security guard asked. I thought to myself wrong question; I am in! Without much hesitation I uttered three words in response : “Edmonton and Southgate”. He looked up his sheet and despite his doubts let me in. The rest, as they say, is history
Damage and budding revenge in the air
After a night heedless revelling, I headed back home around 5am only to find David Mellor, Secretary of State for National Heritage and Consigliere of John Major had lost the super safe Tory seat of Putney. As expected the anti-corruption candidate and former war correspondent Martin Bell unseated Neil Hamilton from Tatton. Labour went from 271 to 418 seats in Parliament and the Tories crashed from 336 to a paltry 165. That, in any book, was a colossal thrashing.
Amidst all of the riotous debris on one side and the euphoria among Labour supporters, the 1997 election also ushered in a new MP for Maidenhead. Her name? Theresa May. Twenty years after that clean-out she is now Prime Minister poised to avenge the worst defeat her party had suffered in recent years. She may yet do to Jeremy Corbyn in 2017 what Blair did to
the Tories on the night when they were both victors.
(C) Ekow Nelson
Singapore, April 2017