Blair filled me with hope in 1997 but Keir is just stirring up apathy (2024)

Do you remember 1997? I certainly do. They were heady days for a young Labour member (I was 32 and I’m counting that as young). Since I’d been eligible to vote, there had only ever been Conservative governments.

But all that changed with New Labour. After four successive election defeats, Tony Blair brought hope and expectation.

As D:Ream put it in the song that will forever be associated with Labour’s campaign, Things Can Only Get Better. Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive.

But it wasn’t just me and my fellow Labour members who were full of hope. There was a deep-seated sense that the country was on the verge of a transformation – that the tired Tories were on the way out and a bright, young, forward-looking leader was about to take over.

As I write, with Labour poised to make impressive gains in the local elections, the parallels could hardly be more striking. Then, as now, the party approached the General Election with a record of four straight election losses – 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992 back then and, this time round, 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2019.

After four successive election defeats for the Left, Tony Blair brought hope and expectation with New Labour

In 1974, Harold Wilson was accused of ‘going round the country stirring up apathy’. Fast-forward 50 years, and here we go again with Sir Keir Starmer

Blair faced a Tory party exhausted after four terms in office and intellectually lost after getting rid of Baroness Thatcher in 1990. In the same way, Keir Starmer is looking to oust an administration that looks short of ideas and energy and unsure what it stands for.

In 1997, the economy was recovering after the crisis of Black Wednesday, with interest rates gradually falling from a peak of 15 per cent. Today, the economy is slowly recovering after the pandemic and inflation – which hit a peak of 11.1 per cent in October 2022 – is still running at 3.8 per cent.

Above all, these days – just like in 1997 – the air of discontent is palpable and the desire for change urgent.

But for all the similarities, it’s the contrast between Labour’s push for power 27 years ago and the equivalent effort today that is even more striking. And that contrast can be summed up in two names: Tony Blair and Keir Starmer.

Blair was personable, charismatic and charming, with the oratorical gifts of a latter-day Cicero – Starmer, to put it mildly, is not.

Asked what they think of the serving Labour leader, voters tell pollsters he is ‘boring’, ‘weak’ and ‘indecisive’. And that’s if they have given the matter any thought at all. Presented with a list of words to describe him, more people responded with ‘Don’t know enough to say’ than those who plumped for any adjective in particular.

But here’s the rub: despite all that, the polls show Starmer heading to Downing Street. The country is so fed up with the Conservatives that, despite a near total lack of enthusiasm for its prime ministerial candidate, Labour has a consistent poll lead of around 20 per cent.

The last time the party had such a commanding and consistent poll lead was in the run-up to the 1997 landslide, with its majority of 179 for New Labour, buoyed by what Sarah Palin, the former US Republican vice-presidential candidate, caustically called ‘the hopey, changey thing’ – a reference to Barack Obama.

This time round, the driving force behind Labour’s poll lead isn’t breathless anticipation of a Labour government. Hardly.

Hands up if you know what Starmer’s ‘Five Missions’ are. It’s almost as if he has locked them all away in a safe, only to be opened if he wins power, rather than build up any sense of expectation over what he might do. They’re all there on Labour’s website, it’s true, but how many voters have bookmarked

And a cursory examination of the Five Missions reveals them to be little more than vague notions cloaked in feelgood slogans: ‘Get Britain building again’, ‘Switch on Great British Energy’, ‘Get the NHS back on its feet’, ‘Take back our streets’ and ‘Break down barriers to opportunity’.

READ MORE:Keir Starmer faces clash with Labour's union paymasters as he 'waters down plans to ban zero hours contracts and out-of-hours emails to workers' after backlash from business

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What cold, hard promises do they offer? Labour’s problem isn’t that it hasn’t made any promises to do anything in power. It’s that it’s impossible to get any sense of what the point of a Labour government would be, other than not being a Tory one.

That’s clearly enough for some voters. But what happens when difficult decisions have to be taken in office and when the sheen wears off after a few months?

What a contrast with Blair in 1997 and his ‘pledge card’ for government, which had five specific promises: Cut class sizes to 30 or under for five, six and seven-year-olds; fast-track punishment for persistent young offenders; cut NHS waiting lists by treating an extra 100,000 patients; get 250,000 under-25-year-olds off benefit and into work; and no rise in income tax rates.

We knew what we were voting for because those five pledges were clear-cut and easy to judge. Labour would either have delivered on them, or it wouldn’t. (It did.)

Keir Starmer’s Labour, on the other hand, has had only one even vaguely well-known policy, which after three years it has now dumped – spending £28 billion on its so-called ‘Green New Deal’. By one calculation, Labour repeated the £28 billion pledge 311 times. But in February, Starmer ditched it, slashing it to just £4.7 billion. So much for clarity. So much for a political identity.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Blair’s 1997 victory is what happened in the aftermath. The mood of the country changed almost overnight. Such was his popularity that for a few months after winning he was getting net approval ratings of 80 per cent. Millions more people claimed they had voted for him than actually did.

Rock stars and film icons, normally averse to mingling with politicians, flocked to his standard. The now infamous ‘Cool Britannia’ party – held at No 10 three months after polling day – quickly became one of the most iconic events of the New Labour era. Celebrities from Helen Mirren and Eddie Izzard to Noel Gallagher and Lenny Henry were invited to Britain’s seat of power to sip champagne with Tony Blair, the youngest Prime Minister since 1812.

Keir Starmer is plainly a decent man who has what he believes to be the country’s best interests at heart. And though popularity with luvvies and pop stars is no barometer of talent or leadership, a capacity to inspire is important. Starmer plainly lacks it.

In the 1974 election, Willie Whitelaw (who went on to be Mrs Thatcher’s deputy) is said to have accused Harold Wilson of ‘going round the country stirring up apathy’. Fast-forward 50 years, and here we go again.

When Blair took power on May 2, 1997, the sun shone brightly. As Starmer basks in his predicted success today, the weather promised to be unseasonably cold and wet. Could there ever be a more appropriate metaphor?

Stephen Pollard is editor-at-large of the Jewish Chronicle

Blair filled me with hope in 1997 but Keir is just stirring up apathy (2024)


Was Tony Blair a successful prime minister? ›

At various points in his premiership, Blair was among both the most popular and most unpopular politicians in British history. As prime minister, he achieved the highest recorded approval ratings during his first few years in office but also one of the lowest ratings during and after the Iraq War.

What was Tony Blair's legacy? ›

During his first term as prime minister, Blair raised taxes; introduced a National Minimum Wage and some new employment rights; introduced significant constitutional reforms; promoted new rights for gay people in the Civil Partnership Act 2004; and signed treaties integrating the UK more closely with the EU.

What is Tony Blair doing today? ›

Blair, now 70, as elder statesman and policy entrepreneur, is even more corporate than he was as prime minister. His modestly named Tony Blair Institute for Global Change was created in 2017.

Who is Tony Blair's daughter? ›

Katie Blair (born 1987), American model and TV presenter. Kathryn Blair, daughter of former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

Why didn't the Queen like Tony Blair? ›

Blair's private interests weren't especially in line with the royal family's either—the queen was famous for her love of the outdoors, horses, and dogs, while Blair favored beach vacations and his sporting interests leaned toward tennis and and football.

Who is considered the best prime minister? ›

Winston Churchill is generally considered one of the greatest prime ministers for his leadership during the Second World War.

Who succeeded Gordon Brown as prime minister? ›

After the Conservatives formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, Brown was succeeded as prime minister by Conservative leader David Cameron, and as Labour Party leader by Ed Miliband. His premiership has been viewed as average in historical rankings and public opinion.

What was Tony Blair's New Labour? ›

Tony Blair became the leader of the Labour Party after 1994's leadership election and coined the term New Labour in that October's party conference. Blair pursued a Third Way philosophy that sought to use the public and private sectors to stimulate economic growth and abandon Labour's commitment to nationalisation.

What is Tony Blair's son called? ›

Euan Anthony Blair MBE (born 19 January 1984) is an English businessman who is the co-founder and chief executive of the apprenticeships company Multiverse. He is the eldest son of the former British prime minister Sir Tony Blair and lawyer Cherie Blair.

Who was the longest serving prime minister? ›

Notable lengths
  • 20 years and 314 days: Robert Walpole (1721–1742) Longest term and longest total tenure.
  • 12 years and 126 days: William Ewart Gladstone (1868–1874, 1880–1885, 1886, and 1892–1894) Most non-consecutive terms.
  • 11 years and 208 days: Margaret Thatcher (1979–1990) ...
  • 49 days: Liz Truss (2022)

Who funds the Tony Blair Foundation? ›

Funding. Blair gave the reserves of his former business to provide the seed funding for his new Institute. On 21 July 2018, it was reported by the Telegraph that Blair had signed a deal worth £9,000,000 with Saudi Arabia.

Which prime minister was before Tony Blair? ›

John Major
The Right Honourable Sir John Major KG CH
Succeeded byTony Blair
Leader of the Opposition
In office 2 May 1997 – 19 June 1997
MonarchElizabeth II
53 more rows

Is Tony Blair still married to Cherie Blair? ›

Cherie, Lady Blair CBE, KC (née Booth; born 23 September 1954), also known professionally as Cherie Booth, is an English barrister and writer. She is married to former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Tony Blair.

What happened to Leo Blair? ›

He remarried and lived in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, with his second wife, Olwen, until her death on 15 March 2012. Cherie and Tony Blair named their youngest son Leo after him. Blair was a "militant atheist", according to his son Tony. Blair died in Shrewsbury aged 89 on 16 November 2012.

How is Lauren Booth related to Tony Blair? ›

Booth is a half-sister of Cherie Blair, wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and the daughter of actor Tony Booth. She trained as an actress at the London Academy of Performing Arts and then spent several years touring Europe with various regional theatre companies.

Who took over from Tony Blair as prime minister? ›

Following Blair's resignation in 2007, Brown replaced him unopposed, becoming Leader of the Labour Party in June and appointed prime minister. The party continued as New Labour, though Brown's style of government differed from Blair's.

Was John Major a good prime minister? ›

Although public favourability of Major has improved since he left office, his premiership has generally been viewed as average in historical rankings and public opinion of British prime ministers.

Was Margaret Thatcher a good prime minister? ›

A polarising figure in British politics, Thatcher is nonetheless viewed favourably in historical rankings and public opinion of British prime ministers. Her tenure constituted a realignment towards neoliberal policies in Britain; the complex legacy attributed to this shift continues to be debated into the 21st century.

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