Tony Blair arriving in Downing Street, 2 May 1997. Picture Credit: Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images

How Blair won over Conservative Britain  

Like Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair won big in enemy territory. Can Starmer do the same? 

Artillery Row

It was July 1994, and Tony Blair was sitting in his Westminster office fielding questions from the Sun newspaper. With his party still reeling from the shock death of John Smith, he had been thrust into the media spotlight for the first time. But while the party held a huge 20pt poll lead, the critics were already preparing the attack lines and speculating whether he was tough enough for the top job. “Where is the Beef in Bambi?” asked the Daily Mail.

A quarter of a century has passed since Blair’s 1997 election victory

When a journalist asked Blair what kind of leader he would be, he knew what to say. “People,” Blair argued, “don’t want masses of figures. They don’t expect you to write a whole ramp of detailed policies. They want to know the character, identity and mission of the journey”. He urged readers to look at what Mrs Thatcher did. “What she said was what she believed in, and that’s what I will do”. The Sun had the line that it wanted. And Blair had his headline too. “I’ll be like Thatcher. We need character, not policy documents”.

A quarter of a century has passed since Blair’s 1997 election victory, and no politician enjoys a more contested legacy. In the years since he has left office, the idea that he followed Thatcher’s politics too closely has gripped hold of the party membership. But while the Corbyn years looked to reverse the economic consensus that emerged in the 1980s, the Starmer years have been punctuated, so far, by an attempt to revive the spirit of the New Labour years. The language, from being “tough on crime” and arguing that “Britain Deserves Better” to the latest retail offer — a Gordon Brown inspired windfall tax — all pays homage to the playbook of 97. 

While the effectiveness of those tactics is still unclear, the scale of the challenge facing Labour at the next election is not in doubt. The disaster of 2019 means that to govern with a substantial majority, Starmer must not only eclipse Blair’s performance in 1997, he must also fare better than Margaret Thatcher did in 1979. And while the political, cultural, and technological landscape may have changed, they did what Keir Starmer also has to do: go into “enemy territory” and convert millions of voters round to his cause. 

Thatcher sensed that the Labour vote was there for the taking

It is often forgotten now, but Thatcher’s route to victory in 1979 was built upon the votes of millions of ex-Labour voters. As early as 1975, in her first speech to the Conservative party conference, she had tried to win over the “moderate” trade unionists in Britain: “Go out and join the work of your union”, she argued, “go to its meetings — and stay to the end to learn the union rules as well as the far left know them”. And as industrial discontent continued to grow in the 1970s, she argued that most trade union members were aligned with her politics: “First and foremost, they are members of families: mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, who share our values”.

Throughout the 1970s, Thatcher sensed that the Labour vote was there for the taking. On the one hand, she talked about British decline and how her aim was to “not merely put a temporary brake on socialism but to stop its onward march once and for all.” But at the same time, she understood that  Labour voters had once believed in its values. As opposition leader, she urged the party to be bold enough to accept “those who have never been with us but who are prepared to support us now because they put country before party”.

Thatcher also reached out to a range of former Labour politicians who believed that the party had lost its way. This was the era when figures such as George Brown, Woodrow Wyatt and Brian Walden all quit the party, announcing that they hadn’t left Labour but that “Labour had left them”. In speech after speech, Thatcher began to articulate how “good Labour men” had been hounded out of the party. 

When, in 1976, Reg Prentice was controversially, and very publicly, de-selected by the Labour members in Newham, she encouraged him to cross the floor. The “Prentice Saga” symbolised the wider sense that Labour was out of touch with its traditional working-class voter base. As he was elevated and mythologized, by the Tories, he could often attack Labour better than Conservatives could. “People could identify with the party of Attlee and Bevin, the party of Gaitskell and Griffiths”, Prentice claimed,  “But it has changed. It has moved away from the people”.

Thatcher worked hard to detach the Labour Party of the 1970s, from the idea of the Labour Party of the past. “There used to be a Socialism in this country, a Socialism which valued people” she claimed.  The modern Labour Party, by contrast, was “officious jargon-filled intolerant socialism”. And when the votes were finally counted in 1979, the all-important C2s — the so-called skilled working class swung to the Conservatives by 11%. Rock-solid Labour seats such as Birmingham Northfield, Basildon and Hertford & Stevenage were won over by her arguments. 

It was those voters, the new Conservatives, who Blair believed Labour had to appeal to in the run-up to 1997. John Smith had skillfully manipulated Conservative divisions over Europe and the economy to Labour’s advantage. Moreover, he had begun to tap into an obvious mood for change: “I see decline all around me”, Smith said in one speech, “graffiti on the walls and a sense of decline and decay; people in sort of huddled ghettos of the poor and the disadvantaged”. However, turning conservative discontent with the government into hard, election day votes for Labour had been the party’s historic problem. 

Blair, as a candidate, was uniquely placed to reach into those so-called “no-go” areas. As far back as 1982, when he was the unknown candidate fighting the Beaconsfield by-election, he had worked on ways to frame Labour’s message to connect with the more affluent, middle-class voters. “You have millions of people out of work which is costing the country a fortune”, he argued. “And then you have plant and machines lying idle. It does not add up”.

In the 1980s, as the Conservatives firmly established themselves as the party of the new homeowners and the small investors, Blair still found ways of framing their values as Labour’s values. When, in 1988, the investment firm Barlow Clowes was involved in a major “bond washing” scheme – that impacted ordinary people’s savings — Blair demanded the government step in to support them. “These are not get rich quick speculators”, he argued. “They are Britain’s new class of investors, the married couple with an accumulated nest egg, the young couple left a small inheritance, the mineworker or the steelworker left redundant”. 

Former Conservatives now lined up to support them

It was an unorthodox approach that soon attracted the attention of Conservative supporting newspapers. As early as 1990, Blair was already being spoken of as a potential future leader in the Sunday Telegraph. “Blair is a throwback to an earlier type of politician”, Martyn Harris told his Conservative voting readers. “To the clear-eyed public schoolboy who came down from Oxbridge brimful of social conscience but unhampered by ideological baggage or practical experience”.

By 1994, Blair was said to be the person who could reach parts of the electorate that other Labour politicians couldn’t. The development of New Labour, the new constitution, the new approach to policy and the new ways of campaigning and communicating were signs that the party had, in Alastair Campbell’s words, “changed the party in order to change the country”. But perhaps the biggest signal of change was how former Conservatives now lined up to support them.  

In a reversal of what had happened in the 1970s, Conservatives switched their allegiances in droves. In Westminster, Tory MP Alan Howarth crossed the floor, claiming there was “an arrogance of power and a harshness of power within the government which is damaging to our democracy”. When Howarth was later selected as the Labour candidate in Newport East, Blair used it to symbolize a change in Labour’s approach: “He came over to the Labour Party because he believed Labour had changed”. It allowed Blair to pitch his message to the “moderate” and “sensible” Conservative voters: “I think tradition is all that is keeping a significant number of Tories from jumping ship.

The satirists poked fun at Labour’s sudden conversion

As a consequence, Blair won much more favourable press coverage than his predecessors. One of the journalists who offered his support was the heavyweight Daily Mail columnist Paul Johnson. Johnson had been on the left in the 1960s when he had edited the New Statesman. But in the 1980s, he had emerged as the Mail’s harshest attack dog against Kinnock’s Labour Party, stoking the flames of a culture war each week. But as the Tory party lost its grip on law and order and drifted towards sleaze, he announced that Britain would be safe with Blair. “By instinct and conviction”, Johnson argued, “Blair is an old-fashioned English patriot”.  

The transition of Conservative voters to Labour was a key theme of Labour’s campaign in 1997, as big business leaders such as Alan Sugar came out and backed the party. The Daily Mirror even reported that Reggie Kray had been won over after he informed friends that he wanted Blair to win because “he now favours a more caring society.”

Blair’s open offer to former Conservative voters was not without criticism. MPs such as Jeremy Corbyn claimed that he was “depressed” by Blair’s language and tone and the failure to offer a radical alternative. Even the satirists poked fun at Labour’s sudden conversion, as Harry Enfield’s character Tory Boy — the embodiment of the student Thatcherite of the 1980s — now transitioned into Tony Boy instead. 

The importance of those switchers in helping Labour narrate the crisis of Conservatism should not be understated. It meant that between 1994 and 1997, Labour didn’t just tell the voters that it was winning over new parts of the electorate. It had  Conservatives to make the case for them too. On election night, New Labour was rewarded at the ballot box with the party’s biggest ever victory as 14% of people who voted Conservative in 1992 switched to Labour. 

Whichever way you try and calculate it, it is something which will need to be repeated if Labour is to win again. There is no doubt that the scale of that challenge is even greater for Starmer, who not only needs to win back the traditional Labour votes in Scotland and the Red Wall but has to go to places like Stevenage, Colchester and Gloucester and convert millions of former Conservative voters into Labour ones. 

Narrating the crisis of Conservatism, just as Thatcher managed to narrate the crisis of the Winter of Discontent, will be central to the election of the next Labour Government. Over the past decade, the party has failed to win a single Conservative seat in a by-election. But the recent defection of Bury South’s Christian Wakeford is a signal that some Conservatives are worried about the next election. But if Labour is to really capitalise on it, it will need to create a narrative about the decline of the Conservative Party that taps into a wider feeling about the deterioration of standards in public life. 

Over the next few years, Labour’s task will be to detach Johnson from Tory traditions, to show how he is not in the tradition of Churchill, Macmillan, or Thatcher as he thinks he is. From Rory Stewart and Nick Boles to John Major and Dominic Cummings, Conservative figures have begun to mirror the arguments that Labour has been making. Starmer will have an opportunity to tap into the disillusionment in Conservative Britain. But to succeed, he will need to show — as much as tell — the electorate that he has won them over.

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