A new dawn has broken, has it not?
The euphoric words of newly-crowned Prime Minister Tony Blair, spoken on the crisp orange morning of May 2nd. The Labour Party had achieved what few politicians have managed: an absolute election landslide. Eighteen years of brutal, vindictive Conservative rule came crashing down – from 343 MPs to 165; their worst election defeat since 1906, and their lowest share of the vote since 1832. Labour went from 273 MPs to 418 – the most seats the party had ever held (indeed, the highest proportion of seats held by any post-war era government), with an unprecedented swing of 10.2% from the Conservatives and 43.2% of the popular vote. Labour’s working majority of 179 MPs was higher than what even Margaret Thatcher had accomplished. On May 1st, Britain became engulfed in a sea of red – a shade of fiery optimism, of a nation electrified with hope, setting sail for a new world. A better world.
Almost twenty years has now passed since voters went to the polls and led our country into a new dawn. Today, we sit on the cusp of yet another election landslide – but one which will not belong to the Labour Party. On June 9th, Britain will, in all likelihood, awake to find a nation engulfed in a wholly different colour: blue.
Two decades on, it is more than slightly difficult to see 1997 as a new dawn, and not another step on the path to hell. After all, what kind of Britain do we live in now? A nation divided. North v.s. South. Young v.s. Old. Poor v.s. Rich. Remain v.s. Leave. A nation suspicious of the other, whomever that may be. A nation riddled with uncertainty. A nation unsure of who to turn to, easily manipulated, being pulled through the waves of history by a small group of hard-right zealots, who want nothing more than to see their delusional ideological fantasies realised, even if it is at the expense of the country they claim to love. Whilst we sit and speculate over how many MPs Labour will have on June 9th, the new dawn promised by Tony Blair’s New Labour sails further and further into the horizon.
I have supported the Labour Party since I became fully aware of its existence in 2010. Until relatively recently, I have been broadly ignorant about Labour’s three governments. I have toed the line popularized by the right-wing press, and the left-wing of the Labour Party: Tony Blair is a war criminal. Gordon Brown is an economic fool. In 2015, YouGov released a poll which showed that Blair is an electoral liability, holding a net score of -47 with all voters. Last year, another YouGov poll was conducted, which revealed that 53% of people cannot forgive Blair for Iraq – including only 25% of Labour members. With figures such as those, how is it possible to see 1997 as a new dawn?
For several years, my political ideology could be described as, “not Conservative,” meaning a natural support for either Labour or the Liberal Democrats. It is only since September, when my A-Level studies of political ideology began in earnest, that my beliefs have taken on any real substance, and I realised how foolish I have been for so many years. I began to educate myself on the facts of Labour’s thirteen years in government, of their achievements and their failures. I studied their ideology – the ‘Third Way’ – intently. My coursework in Film Studies was looking at the representation of the New Labour government in film, wherein I worked through countless hours of historical research of their record and policies. A month or so ago, I became an avid follower of the Twitter account @newdawn1997, a project from the University of Nottingham which is live-tweeting the 1997 General Election as if it were happening today. It’s allowed me to have as close to a first-hand experience of the campaign as I can get, enabling me to see just how Labour managed to do it. My favourite Twitter thread of all time is from @iamhamesh, a Labour member who let out a devastating take-down of a smug Corbynite hoping to trash New Labour’s record in government (click the tweet for full thread).
@paulmasonnews sins of blair, brown, and new labour? 140 character limit is cruel when talking about what they did in government, but let’s give it a go…
— hammy. (@iamhamesh) February 28, 2017
One of my favourite political speeches is one which will likely be lost to the annals of history, but was nonetheless delivered with fierce conviction, coming from a deeply personal place. Tom Watson’s defence of New Labour is powerful and moving: a direct attack on those within Labour who seek to tarnish their own brand.
“The nation as a whole bought into social justice. From the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity, social democratic government started to feel normal for the people of Britain.”
That it did.
To uphold the notion that Labour’s time in government was an unbroken, unbridled period of harmony and peace is an illusion. New Labour wasn’t perfect. No government is. However, what Tom Watson and Hamesh so correctly elaborate is that they fulfilled the central purpose of government: to help people. It’s a mission which so often becomes lost in the intoxicating riddles of political ideology, as well as its practical application. The role of government, and of parliament, must always be to pursue the path which leads to enlightenment. To happiness. To prosperity. Whilst it is impossible to please everybody, it is absolutely possible to please a simple majority. It is possible to revitalise a nation and save lives, as Labour did.
To characterize 1997 as anything but a new dawn is a falsehood. Despite what some say, facts don’t lie: Britain changed for the better. The reason I take such a sweeping interest in New Labour is because I have a personal debt to them. If the Conservatives had won in 1997, and continued to win elections after that, dispelling the Labour Party to the history books, I struggle to see how I would be alive. My mother was unemployed from 2002-2013, meaning we lived entirely on welfare benefits for 11 years. Yes: I was once one of the much-derided scroungers. Yes, for the majority of that time, Labour were the ones financing our income, but that did not mean we were economically secure. We nonetheless lived in what felt like poverty – even under Labour, the welfare state is imperfect, and requires a complete overhaul. However, as it stands, the welfare state is the prime reason for my belief in left-wing politics, purely because it is the last line of defence between unnecessary death and social cohesion. Don’t let anybody ever tell you that we spend too much on welfare, or that it is unnecessary. It saves lives, and that should be it.
Without Labour’s increased welfare funding, I would, in all likelihood, be buried. I would be another statistic of those lost to child poverty because of Conservative welfare cuts – a part of a speech rattled off to uncaring Tory ministers by an irrelevant Labour MP. Since 2010, I have been determined to make the most out of my life. I have performed in dozens of stage plays; written thousands of news articles; made countless friends; written scripts and stories; and written and directed seven short films.
I say these things not from a preserve of arrogance, but rather of self-pride. Nothing pleases me more than to hear that I have helped, and I am proud of what I’ve done for the past several years; be that assisting my fellow online journalists in writing to the best of their ability, or by directing actors, or by helping a friend in need. You’re probably thinking – ‘Jasper, I’m closing the tab’ – but this is relevant. Trust. If it were not for the revolutionary Labour government of the 1940’s which birthed the welfare state, and if it were not for New Labour’s welfare reform of the 2000’s, my life would be absent from history. I know for a fact that I have done good, and that I have lived an adolescence of absolute personal flourishing and fulfilment. I know few others who could say that they became News Editor of a geek culture website at the age of 12, or that they interviewed the writer and director of Iron Man 3 at the age of 13, or that they have pursued multiple creative endeavours, be they stage plays or short films. I do not love myself – but I am proud of myself. My sole hope is that I will be able to say the same for the rest of my life: a life which would not exist, were it not for New Labour.
As we stand on the cusp of the twentieth anniversary of those historic days, I have never felt more grateful to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown than I do today, and I have never felt more determined in my desire to see a new Labour government – as well as to help secure that, if I am ever able to. Labour governments are the ones which give people hope, the ones which give people access to education, the ones which treat healthcare as a right and not a privilege, the ones which take care of children and the elderly, the ones which fund public services, the ones which protect the planet, the ones which truly reform society. The ones which save lives. We absolutely need to defend Labour’s record in government far more than we do, but we must not let ourselves become completely fixated on the past, and our past achievements. To win power again, we must actively engage with the world of 2017, and not merely relish in the glory days of twenty years past.
Labour only succeeds when it looks to the future: to the beating orange sun just over the horizon. To the new dawn.