Tony Blair, of course, led the Labour Party to three general victories. As it happens, those are the only three general elections that Labour’s won in the last forty years. Which is all a bit embarrassing and annoying for those in the party who don’t like Blair. In response to these inconvenient truths the answer, for some of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters over the last few months, has been the claim that along the way Blair lost five million Labour votes.
The figure comes from the difference between the number voting Labour between Blair’s first triumph in 1997 and those in his final victory in 2005. And the total did indeed fall by approximately five million. But it’s still a really daft claim.
It’s daft first because it implies that 1997 is the benchmark by which later results can be measured. As though that result represented the basic level of Labour support, inherited by Blair and not in any way affected by the fact that he’d just spent three years as leader of the party.
This is simply not the case. Blair’s success in 1997 was exceptional. The size of the popular vote isn’t necessarily all that instructive, but – just for the record – of the twenty general elections since the Second World War, 1997 saw the second-largest Labour vote, exceeded only by Clement Attlee in 1951 (in an election won by the Conservatives).
The second reason it’s such a daft assertion is that there’s a much more coherent criticism available for those who want one: Blair’s vote in 2005 was two million down from that achieved by Neil Kinnock in 1992. Admittedly, it’s not as impressive a figure as five million, but it does at least mean something. Because 1992 can reasonably be seen as a benchmark – that actually is what Blair inherited.
Of course, Blair won and Kinnock lost, which is the main thing. But we’re trying to find ways of undermining Blair’s right to be considered the most electorally successful leader in Labour history. For this purpose, we should go beyond the millions and look at how large a section of the electorate Blair could attract.
And here, Blair’s record is truly shocking. In 2005 – after eight years of his government – he persuaded just 21.6 per cent of the electorate to vote Labour, nearly as poor a performance as that of Michael Foot in 1983, who achieved 20.1 per cent. Worse still, the legacy of New Labour saw the vote in 2010 fall to just 18.9 per cent of the electorate. There was a slight recovery last year, but the fact remains that for the last decade or so, Labour has been supported by only around one in five of the registered electors in this country.
But finally, the reason why the ‘Blair lost five million votes’ is foolish is that it fails to understand what actually happened in 1997.
Nationally the swing from Conservative to Labour that year was just over 10 per cent, but that was skewed by results in the suburbs of London. Here, there were Tory-Labour swings that looked more like one-off shock by-election results: Blair’s party won seats like Brent North (18.9 per cent swing), Croydon Central (15.5), Enfield Southgate (17.4), Harrow East (18.1), Harrow West (17.5) and Wimbledon (17.9). Four of those six constituencies, incidentally, are now back in Conservative hands.
Conversely, things weren’t looking very hopeful at all in Labour’s heartlands. ‘During the campaign I saw no particular enthusiasm among my own electorate,’ noted Chris Mullin of his Sunderland South constituency. ‘I’ve been involved in every election since 1970 and I’ve never seen such apathy and indifference.’ He won, of course, and even increased his majority, but his vote fell by 2,000.
The same was true elsewhere. In Peter Mandelson’s constituency of Hartlepool, turnout fell from 76.1 per cent in 1992 to 65.6 per cent in 1997. By 2005 it was down to 45.8 per cent. Meanwhile, turnout in Liverpool Riverside collapsed to just 34.1 per cent by 2001.
The latter case was exceptional, but the general trend was clear. New Labour’s success was built on assuming that the heartlands were secure and that it was therefore safe to chase the suburban vote. But the core support could not be taken for granted indefinitely. In a sign of things to come, the 1999 by-election in Hamilton South saw a 23 per cent swing to the Scottish National Party – Labour clung on to the seat, but its majority was reduced from nearly 16,000 to barely five hundred.
There were some, even in the mid 1990s, who warned that Blair’s strategy was for the short term only. ‘A number of us on the moderate left of the party are becoming increasingly concerned that we are abandoning the underclass and our historic mission to work for the poor, in favour of the middle class,’ observed Robin Cook. ‘I am not sure there is enough substance here on which to build a sustainable political movement.’
That lack of sustainability was the real problem with Blair’s electoral approach. The crucial issue wasn’t the ‘missing five million’, many of whom had only been attracted to Labour by Blair in the first place. The structural flaw lay in those Labour voters who had been alienated from the outset.