Remembering ’97

Today was a family day, but I still managed to catch most of the key moments of the 1997 General Election results on BBC Parliament. I was having problem with our set top box but I just managed to tune in in time for David Mellor.

It was weird watching it – on the night itself I watched the coverage with about 500 other people in the Main Debating Hall at the University of Manchester Students Union. The film society, which I was also an active member of, was projecting the coverage on its big screen (I understand that the union has managed to kick MUFS out of the building now, which is a crying shame).

The Mellor bit I recall quite vividly, right down to Dimblebum making a wild prediction during it that the Lib Dems were set to win 61 seats (in fact it took us another 8 years to get to that point). His rant about Goldsmith failing to buy the election was much mocked at the time, but he had a point: millionaires should not presume to buy elections out of personal vanity. Goldsmith, having largely failed in his mission, was dead within weeks.

Neil Hamilton was as ungracious in defeat as I remembered (I’d forgotten about the Miss Moneypenny Party, with their candidate towering over the returning officer), Michael Portillo very much the opposite. Two points about the Enfield Southgate announcement. Firstly, Jeremy Browne was the Lib Dem candidate. Secondly, the BBC commentary was by Lance Price, who quite soon afterwards of course jumped into a job at Number 10.

The Enfield Southgate declaration was swiftly followed by the Stevenage one. I remember seeing Alex Wilcock standing on stage with his partner Richard (these were pre-millennial times, otherwise, I suspect a certain elephant would have been there as well) – at the time he was one of the few people I knew who was actually a candidate.

All the Lib Dems being interviewed kept talking about the Lib-Lab constitutional deal. Of course, a large amount of that was indeed delivered – it seems odd to hear people talking about creating a Scottish Parliament, Freedom of Information Act and Human Rights Act as these are all very much part of our daily politics now. Shirley Williams prediction that this was the last – or at worst last-but-one election to be fought under first past the post however proved to be somewhat wide of the mark.

Blair looked close to tears when he spoke at the Sedgefield Labour Club, and shockingly young. Various other faces popped up as well, such as Nicola Sturgeon, then 27, at the Glasgow Govan declaration (with black hair!). Peter Snow’s graphics were fantastic, particularly the animation where they flew over the UK showing Labour/Lib Dem target seats exploding and transforming from blue to red/gold (it reminded me of a cross between the post-2004 BBC weather map and the Death Star trench battle at the end of Star Wars).

If we’d known then how it would all turn out, very few of us would have cheered as loudly as we did, but nonetheless it was a fantastic evening. With the Tories now back on the rise and Labour in long term decline, it is just conceivable that we might have a similarly momentous General Election next time around, or maybe the next-but-one. Can the Tories make the bulk of non-Labour, non-Tory supporters as happy for them as we were for Labour winning 10 years ago? I suspect the answer is no, and I suspect that lies at the heart of Cameron’s problems.

I should explain that last sentence better. As the coverage today repeatedly reminded us, Labour’s vote share in 1997 wasn’t actually that high. What did it for them was the degree of tactical voting, with people voting for anyone but the Tories. Fewer and fewer people are prepared to vote in such a way, but the Tories only really have a shot if the public becomes so sick of Labour that they start to vote tactically against them. I don’t see that happening, not in the numbers that it did in 1997. People are open to Cameron, but the Tory brand remains toxic.


  1. Thanks for that, James – we heard from a friend this afternoon that we were on and just missed ourselves (as far as we know, it’s the only clear TV shot of the two of us together!), but still enjoyed a bit of it. I’d forgotten the Death Star trench graphic, which was fantastic – Richard suggested a CGI New Labour Godzilla to smash everything in its path – but I’d not forgotten just how much fun it was to see the Conservatives demolished. Even then, I took no pleasure in Labour’s victory (and got heckled at the count for saying they’d be just like the Tories, after my glorious far-distant third), but seeing all those Tory ministers in scowling defeat, even ten years later it would take a heart of stone not to laugh. You’re right that Mr Cameron couldn’t get the same effect yet; is that because, much as we all loathe the Blair-Brown lot, we still don’t loathe them quite as much?

    Actually, I’m just imagining Hazel Blears frowning as a tide of Tories, Lib Dems or Monster Raving Loonies sweeps her away, and I withdraw my previous remark. It’d still be incredibly funny.

    One of the most memorable moments of the night you nearly mention a few minutes before we appeared was not Michael Portillo’s defeat itself, but John Redwood’s reaction as he watches that result. Obviously not knowing the camera was on him, there’s an obvious flicker of a smile before he thinks to hide it!

  2. You’re right: there’s a whole slew of Labour MPs I’d just love to see humiliated. Many of them have ultra-safe seats (even more ultra-safe than Portillos) though, so I may be in for a long wait.

    The other thing that I forgot to mention was watching Iain Duncan Smith being interviewed by Paxo, clearly relishing every second of his own party’s defeat, utterly wrapped up in the party’s civil war (it worked both ways, with John Sopel reading out a Tory Reform Group press release that was startlingly visceral). Within 4 years, the fools had elected the man as leader – if this coverage had been shown in September 2001, somehow I suspect the result would have been different.

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