Now Labour’s gonna party like it’s 1997

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer and Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak...
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer and Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during their first television debate last week. PHOTO: REUTERS
Having just moved back to the UK, Carol Jess writes that political history is poised to repeat itself.

It may be the image that defines this election.

United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in front of the gathered press outside Downing Street to announce the date for the general election. Drenched to the skin and looking utterly miserable under a spring downpour. Hardly the look he would have wanted to launch a re-election campaign.

Adding insult to injury, a familiar refrain was serenading him from an adjacent street. "That’s D:Ream, Things Can Only Get Better," I said to my partner as recognition eventually dawned on me.

It was bad enough that the 1990s’ pop song was getting louder, drowning out Sunak’s already sodden speech.

But this wasn’t just any old pop song. This had been the campaign anthem of Tony Blair’s Labour Party, when it won a landslide victory in 1997, ending 18 years of Conservative governments. Although very much one-hit wonders, D:Ream would remain somewhat famous for having celebrity scientist Prof Brian Cox as the keyboard player.

There are many parallels with that time right now here in the UK, or at least in England. As in 1997, the Conservative government is trailing dismally in the polls, looking increasingly exhausted and desperate. Mired in scandals (from Boris Johnson’s "Partygate" to Liz Truss’ spectacular tanking of the economy), lurching from one media mauling to another (Sunak’s D-Day commemoration gaffe is the latest though by no means the worst), there’s a sense of government well and truly on the ropes, just waiting for it to be over.

The number of sitting Conservative MPs who have indicated they will retire rather than stand for re-election was already high, but following Sunak’s speech soared to 75.

The UK isn’t New Zealand, and our first-past-the-post voting system means that vote share won’t be replicated by the number of MPs each party wins in the end.

Still, all the indications are that the 2024 election will see Keir Starmer installed as prime minister. If so, this will be the first Labour PM to win an election since Blair. Gordon Brown was our last Labour PM but, like Sunak and Truss, didn’t win a general election.

Labour’s situation is also familiar. Like Blair, Starmer has antagonised many on the left of the Labour Party by moving the party in a rightwards direction.

Once again, Labour supporters are divided between those who see this as necessary pragmatism and those who see it as a sell-out of the party’s principles. According to some of the most recent polls, Starmer may well win a landslide in numbers of MPs, but with fewer actual votes than Jeremy Corbyn lost with in 2017.

In other ways, the picture is different. While nowhere near as radical as some long-term Labour supporters wanted, Blair’s government came to power with an ambitious manifesto of major political and constitutional reforms.

The UK was to enter the EU’s Social Chapter, which meant among other things that there would be a minimum wage for British workers.

There was to be reform of the House of Lords, which ended the creation of new hereditary peerages. There was a promise of referendums on devolution from Westminster to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and regions of England. The Human Rights Act would see UK citizens able to enforce their rights directly in UK courts.

The 2024 Labour manifesto hasn’t yet been published, but every indication from the Labour front bench is that their programme will be less ambitious than Blair’s.

No major constitutional reforms have been hinted at. Economically, they are keen to shed their image as a "tax and spend" party, casting themselves instead as the party of economic stability and tough spending limits.

This may spare them some of the worst attacks from the UK’s mostly right-wing press. But what they will inherit in government is very different from 1997.

Even before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, UK living standards were falling. The last 14 years have been characterised by austerity, with massive cuts across all national and local public services.

Wages have stagnated since 2007. Foodbanks were almost unheard of in 1997 UK, but their use grew alarmingly throughout the decade following 2010 and, in 2024, 20% of people accessing them are in work.

We also have a generation in their 20s who are widely expected to have lower living standards throughout their lives than their parents for the first time in the history of the modern welfare state.

The privatised public services (most of the railway system in England, utilities and water) see increasing super-profits for shareholders and huge payouts to CEOs, while bills soar and the services dwindle and fail from decades of under-investment.

These are major challenges for an incoming government. Whether it can make serious changes without an ambitious investment plan is doubtful.

Constitutionally, a Labour government will need to take some risks. Ten years after the independence referendum, about half of Scottish voters still favour leaving the UK. In Wales support for independence has risen from about 10% in 1997 to about 30% now. That can’t be ignored forever. And Northern Ireland’s position remains complicated.

And then there’s Brexit, the economic damage from which has become increasingly apparent. Despite the polls over the past year showing a majority (consistently over 60%) of the UK voting population would back a return to the EU, it’s not on the table.

But the UK’s relationship with the EU, by far our biggest trading partner, needs to be repaired, despite the inevitable teeth-gnashing from Nigel Farage and the Daily Mail.

If the polls are right, I shall be reliving the early hours of Friday May 1, 1997 in the early hours of Friday July 5, 2024.

And, as in 1997, I will believe that things can only get better.

But "better" is currently a pretty low bar, and we have a long way to go if they are to be anything like "good" again.

 - Carol Jess is a former Dunedin South Labour LEC member and Labour NZ Coumcil member, once again resident in the UK.