Moments that made the year: Earthquake in Enfield: the night Middle England turned red

Blair's victory

No other election, in recent memory, has so quickly spawned its own folklore. Were you still up for Portillo? demanded the title of one book. To miss the defining moment when the then defence secretary knew he had been rejected by the electors of Enfield North was to be left woefully out of a rare collective experience, like failing to see a winning goal at a FA Cup Final, only much, much worse. Portillo made an unusually graceful speech after the count. But that wasn't the point.

His defeat at super-Tory Enfield North - even for those not gleefully celebrating his demise as a Thatcher heir-apparent - dramatised, as no other result could have done, a landslide on a scale unimaginable when the polls had closed a few hours earlier. It was a few minutes after the Enfield count that, flushed with excitement and scarcely able to absorb the seismic nature of the results across the country, the Blairite intellectual Geoff Mulgan, now on the Downing Street staff, could think of only three words to stammer as he left a BBC party: "This is weird."

He was massively understating the case. The scale of the victory was all the more mysterious because it had, in the end, nothing to do with the previous month's frantic campaigning. The widespread perception among commentators that Labour had fought a brilliantly successful election campaign was shared by the voting public. Thirty-six per cent of voters thought that Labour had fought the most effective campaign, compared with only 11 per cent for the Conservatives, and 13 per cent for the Liberal Democrats. Judged by measurable results this was nonsense. The most striking effect of four weeks of intense electoral activity was precisely the opposite: an actual reduction in Labour's poll lead over the Tories from an impossible 25 points to a still scarcely credible 13.

The roots of those results on that extraordinary night went much, much further back than the campaign itself. Dick Crossman remarked a generation ago that "an election is the end of a long process". The implosion of British Conservatism isn't easy to summarise. The ERM catastrophe had inflicted irreparable damage on the credibility of the John Major government, as the 1967 devaluation had on Wilson's. Privatisation had proved an incontestable success in making efficient the lumbering state industries it replaced. But it also created a hugely enriched super-class, which the public was far less ready to accept.

The electorate wasn't, in the end, prepared to give the credit for an economic recovery to a government which had refused to take the blame for a recession. It was unforgiving about sleaze (drawing an infinitely more sophisticated distinction than the tabloid press had done between financial misdemeanours and sexual heterodoxy). And above all it was repelled by a party ideologically at war with itself, especially on Europe.

But it was still an election won as well as lost. As David Butler and Denis Kavanagh summarised this epochal event in the closing words of their authoritative Nuffield College Study: "The Conservatives, 18 years in power, provided the opportunity. Labour seized it." That Labour was able to do so was Blair's supreme achievement in opposition. While Neil Kinnock had heroically eliminated the poisonous legacy of the early-Eighties, unscrambling the electorally hopeless positions on Europe, defence and internal democracy, and restored to Labour some of the respectability it had enjoyed in the Seventies, Blair had gone much further. Certainly, Blair was an exceptionally attractive leader. But the party he brought to the election was also transformed: unashamedly embracing Margaret Thatcher's restructuring of the economy. It offered an ideological third way which would seek to heal the social divisions which that restructuring had brought in its wake. Neither old left, went the mantra, nor new right. No longer prepared to tax in order to spend, it also, for the first time in the party's history, promised less than it intended to deliver. And the electorate responded to Blair as it had to Thatcher in 1979, only more so.

The one party that can have truly been said to have benefited from the election campaign itself was the Liberal Democrat Party, which saw its vote share rise to 17 from 13 per cent. One of the peculiar features of the 1997 electorate was its ruthless use of tactical voting. As a result, the Liberal Democrats beat the system they had so long wanted to reform. The third party, with 46 seats, more than in any election since 1929, benefited to an extraordinary degree from the willingness of electors to vote indiscriminately for the anti-Tory candidate. And so did Labour: maybe Blair did "only" secure 44.6 per cent of the vote - more than in any election since 1970, though lower than any between 1945 and 1966. But the total anti-Tory vote of 61.6 per cent blasted all previous 20th- century records.

The scale of this defeat brought in its wake potential problems as well as untold advantages for Labour. Vigorous opposition and narrow majorities can be tough disciplinarians. The fact that Blair is confronting neither may have played a modest part in the revolt this month over the badly- managed cuts in lone-parent benefit. But those cuts are a harbinger for perhaps his toughest task. Welfare reform, while explicitly foreshadowed in the manifesto, was least discussed in detail before or during the election. Which is one reason why, as shown by the David Blunkett letter leaked last weekend, Cabinet ministers are agonising about some of it now. The ending of free university tuition - a hard choice managed with outstanding skill by that same David Blunkett - and the switch from legal aid to no- win no-fee lawyers' services, are both aspects of of welfare reform. But it also means a more far-reaching attempt than the Tories would have dared, to end the dependency culture and replace it with one of work; to lift the aspirations of those trapped in cut-off, no-hope estates, to target benefits to those who need them and reduce them for those who don't; and in the process find more money for education and health. Blair shows no sign of being diverted from this task; those who try to thwart him from the backbenches may have to face the consequences.

And he has the room to drive through the most ambitious programme of constitutional reform this century; to take just one example, the reform of the Lords which ran into the ground in the Sixties, is now, if not easy, attainable. On education and health, on youth justice, on the minimum wage, he has already begun to redeem his promises. But winning as new Labour means governing as new Labour. The one heresy he will never accept is the one that says since he won so massively it wasn't therefore necessary to transform the party as far as he did.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

    £120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

    Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

    £70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

    £24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

    Day In a Page

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore