This week it will be the 20th anniversary of Tony Blair's 1997 landslide victory, the largest Labour majority of my life so far - and likely to remain so. Lots of people on the left still look back at it with misty-eyed reverence and think of it as a magical moment of political perfection, only giving a cursory consideration to how everything went downhill from there. Here’s a prime example.
I remember the 1997 election clearly as I was 11 years old at the time. I didn't really understand the politics, or the reasons behind the huge victory, but there was a sense that something epochal had happened. There was optimism in the air and the sense that things would be different; that we had turned a corner as a country.
I joined the Labour Party when I was 18. At the time, I guess you could say I was a Blairite. Although at the time I thought Limp Bizkit were really cool, so approach the opinions of teenage-me with caution. I had grown up under New Labour and it is difficult to overstate how dominant the ideology of Blair was in the late 90s/early 2000s.
If only it could have stayed that way, Blair’s many fans today must think. If only people had not grown dissatisfied with Blair and New Labour. If only Blair had remained the youthful, dynamic politician doing headers with Kevin Keegan and not become the self-styled messiah of globalised tomorrow that we saw at his third victory speech. If we could have stopped time around 2001 then all the terrible things that have happened since might not have occurred.
It was shortly before Blair’s third electoral victory that I went to uni, where I promptly became a long haired, weed smoking, Levellers listening, ‘Introduction to Marx’ reading socialist. At the time I claimed that I was a Communist and wanted a workers’ state, where the party controlled everything. Aside for wearing a hammer-and-sickle T-shirt, what I was really in favour of was the post war consensus: social democracy, the welfare state and redistribution. Maybe with more taxing of the rich and nationalisation of banks than the average Keynesian, but that was broadly what I believed.
Basically, I believed in a more even distribution of wealth. I was certainly against the free-market consensus of Blair and his fans, and neoliberal economic dominance. This was a crucial change for me. This was the point when I realised that the establishment was not a benign force that looked after everyone's best interests, but a group with interests of their own that need to be opposed.
Uni was great, with lots of free time, booze and weed. Waking up 2pm and going to bed at 4am. I frequently forget other aspects of what it was like: the anxiety, the stress of exams, not having money, being hungry and listlessness a lot of the time. That’s nostalgia for you. Perhaps I could have spent it more productively, but I had a good time.
Blair’s premiership was rapidly going to pot at the same time. An Ipsos-MORI poll taken on 25th of April 2007 showed that 66% of people were not satisfied with his leadership. This is what happens when you go from blowing the winds of change to being the epitome of the establishment. Blair had become synonymous for everything that was modern and a bit rubbish, summed up by so many Peep Show jokes.
There were lots of events along the way (like the Iraq War, which I am glossing over because if I get started on that we’ll be here all day), but in essence people got sick of Blair. His personal satisfaction rating went from 80% in 1997 down to 28% when he left office in 2007.
Blair gave way to Gordon Brown at the point where New Labour had really lost its shine. Brown's dour Scotsman act might have been suited to leading a Jacobite rebellion against the hated English bastards, but in the mid-2000s it looked about as out of touch as John Major's evocation of cricket greens had in the 90s.
Plus, the Conservatives had found their own Blair: David Cameron. It is important remember how completely mired in shit the New Labour project looked to everyone at this point, beset by endless fuck-ups like leaving NHS data on a train or cabinet ministers exposing briefing notes to the press.
Much of today's Labour Party looks back on this time with the fervour that UKIP supporters look back to the 1950s. The past they are remembering never really existed. Blair was always just another politician, in a specific time and a place, not an iron law that can be applied to all of politics. The way the party looks back on those heady early 90s years, when rock stars wanted to be seen with its politicians, is the same way I look back on University: all the freedom and possibility, none of the wasted opportunities.
After I left uni, my politics became more left-wing and more grounded in my own experience. Outside the comfortable bubble of student life, I had to deal with working long hours for barely enough to cover my rent, so that I could enrich a boss with the temperament of a grumpy chimpanzee that had been roughly shaved, forced into a suit, filled with coke and given too much power over objects it barely recognised as people. I also had to confront spending most of my wages to live in a matchbox that was cold, leaked, had a wasp nest in the roof and had a bathroom that once exploded.
I have led a pretty privileged life and there are certainly people have endured worse working and housing conditions than me, plus added racial, gender or sexual discrimination. I acknowledge that I have been lucky and there's no need to get out a tiny violin for this middle class white bloke in London.
The real world is cruel when you stop living on Britpop nostalgia. The confusing mix of things I believed at uni give way to a more concrete understanding of the problems many young people face. Leaving uni and entering the real world didn’t make me a greedy Tory, keen to kick everyone who gets a handout. It made me angrier, more convinced that something was fundamentally fucked up about all of this, and that we need to do something about it.
The Labour Party might never have been the vehicle to achieve these changes. But it certainly wasn’t by the late 2000s. Blair was gone, but the party was the establishment in service of the establishment. It was not interested in the sort of change that would make people's' lives better. That's why, in 2010, in a fit of Nick Clegg mania, I voted Lib Dem. However, it didn't last because everything was about change for me, the Labour Party and the country.
In the next post I will look at my journey through the Labour opposition years and the legacy of Blair's time as party leader.