Do you remember?
My memories from the 1st of May 1997 are more vivid than almost any other moment in my life.
I even have a clear picture of myself on that day. Floppy haired. Skinny. Sunburnt. Wearing a white Levi’s shirt, with rusty poppers bleeding orange into the cotton. Converse trainers coming apart at the heel. Twenty years on, and still just as scruffy, I’m the Labour candidate standing in the same seat I devoted myself to back then. It’s all been flooding back these last few days.
I remember Election Day was actually an extension of the previous two. I’d been working through the previous nights, preparing materials and putting up the last lampost posters around polling stations across the constituency of Eastwood (renamed East Renfrewshire today).
I remember the night outside before the election being warm like when you are on holiday. I waved off a minibus of my friends from Strathclyde and Glasgow University Labour clubs who were departing for Stirling, a seat Labour actually had a realistic chance of winning. I was going to go home and to bed but instead was asked to do a last few lamposts.
A volunteer named James (who I never saw again) and I drove around all night with a ladder poking out of his sunroof, and the back seat of his Rover full of corex boards. I remember the plastic smell of the posters, my hands silver-grey from the dirty lampposts, my fingers cut and raw from plastic ties. We listened to Blur’s self-titled album on repeat on his car cassette player. I drank Barr’s Limeade.
We had done the same job the night before but our opponents had taken down every poster at every polling station. We finished the second time well after midnight but found that the polling stations were being cleared of our posters yet again, and this time replaced with Tory posters.
We worked out the order the culprits were doing the polling stations in and raced off to intercept them. I remember at 4.30 am James screeched the car to a halt in front of a group of Tories. Their silver Range Rover was towing a trailer literally overflowing with red and yellow Labour posters. I remember one Tory, years later a Parliamentary candidate, was wearing the most amazing white and gold shell suit. I remember he used a mobile phone the size of a shoebox to ask someone what they should do having been caught red-handed.
We finished after dawn and I went home to shower. I was living at home with my mum, and our flat was across the road from our polling station. I remember kneeling on the sofa, looking out the window, waiting for the polling station doors in my old school to open. I ran off across the road, beating three or four others who seemingly shared my excitement, the first to vote that day.
I remember spending a couple of hours at that polling station, wearing a rosette for the first time, not understanding what you’re meant to be doing when you stand outside a primary school on election day (I still don’t). I waited for voters to hand me pink cards to let us know they’d voted. I remember taking part for the first time in that election-day pastime of trying to discern each passing citizen’s voting intentions from the expression on their face, their gait, whether they looked at you on the way out.
I remember the mixture of anti-climax and exhaustion of the first knock-up of the day when you get almost no one in - and everyone who is in hasn’t voted yet - because they are normal, unlike you. I remember going on a tour of polling stations with a sleep-deprived Jim Murphy who fell into a deep sleep between polling places in the back of the car.
I remember the rest of the afternoon sat on a brick wall, in baking sunshine, at Our Lady of the Missions Primary School beside an old-before-his-time young-conservative in a three-piece-suit (blue) who confidently told me and the elderly Liberal Democrat volunteer that there was a late swing to Major’s government in the South of England. I remember just wishing it was all over — the day and the Tory government.
I remember the desperation of the knock-up after dinner. How precious peak voting hours flew past. I remember our team going back to the campaign rooms, refusing the cup of tea and a break and instead going right back out for another round of voters.
I remember Jack McConnell, then General Secretary of the Party, coming to our campaign offices after polls closed as we tidied up the last of the Reading Sheets. For younger readers: Reading Sheets were triplicate (triplicate was a type of carbon-backed paper that would make a copy beneath the top sheet) sticky labels printed on a dot matrix printer (imagine a steam-punk laserjet). Jack was paged (a pager was a mobile that only accepted text messages and couldn’t return them) with the exit poll, which suggested even seats like ours would fall to Labour (Labour used to take safe seats off the Tories). Everyone in the room thought the same thing, looked at each other for permission to get excited about a possible result in Eastwood, then thought, no, don’t be silly.
I remember the count. Not any of the speeches, the numbers being read out or the face of the Tory candidate as he lost their safest seat in Scotland. I remember every detail of the face of a Party member in his late seventies who had campaigned for the local Labour Party since the 1950s. Wet with tears, he was shaking his head. He literally could not believe what he was seeing.
I remember Jim Murphy spraying whatever bottle of fizz someone had been able to find over those of us gathered on his couch in his flat. I remember not going to bed and instead heading to the West End to meet up with my friends from GU Labour Club. I remember drinking in the sunshine on the grass behind Bar Brel. A friend who worked for Robin Cook held up a copy of the Express. The headline ‘Premier Blair’ raised a cheer from the whole beer garden each time he raised it above his head.
The joy of that day was so overwhelming that I’ve never begrudged opponents their turn when a big victory has gone the other way. Party members work so hard for their beliefs in the bad years. The elation of these long nights is fair reward for the thankless slog.
That day changed my life. I was a working-class kid, living in a flat with my mum, who somehow kept things going despite being unable to work due to disability. I was halfway through my first year at university, working before classes, in place of classes, and at weekends as a fishmonger. Then suddenly I was helping an MP to set up a constituency office, I was working in Parliament, I was visiting Number Ten. It wasn’t the fulfilment of an ambition for me. It was far bigger than that: I was part of things I never even imagined someone like me could be a part of.
But that’s not what I’m proud of. What really mattered was what came next.
We became a fairer country. With a minimum wage replacing poverty wages. Tax credits that lifted hundreds of thousands of kids out of poverty. Maternity and paternity leave that improved family life. The right at work to rest, to take breaks, to take four weeks holiday, to join a union without being sacked. Free bus travel giving freedom to pensioners and the disabled. Massive increases in spending on education and health, and with it massive improvements in patient and pupil outcomes. And it was massive — school funding doubled. Free nursery places. A job guarantee for young people. £5billion taken from utility companies to spend on opportunities for young people. Access to the countryside for everyone.
Remember we became a more civilised country. An equal age of consent. Legal recognition for gay relationships. Lifting section 28. Free museums. Handguns banned. Peace in Northern Ireland. The smoking ban. Gift Aid for charitable donations. The Fox Hunting Act. Millions of new citizens welcomed.
We became a more confident and internationalist country. Stopping mass killing in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. Writing off the debt of the poorest nations. A Department for International Development that freed millions from crushing poverty and deadly disease. Banning cluster bombs and landmines. Our embassies flying the rainbow flag and our ambassadors walking at the front of Pride marches.
We became a more modern country. An independent central bank. Land reform. Almost every part of the public estate of the country rebuilt with new schools and hospitals replacing crumbling buildings.
We became more democratic country. Devolution. The Human Rights Act. Freedom of Information. An Equality and Human Rights Commission. The regulation of donations to parties. The abolition of hereditary peers.
Being part of that felt like being part of a revolution. It was a historic transformation that sits alongside Atlee’s great institutions and Wilson’s social change.
Of course, in response to all this Labour’s opponents will have their own “yeah but what about?” list. Fine. Every government gets lots wrong. But not every government gets so much so right. So before you offer your “what about?” list, ask yourself why your parties, in power for more than a decade, haven’t a list of achievements that touches the ambition and scale of the change we made. Even the things delivered only in the first year of that first Labour government vastly outweigh anything a decade of SNP or Tory rule can claim.
Nostalgia is cheering but looking backwards doesn’t show you the way forward. The point of all this isn’t to congratulate, criticise or suggest that the policies and personalities of then offer answers for now.
The point is to remember.
To remember why we need to win. To remember that a Labour Party that changes itself will change the country. To remember that a Labour Party that has popular support is one that wins political power. To remember, even in the most challenging times, that a confident Labour Party can win anywhere.
And to recall a time when political victory belonged to those who brought people together to do big things, rather than those who govern today who divide people and pursue small ideas.
I remember what that was like. It was bloody great.