As of this week, it’s election fever! By which I mean I feel sick, nothing around me makes sense and I’m increasingly convinced I’m going to die. It seemed as apt a time as any to visit New Dawn?, an exhibition curated by Professor Steven Fielding for the 20th anniversary of New Labour’s first victory, at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. In the small space it has, it captures a sea change in the nature of political campaigning, as well as one in British political culture.
The pivotal moment of 1st May 1997 is the focus of the exhibition (and the campaign leading up to it), but useful context either side is provided. Starting with Labour’s electoral low-point of the post-war era in 1983, we’re taken through Neil Kinnock’s modernising project as well, and the two brief years the late John Smith lead the Opposition. We’re treated to election manifestos, posters, leaflets – all giving some hint as to the culture of, and the struggles within, the Labour party of the eighties and early nineties.
Crucially, the paraphernalia from this period, particularly 1992, provides a vital comparison to the 1997 election propaganda. The leap between the two campaigns is stark. Advertising techniques and the concept of big branding really takes over. Look at 1997’s blocky, multi-colour posters, slogans bold and plain:
Decidedly of the moment. It’s potentially a coincidence how reminiscent they are of Channel 5’s branding, the station having been launched by the Spice Girls only the previous month:
Twenty years on, the nation’s still divided as to whether New Labour, Channel 5 or the Spice Girls gave the emptiest promise. Advertising and the power of a bold image were clearly in mind earlier (the Tories’ 1979 “Labour Isn’t Working” poster being a case in point), but this seems the deepest Labour had dived into those waters to date – and the most successfully.
Another artefact that shows the shifting forms of getting the message out are in the Sun front pages down the years. It’s peculiar to see their “Sun Backs Blair” headline up close, and only a few feet from their Kinnock-bashing 1992 front page (paraphrasing: “we would never tell you how to vote, but…”) and 2009’s abandonment of support. Tony Blair’s relationship with Rupert Murdoch calls up one of many questions that still grips the party today: whether power and principle can ever truly go hand in hand. And it’s a question that pervades the exhibition from the beginning, with pretty much the first case you see dedicated to Blair’s amendment to Clause IV, seen as a rejection of the party’s founding principle of nationalisation. The unending debate remains: when some people felt betrayed, was enough good done to justify it with the power won?
With the space it has, there’s not much the exhibition can do to answer that question definitively. A handful of graphs and clippings show the achievements of New Labour, and a Stop the War poster ably showcases the great stain on its record. But in an exhibition given over to the turning point of 1997, the focus is understandably more on the rise rather than the flight or the fall. 13 years of government warrants further examination, but other hints of the good done in this time can be found not far away. A few metres away in the museum, Never Going Underground, another visiting exhibition, on the progress of LGBT+ rights in Britain shows a timeline of changing legislation and societal attitudes. One significant leap of many ushered in by the Labour government:
When elections and referendums loom, it seems more important than ever to look back, both to mark our progress and to consider our course.
New Dawn? The 1997 Election can be seen at the People’s History Museum in Manchester until 4th June. Details here.
For further historical goodies and context as a complement to the exhibition, I recommend its Twitter feed, @newdawn1997, for regular newspaper cuttings and party political broadcasts.
You can also find a wealth of material on YouTube if you want to immerse yourself in the surrounding culture of the day, including perennial favourite of mine, The Election Night Armistice: