Study Notes

General Election 1997 - Leadership, Image and Policy: the Labour Party Campaign

Level:
AS, A Level
Board:
AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 20 Nov 2017

In this study note we explore aspects of party leadership, image and policy in relation to the Labour Party's campaign in the 1997 General Election.

Leadership

Because Tony Blair became very unpopular in the aftermath of the Iraq War in 2003, people sometimes forget just how popular a politician he was in 1997. He was seen as young, charismatic and energetic; even “cool”. The contrast with John Major could hardly have been more stark. Although there were other “big beasts” on the Labour front bench, like John Prescott and Gordon Brown, Blair was a very dominant figure in the Labour Party in the lead up to the 1997 General Election. He stamped his authority on the party and his vision of “New Labour” was very much the image of the party.

Image

The Labour Party had been changing its image ever since its disastrous election result of 1983, but with the election of Tony Blair as leader in 1994, this change became faster and more dramatic. The party even appeared to change its name to New Labour (although it never actually formally changed its name). A symbol of this change came in 1995 when the party abandoned Clause IV of its constitution (that had been printed on all members’ membership cards) committing the party to socialist policies of common ownership. Instead the party positioned itself much more in the centre of the political spectrum and distanced itself from its more left-wing history and from the trade union movement. A number of figures from the left of the party found themselves marginalised (such as future leader Jeremy Corbyn).

The party increasingly put Tony Blair the individual forward as the key image of the party, appealing to middle-class and young voters with a “cool”, “Britpop” image. He later, as prime minister, heralded “Cool Britannia” inviting members of Oasis and Blur to Number 10.

Policy and Manifesto

Tony Blair was convinced that one of the key reasons for Labour losing the 1992 general election was what the conservatives called “Labour’s tax bombshell” – the allegation that they would increase the basic rate of tax. This led to pledges from Labour not to raise the basic or higher rate of income tax and to keep to the Conservative’s spending plans. This avoided the allegation that Labour was the “tax and spend” party. It did also, however, limit the policy promises they could make.

However, there were some eye-catching policies in the manifesto and on the pledge cards that they introduced. The five pledges on their card were:

  • Cut class sizes to 30 or under for 5, 6 and 7 year olds (by using money from the assisted places scheme)
  • Fast-track punishment for persistent young offenders (by halving the time from arrest to sentencing)
  • Cut NHS waiting lists by treating an extra 100,000 patients (as first step by releasing £100 million saved from NHS red tape)
  • Get 250,000 under-25 year-olds off benefit and into work (by using money from a windfall levy on the privatised utilities)
  • No rise in income tax rates (cut VAT on heating to 5% and inflation and interest rates as low as possible). 

As well as being clear and not enormously radical, these five pledges were able to appeal to people who had not historically voted Labour. Indeed, while the education and NHS pledges were familiar territory for Labour, law and order, taking people off benefits, freezing income tax and pledging low inflation was much more a case of “putting their tanks on the Conservatives’ lawn”. 

Within the detail there were some potentially controversial policies. The assisted places scheme helped people on low incomes attend private schools and was popular with some of the right-wing newspapers as a vehicle for social mobility. A windfall tax on utility companies was seen by the companies as unfair. But the policies helped to shift the party’s image. Labour had been seen as (fairly or unfairly) soft on crime, pro-welfare, in favour of higher taxes and prioritising cutting unemployment over concerns about inflation and interest rates. The change of image and the change of policy very much went hand in hand. 

Other eye-catching policies were proposals for constitutional reform, such as Lords reform, a freedom of information act, referendums on devolution to Scotland and Wales, and about whether to change the voting system. This helped to give the campaign a sense of radicalism while remaining firmly in the political centre ground on economic and social issues. 

The campaign itself was very effective. A few key slogans were regularly repeated. There was the campaign song (D:Ream’s “Things Can Only Get Better”) “Britain deserves better” and “New Labour: New Britain”. Another, “Labour’s Coming Home” echoed a football song from Euro 96. These slogans, together with a focus on Blair as an individual, dominated the campaign, while John Prescott in a “battle bus” shored up the “core vote” and ensured traditional Labour voters were not disillusioned by the change in focus. Party election broadcasts covered a range of issues, but some focused on business leaders backing Labour, pushing a “pro-Business” image, again to tackle a sense that Labour had been anti-business in the 1980s.

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