As the 25th anniversary of New Labour’s first election victory approaches, what better way to spend the time than with a man who featured so significantly in my diary for that day, May 1, 1997? No, not Tony Blair, but Björn from ABBA! Oh yes.
On the morning of the vote I was staying in the Blairs’ house in Sedgefield; I woke early and went down to the kitchen, where Tony’s agent, John Burton, had turned on the political world’s choice of breakfast listening, the Today programme on Radio 4. I switched it off, said we didn’t have to worry any more, as there was nothing more we could do, and I twiddled the knob to find a music station. I got one, playing ABBA’s The Winner Takes It All. John and I fell about.
The reason it was so memorable is not just that I have loved ABBA ever since Waterloo exploded through our TV screens in the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, but also, it was the moment I finally allowed myself the thought that there was no doubt about it – we were going to win. The Tories were out.
So why, you are now wondering, was I celebrating this moment a quarter of a century later not with TB, but with Björn Ulvaeus? Well, I see TB lots; but it’s not every day that I get to be interviewed by Björn for his podcast, in which he talks to people who love ABBA about why they love ABBA, and why ABBA have endured sufficiently for next month’s hot ticket to be the show at which their music is played by avatars! I will be there.
For all things ABBA, you will have to wait for whenever Björn’s team at Apple Music decides to put out our hour-long chat, in which I reveal my university party piece of singing ABBA lyrics in three languages. But we also had a deep conversation about the state of the world, and the state of our politics, which reminded me how far removed the political mood now is from that which greeted our landslide win.
Björn is a youthful-looking 76. He says he has never been more worried about politics, and about the existential threat facing liberal democracy. Key to it, he said, is that social media has created a world in which there is little agreement about objective factual truth, and rather than challenge that, too many political leaders exploit it, because the temptation is so strong.
He is not wrong. One of them, alas, is our current prime minister. Of all the qualities required to be a good prime minister, which TB was, and Boris Johnson isn’t, I can literally think of none on which the current occupant of No 10 outscores the man who was there from 1997-2007.
Talking of hot tickets, apologies to those who tried to get one for the first live event recording Rory Stewart and I are doing for The Rest Is Politics, our New European-sponsored podcast, which is going ridiculously well. The event sold out in a few hours on the back of one tweet. And welcome to the new readers who joined as part of the special offer for our listeners. I promise you I don’t write about New Labour’s election wins every week. But this week the editor asked me to reference it once or twice.
Oh sod it, I’m on a 1997 roll now… someone calling himself @LastBlairite posted a tweet last week, asking “what is the most Blairite TV show ever?” There were some OK suggestions, The Thick of It, Peep Show, This Life, The Office, Teachers, The Last Leg, Fantasy Football League, Little Britain, Queer As Folk. But I am giving the bronze medal to the recent BBC documentary series, Blair and Brown, The New Labour Revolution; silver to the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, which – though it took place under a Tory government – was a reflection of the country New Labour left to them, which they have so damaged through austerity, Brexit and Johnson in the decade since; and I am giving the gold medal to the suggestion I tweeted in response to @LastBlairite: Election Night Results Special (1997, 2001, 2005).
I hope you don’t think I am over-emphasising the “WINNING” element of the New Labour record, but it is somewhat important in the political scheme of things. My son Rory (that’s Campbell, not Stewart), who works in sports data and analytics, and is constantly trying to persuade Labour to understand the need for a more rigorous approach to data and analytics in politics, came up with a remarkable stat for me last week.
“How many Tory leaders before 1997 did NOT become prime minister?” The answer is one, Austen Chamberlain.
“How many Tory leaders did NOT become prime minister when Tony Blair was in No 10?” The answer is three. Hague. Duncan-Smith. Howard.
“How many Tory leaders since TB left office have NOT become prime minister?” The answer is NONE. David Cameron. Theresa May. Johnson.
So only one Tory leader before him did NOT become prime minister. That fact underlines just what a remarkable achievement it was for TB to win three in a row. This is a hard country in which to win power from the left of centre.
When Tories were asked to list Johnson’s achievements in the first 1,000 days of his grotesque tenure, getting Brexit done, (which he hasn’t fully, and the bits he has done are a disaster) the best vaccine roll-out (which it’s not) and leading the world on Ukraine (which he isn’t) were about it.
Here is a list I trot out whenever I get a “what did the Romans ever do for us?” kind of question about New Labour.
National Minimum Wage. Bank of England independence. Devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, elected mayors for London and other cities. Record NHS investment, leading to the shortest waiting times since records began. Over 44,000 more doctors. Over 89,000 more nurses. More than 100 new hospital building schemes. Huge decrease in child and pensioner poverty. Free TV licences for over-75s. New Deal helping more than 2.2 million people into work. 3,500 Sure Start Children’s Centres. Over 42,000 more teachers and 212,000 more support staff, including 123,000 more teaching assistants. Free nursery places for every three- and four-year-old. More young people attending university than ever before. More than double the number of apprenticeships starts. More than doubling of spending per pupil. Over £20bn invested in social housing. Rough sleeping down by two thirds, homelessness at its lowest level since the early 1980s. Free off-peak travel on buses anywhere in England for over-60s and disabled people. Crime down, police numbers up. Equalising age of consent, repeal of “anti-gay” Section 28. Civil partnerships giving legal recognition to same-sex partners. Tripled Britain’s overseas aid budget, helping to lift 3 million people a year out of poverty. Debt cancellation for the world’s poorest countries. Ban on fox hunting. Ban on cluster munitions and anti-personnel landmines. Massive expansion of wind power. Securing the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. Free admission to national museums and galleries. Right to four weeks’ paid holiday; right to parental leave; extended maternity leave; right to request flexible working; and the same protection for part-time workers as full-time workers.
“What about Iraq?” ask some. What about Kosovo, what about Sierra Leone, what about the peace process in Northern Ireland?
I could go on and on. I often do. I wish the Labour party had gone on and on about our record since we left office in 2010, because failure to do so helped the Tories frame a narrative that somehow Labour caused the global crash, so justifying the Cameron government’s austerity programme, when in fact we presided over rising living standards that have stagnated under the Tories, chief authors of the current cost-of-living crisis, under-invested public services, and the rotting of standards in public life.
If I can bring Jürgen Klopp into the equation, I am sure he agrees that if your own team doesn’t defend itself properly, it makes it a damn sight easier for your opponents to attack you. Own goal. Big lesson.
Normal non-’97 service resumed next week. Happy Anniversary