I don’t think I can remember a time when this country faced the likelihood of a change of government and there was so little excitement about it. True, media coverage will break all records, and people will watch the first head-to-head leadership debates, but people will watch pretty much anything on television. No one in the country has heard of Nick Clegg, but no one has heard of anyone who competes on Celebrity Come Dine With Me and they still watch it.
The fact of there being an election will make a bit of a splash. But there doesn’t seem to be a high level of emotion about the result. Even though the Tories, if they win or can form a government, will make things worse, Labour has made that fact hard to imagine, and has so completely demoralised all decent people that many can’t even summon the energy to be afraid. And if Labour somehow wins, what is there to look forward to anyway?
In 1997, the month of May began bathed in brilliant sunshine. Church bells rang and Tory voters were dragged from their basement hiding places and paraded through the streets wearing signs reading ‘Collaborateur’. The last remaining Conservatives in Wales were prodded over the border at the point of a bayonet, and their cottages burnt. Undoubtedly, atrocities took place, such as the visceral humiliation of Portillo, but in the circumstances it was not surprising.
People were exhausted, elated and overwhelmingly relieved. We had got those bastards off our backs. At lunchtime on Friday 2 May, I recorded an edition of the News Quiz for Radio 4. The questions were a formality; it was a party for audience and panelists alike. Only one sour note was struck. Roy Hattersley was in a rather bleak mood. It would be easy to imagine that he was just feeling left out of Labour’s success, but that would be unjust. Many of us on the left didn’t see the creation of New Labour as a major change to the party’s direction of travel. But I think Roy was genuinely mortified by it, and very pessimistic about the future.
Mark Steel, Francis Wheen and I went straight to the nearest pub and became joyously drunk. None of us was even remotely enthusiastic about Tony Blair, but we weren’t thinking about the future at all. We all felt secure in the fact that we had voted Labour with no illusions. But as Linda Smith was to observe a couple of years later, ‘I had no expectations of Tony Blair at all, and even I’m disappointed.’
Solidly at war
Let’s not pretend that Blair was solely culpable, or that the only glitch was Iraq. Iraq wasn’t even the only war. This country has been solidly at war since 1999. No wonder the Tories were so disoriented in opposition. Labour took everything from them: the Private Finance Initiative, the fetishising of the City, hostility to civil liberties and refugees, and even a passion for war, the Tories’ most favourite thing ever. Labour has been responsible for more deaths in the past 13 years than the Tories could hope to achieve even if their plans for the health service are put into operation.
And the problem wasn’t just a small clique. Yes, there was an unsavoury cabal that foisted Blair onto the party, and Gordon Brown was a part of it. The fact that Brown appears to have believed there is honour among thieves, and was disappointed, only confirms that he is a nitwit. But I’m frankly not that excited by the characterisation of Blair as a slick showman, a trickster or a liar. The fact that he is a right-wing, warmongering lunatic is the greater worry. And he’s not even shy about it. Bless Clare Short, but when she says, ‘We were misled by Tony Blair’, I want to shake her and say, ‘You might have been, but no one else fell for it.’
But that wouldn’t be true. A huge part of the Labour Party fell for it. And many of those who didn’t fell for the Kosovo jaunt, not realising it was the opening salvo in Blair’s mission to bomb his way to sainthood. It’s high time responsibility for the Iraq war was shared out. Blair is a maniac and Campbell was a maniac’s publicist. What could have been going on in the mind of a person who trusted either of them?
When the Labour faithful mumble ‘If I’d known then what I know now’, it’s tempting to wonder how it would be possible to know less than they know now. What if Saddam had possessed weapons of mass destruction? How would that have made the war a good idea? And how can human rights have been an issue when the government was turning down asylum applications by Iraqi refugees? And didn’t its craven subjugation to a hard-right Republican administration ring any alarm bells?
Yes, many of us were drunk on 2 May 1997 but the months and years that followed were pretty sobering, in terms of both foreign and domestic policy. Yet still people kept hoping that the secret radicalism of the more appealing members of the government might emerge. It did in some cases, once Blair had finished with them and they became voices in the wilderness. But a shocking amount of optimism was invested in John Prescott, even though he was clearly the man tasked with shafting the workers in their own accent; and in Gordon Brown, even though his only real unease for the first ten years of the government was about the fact that someone else was prime minister.
The bitter irony in all this is that Labour was under no pressure to reign in progressive instincts, except from the top downwards. Every time the government did anything good, the public was supportive and wanted it to go further. Even now, the government could nationalise the banks and get away with it. Big government has only become unpopular because Labour has given it a bad name. The Tories are not popular. There is not a Thatcherite mood in the country. Even the paranoia about immigration would melt away if a Labour government would stop stoking jingoism and attend to the needs of the people.
But for many of us, hoping the fascists don’t make a breakthrough this May is all the optimism we can muster. I’d like to think the Greens will become a significant force, but I’m not holding my breath. I suppose there will be some entertainment value in seeing what a bunch of tarts the Liberals turn into if there’s a hung parliament. And if Labour does somehow manage to get re-elected, the look on Cameron’s face will beat Portillo’s in 1997. I’m just holding onto that thought.