LONDON (AP) — “A new dawn has broken, has it not?”
Those were the standout words Tony Blair delivered to adoring Labour Party supporters on the banks of the River Thames in the early hours of May 2, 1997 after his historic landslide victory in the general election the day before.
His Labour Party had trounced the Conservative Party, which had been in power for 18 years, securing its biggest-ever majority in the House of Commons of 179 seats.
A period of Labour hegemony surely loomed. And so it did.
Now, 20 years on from that historic day for Labour, the party, according to some opinion polls, may face its biggest defeat since World War II in the upcoming election on June 8.
Why the turnaround?
The high watermark of Labour’s electoral fortunes was May 1, 1997 when Blair secured his first victory against a demoralized Conservative Party.
Having maneuvered his party to the center ground — he, along with President Bill Clinton, was an advocate of the so-called third way — Blair convinced parts of the country, even those in prosperous counties outside of London, to change a habit of a lifetime and vote Labour.
BUSH AND IRAQ
All went smoothly for Blair — at first. The British economy was in the midst of an unprecedented period of economic growth but Blair remained cautious.
Another convincing victory in 2001 — on a far lower turnout — offered Blair the chance to push through more ambitious domestic reforms.
But his agenda was overwhelmed by the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S.
Blair became a close ally of Clinton’s successor, President George W. Bush. His decision to participate in the war in Iraq alienated many, not least because no weapons of mass destruction were ever found. Blair’s reputation — and arguably Labour’s — has never fully recovered.
Iraq cast a huge shadow over the 2005 general election, which Labour won with a far-reduced majority on a much smaller share of the vote.
Between 1997 and 2005, Labour had lost around 4 million votes. Instead of 43 percent of total votes cast, Labour got barely more than 35 percent — still enough to deliver a working majority in Parliament because of the vagaries of the British electoral system.
The election clearly signaled a turning point. With allies of Gordon Brown, who was at the helm at the Treasury for a decade, agitating for Blair to stand aside, Labour’s three-time election winner announced his intention to resign in the summer of 2007.
CRASH AND CRISIS
Brown lost credibility after failing to call an early general election soon after replacing Blair as prime minister. His allies had let the speculation run and run. It was a “humiliating retreat,” according to then-Conservative Party leader David Cameron.
Brown’s time at the helm was marked by the global financial crisis. Following the collapse of much-bigger U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers in September 2008, the financial crisis went global. Banks around the world, including some big U.K. names such as Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland, had to be bailed out by the taxpayer.
The global economy went into a tailspin, and Britain endured its deepest recession since World War II.
Though Brown won some plaudits for his handling of the crisis, his ratings never recovered. A drained Labour Party was defeated in 2010, getting just 29 percent of the vote. However, the Conservatives didn’t win an absolute majority, forcing Cameron to go into coalition with Nick Clegg’s smaller Liberal Democrats.
Defeat meant a proper Labour Party leadership contest — unlike 2007’s coronation of Brown.
One favorite was David Miliband, Brown’s foreign secretary. However, his younger brother Ed pulled off a surprise victory with Labour’s union base coming out strongly in support.
Ed Miliband failed to connect with the British public. Many think the wrong brother won and that David Miliband would have been better able to challenge Cameron.
At least, Ed Miliband could always rely on Scotland. Or so he thought.
With hindsight, the referendum for Scottish independence in September 2014 had dealt Labour a major blow.
Though Labour played an important role in the winning campaign against independence, the party’s fortunes in Scotland took a dive as it had worked closely with the Conservatives — whose reputation in Scotland had soured under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
In the 2015 general election, Labour won just one seat in Scotland — against 41 five years earlier — as the pro-independence Scottish National Party swept to historic gains.
Opinion polls suggested that Cameron’s Conservatives had little chance of winning the 2015 general election outright. They were wrong.
Though Labour’s overall vote share at the 2015 election inched up to 30 percent, its haul of seats fell to its lowest level since 1983.
Cameron’s majority meant he had to honor one aspect of his party’s manifesto — a commitment to hold a referendum on Britain’s 40-plus-year membership of the European Union. In June 2016, Britain surprisingly voted for Brexit, and Cameron was replaced by Theresa May. The result further damaged the legacy of Blair, who had wanted to put Britain “at the heart of Europe.”
After repeatedly saying she wouldn’t call a snap general election, May changed her mind. One reason cited is that the polls show her winning strongly against a Labour Party led by someone most Labour lawmakers have tried to oust.
Jeremy Corbyn is an unabashed man of the left, who only joined the post-2015 Labour leadership contest because some more moderate lawmakers thought the left should get a hearing.
Corbyn’s challenge — a big one according to some polls which have the Conservatives 20 percentage points ahead of Labour — is to convince voters he’s ready to be prime minister even though he’s had trouble rallying so many of his own party behind his views and leadership style.
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