"Against Tory promises of ‘Strong and Stable Leadership’ Labour must make as clear in 2017 as in 1997 that you can never be sure with a Conservative. Today’s Conservative Party should not be allowed to hide its weakness behind Brexit. 1997 shows that a positive and principled alternative can be produced."
Polls from 1997 show only 25% of voters considered Europe an important factor in voting decisions, yet much analysis showed that it was pivotal in the election's outcome. 1997's lessons for this Brexit dominated election are ones of failure rather than success. The left failed to articulate a progressive case for Europe and the Tories failed to contain divisions over Europe.
Since 1997 Europe has become a central issue. Brexit is now a major issue for over 60% of voters. The right has driven this development: the Daily Mail declared a ‘BATTLE FOR BRITAIN’ over EMU, with the same sense of proportion that makes it demand voters ‘CRUSH THE SABOTEURS’. By one analysis, 70% of the UK’s leading papers by circulation were Eurosceptic in 1997. Research from Oxford University shows nearly 50% of the press was pro-Leave.
The left meanwhile failed to articulate its European vision. The architects of 1997 have spoken of the ‘missed opportunities’. This is not new. Labour have won in the past more despite, not because, of their EU policies. Labour needs to express a progressive vision for the UK’s future with Europe, and not allow the right to dominate the debate. Rehashing last year's arguments will not let it do that.
The 1997 New Labour campaign mixed hard-headedness with cooperation when discussing Europe. Patriotism was played up. The national interest would be protected with a focus on better rights and working conditions. Europe would be worked with. The Conservatives by contrast had a knee-jerk view of the EU as an enemy, and had a deluded sense of their leader's prowess as a negotiator.
The compromise attempted in 1997, but not carried through, can be developed. The principled policies presented so far this campaign on consumer, environmental and worker rights should become guarantees. Labour should continue to be honest about an unsuccessful Brexit's impact on the poorest. This and the real life benefits of EU cooperation can form the basis of a left-wing Europeanism. It can also allow the Labour Party to pioneer a new approach, while the Tory’s return to their reflex antagonism.
As May tacks right against hard Brexit blowhards, Labour should as in 1997 exacerbate her party’s divisions over Europe. Major hung on to contain this dissent. May called an early election to give her the majority to silence it. May’s current line is thin on detail because details could reveal divisions. The Tories are focusing again on a strong leader to deflect their weakness. So far this election it feels as if the Conservative Party has been quietly abolished; Labour needs to remind people it exists. The Left must push the Tories for details on Brexit. The pressure points will burst again as in 1997, when Conservatives broke party lines in favour of Eurosceptic praise. The Tory division, Brexit ideologues and vacillation produced by Euroscepticism were central to Labour’s success.
The 1997 election shows that the electorate punishes a party it sees as torn apart by its internal politics. The Labour Party may think it better to avoid focus on division, but it should heed the warning of Major’s defeat. The party must remain united nationally behind a progressive Brexit, maintaining beneficial ties to the EU and promising full Parliamentary scrutiny. The advantages of declaring Remainer or Brexiteer credentials in a given constituency, is meaningless if it plays into images of disunity for the electorate. Only in power will Labour be able to stop a damaging Brexit, and we should remember the need to win that 1997 shows.
Against Tory promises of ‘Strong and Stable Leadership’ Labour can be as clear in 2017 as in 1997 that you can never be sure with a Conservative. Today’s Conservatives should not be allowed to hide their weakness behind May. The past twenty years show that a positive and principled stance on the EU is vital. Given the damage a Conservative hard Brexit could do, it is vital that we fight it together.