1997, 20 years on: what can we learn?

By Emma Burnell / @EmmaBurnell_

Labour is a movement drowning in nostalgia. It’s plethora of pasts overwhelm all parts of its present. All of the fights we have about our current situation are – in reality – fights about how you view our recent and longer term history. What lessons can be learned, what lessons should be learned. How to interpret our successes and failures though the years.

Labour is a party over one hundred years old. Over the years, it has built up a backward-looking approach to all things political. Always harking back to a better era, a different one for each of us depending on how our own personal politics reflects our understanding of that history. Always seeking to interpret the present as a betrayal of or reversion to the past. Labour factions wear the party’s achievements and failures as millstones – heavy burdens dragging us back to the past. Either baubles to be polished and preserved or dark chapters never to be revisited. Labour are at the same time nostalgic while unrealistic about the past.

And so, we come to today’s momentous anniversary and the context we find ourselves celebrating it in. Twenty years ago, Labour won an electoral landslide that had before that seemed a pipedream for so long. As the Party fights for every seat in an election that feels like considerably harder terrain, this anniversary might seem cruelly designed to show Labour what it once had, what was lost and to continue internal fights about what these mean to the future.

Labour need to be focused on the country’s immediate future. The Party has to offer the country a future that is achievable and attractive. The policy context is a long way from Cool Britannia. But there are lessons to be learned from the most successful Labour political operation ever and it is vital that Labour do so to increase the chances of successes at the local, mayoral and national elections.

It is right that Labour moves on from New Labour. Those who best understood the project understood that politically it had its limitations and what was then modern is now dated. No one can or should ask Jeremy Corbyn to convert to Blairism to win this election. Even in the deftest and most Blairite of hands, that approach would be hard to pull off. On Corbyn, it would simply fail. One of Corbyn’s strengths is his sense of authenticity and that must be the core of the campaign.

For the new politics to listen to New Labour is not to forget its shortcomings but perhaps to make peace with the good and bad in our history. New Labour had more warning of the election than today’s Labour Party. Labour took for granted that Theresa May wasn’t lying about not wanting the chaos of an early election. She was – so much for strong, stable leadership.

The Times Red Box Podcast has just published an extraordinary series of interviews with key players recorded just before Theresa May announced the election. I highly recommend these. It is worth remembering that Blair only had one more year of leadership than Jeremy Corbyn before facing the gruelling test of a general election. The message discipline still evident 20 years later in these interviews show the “project” was not just a matter of soundbites, but a coherent sense of how Labour would behave in power and out of it. It will be this discipline that will be needed from the leadership now.

What is vital is that twenty years on, all of the protagonists have an absolutely shared vision of what they were about. It wasn’t about a menu of policies, but about projecting a permanent sense of a better future. Where the Tories are mentioned, it is generally by the presenter. Their disarray is a key part of the conditions that make the landslide possible, but for the most part, the Labour team are focused on Labour’s message which is one of renewal, hope and change.

All parts of Labour have too strong a tendency to wallow in nostalgia. It is an irony that it is this anti-Conservative Party that is too obsessed with exhuming, re-examining and endlessly arguing over its history.

But that doesn’t mean there is nothing to be learned from the way New Labour won the 1997 election. Labour must get over its internal enmities now and learn from the best of its past. It will only be by doing so that it can end the burden of fighting over history, and offer the country a positive vision of a desirable future – one fair for all.

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