1990s >> 1997 >> no-1116-august-1997

Greasy Pole: Video Nasty

Anyone who enjoyed gloating over what happened to the Conservative Party on 1 May will want to get their hands on the BBC video Election 97, which describes itself as “the most memorable highlights of one of the most dramatic election nights ever.”

Memorable indeed. Jeremy Paxman savaging Cecil Parkinson who, before he was able to compose himself to the reality of his party’s plight, looked as if—in John Major’s phrase—he was a sandwich short of a picnic. David Dimbleby brutally interrupting a glowering Michael Heseltine. to ask what he meant by “regrouping’’. David Mellor and James Goldsmith behaving, at the count at Putney, like children squabbling in the playground. Michael Portillo, as the voting figures were read out, trying desperately to smile. And at Tatton the odious Hamiltons. their anger held in check except in their eyes, where you could read an uncomprehending contempt for it all.

Tony Blair was not—of course— supposed to be odious. He was on a platform assuring us how moved he was by the trust placed in him by all those votes and how he would not let us down. And just to show how sincere and trustworthy he is he had beside him his father, who was once a Tory but changed sides in time for his son to become a Labour prime minister. And Tony made a speech saying with a catch in his voice how much he wishes his mother could have been there that night, and all over the country thousands of people went “Ahhhhh …” or at least were meant to.

The Morning After
Come the morning there were the comings and goings at the Palace with John Major being shown in by some uniformed flunky as Prime Minister and shown out as a man heading as fast as he could to obscurity. Then Blair accompanying the uniform through the door to kiss hands and walk out backwards and do all the things which are so necessary to let the Queen know that there had been this glorious revolution to give power and prosperity to all the people.

And the people showed what they thought of this by jamming the pavements around Downing Street to cheer themselves hoarse and sing Labour’s election anthem that Things Can Only Get Better. Except that there was something distinctly odd about those apparently ecstatic crowds-until it dawned that they were really Labour supporters who had made the long and perilous journey from party headquarters in Millbank to Whitehall, stopping on the way to equip themselves with thousands of conveniently available Union Jacks. Labour stage-managed things to the end.

In the City they were not quite so ecstatic because that is not how they do these things but neither was there a steady stream of fearful financiers taking the lift up to the 26th floor to throw themselves [out] of the window. At one stockbrokers the Labour victory was greeted nonchalantly:”. . . Blair has come across quite well in the campaign. He seems sincere . . .” A trader at a German-owned investment house put it: “They have a massive majority, but they do not appear to have any radical motives.” The FTSE 100 index, which offers some kind of guide to the level of optimism or pessimism among investors, ended the day at an all-time closing high.

Well it’s nice to see honest endeavour rewarded and endeavour is that the Labour Party have put into recruiting the support and co-operation of some of the stars of the business world and to reassuring them that a Labour government is not going to do anything nasty like dispossess the owning class or even try a little redistribution of wealth. It is not so long ago that Labour prime ministers were accustomed to sort out British industry’s problems with union leaders over beer and sandwiches at Number Ten. It would be difficult now for the trade unionists of get through the door for the crush of tycoons quaffing champagne and smoked salmon.

David Simon, the million-pound-a-year chairman of BP. was invited to become Minister for Trade and Competitiveness in Europe and a life peer into the bargain. Martin Taylor, chief executive of Barclays Bank, was put in charge of a task force which will advise on reforming the tax and benefits system. There is no evidence that Taylor has any experience of trying to live on benefit, or has any idea of the stress of doing so. In any case nobody in their right mind expects his Task Force to recommend an easier life for all those scroungers who could easily get a job but choose to undermine the fortunes of firms like BP and Barclays Bank by living in the lap of luxury on the Job Seekers Allowance or whatever.

It will be useful if all those people who gloated over Election 97 keep it and view it again in a year’s time, when the cheering has finally died and Labour’s honeymoon is over and the businessmen are really making themselves felt in Downing Street.

What will it be like then? What was it like, the last time the Labour Party lost power? What effect had they had, on the problems of the working class which they had pledged themselves to ease or even eliminate? After five years of power the best they could claim for themselves, in their 1979 election manifesto was that “in an uncertain world, suffering the worst economic trouble for forty years, we have pointed the way forward . . . Our purpose is to overcome the evils of inequality, poverty, racial bigotry, and to make Britain truly one nation.”

There might then have been people who had voted Labour in 1974 to ask why Labour had not used their time in power to “overcome” those “evils” and why all they could offer was to point the way forward. Perhaps in the near future, if those ecstatic, flag-waving people are not too far gone in their delusions, we shall be hearing the same kinds of questions. And if we do hear them this time we shall not have, to use in reply, a boring manifesto but a real, live Technicolor, all-singing and cheering video to show how it was and how it was supposed to be—to match against how it really is.