Are we heading for 1997 again? This time the legacy of a Labour win can be lasting

- First published in PoliticsHome -

After last week’s farce of a Conservative Conference, I’ve got an unshakeable feeling that it’s 1997 all over again.

James Cameron is king of the box office, bucket hats and combat trousers are en vogue, and Labour are 30 points clear in the polls. Those of us old enough to remember those halcyon days 25 years ago can attest to a true belief that, after 18 years of Tory control, things really could only get better. 

And get better they did. In the years after that historic election, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s Labour governments helped millions out of poverty, brought over 100,000 new doctors and nurses to the NHS, and delivered one of the longest stretches of sustained economic growth in the nation’s history. Unfortunately, today I’m also feeling a different sort of deja vu. 

In the last 12 years, successive Tory-led governments have undone many of Labour’s accomplishments. Blair and then Brown, for all they achieved, didn’t consider that their popularity in the days of Cool Britannia and Vengaboys wouldn’t last forever. One inexcusable war and one global financial crisis later, Labour found themselves locked out of power for over a decade. Had they committed to making Britain’s elections more democratic then, the compounding crises we face today would likely look very different. Instead, our outdated electoral system has handed the Conservatives 100 per cent of the power with a minority of votes.

We’ve all seen the carnage wrought by 12 years of Tory control. With the votes of just 0.17 per cent of the electorate (81,326 votes from Tory members), our fourth Prime Minister in six years has taken a sledgehammer to the UK economy just to further cut taxes for the wealthiest 1 per cent. Truss is only the latest overseer of a decade-plus of Conservative governance that has caused sustained rises in child poverty and income inequality, alongside a staggering hundredfold increase in people relying on food banks to feed their families. Years of Tory ideological posturing have left our right to protest hanging by a thread and shackled British citizens and businesses to the hardest of Brexits.

It’s not only citizens who are worse off under the Conservatives. Round after round of austerity has brought essential services to their knees. The public did not vote for 15-hour A&E wait times or schools that must decide between paying teachers and heating classrooms, but under our electoral system, the Tories can ram these unconscionable cuts through Parliament.

The electorate has recognised that our public services can’t wait for a change. Now the onus is on Labour to take bold action to ensure that such unchecked ideological cruelty can rarely, if ever be unleashed again.

Like in 1997, Labour find themselves commandingly ahead–for now. Politics is fickle, and the winds can shift one direction, another, and back again in the space of a week.

Should Labour win the next general election, they would inherit a supremely difficult situation. Without sweeping reforms, a Labour government could very easily be chucked back into opposition at the subsequent election. A first-past-the-post system that structurally favours the political right makes this doubly likely. Under a system that allocates seats proportional to national vote share, the Tories only would have won two of the past 21 elections–even Margaret Thatcher would have failed to secure a majority. 

The facts in favour of proportional representation are clear. In nations that have adopted it, income inequality and poverty are lower, women and minorities are better-represented in government, public service spending is higher, and environmental protections go further. It democratises the political system, ensuring smaller parties with significant support are not crowded out of government and it necessitates cross-party cooperation that reduces polarisation. 

Proportional representation is not only sound policy; for Labour, it’s savvy politics. Looking to New Zealand, the switch to proportional representation helped their Labour Party win an outright majority for the first time in 2020. Delivering a fairer electoral system that eliminates structural advantages for the right should be a top priority for any Labour government that wishes to achieve lasting, positive change.

After nearly two decades of Conservative PMs in No 10, the election of a Labour government in 1997 felt like a new dawn for Britain. This moment can be even more transformative if the Labour leadership lets it. By committing to electoral reform–including proportional representation–in the Party’s manifesto, Keir Starmer can give the country its most consequential change to the political system in decades. If he does so, his legacy will be a more democratic, more productive, more equal Britain.

In the early years of the last Labour government, the Party seemed untouchable–until they weren't. Keir Starmer must learn that lesson; there can be no excuses this time around. Labour leadership must commit to electoral reform, and they must commit to enacting it early in their government.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s achievements lasted a decade. By throwing his support behind proportional representation, Keir Starmer can make his last generations.