Election `97: Blair's long trek to victory

Independent writers reveal the inside story of how the New Labour campaign became unassailable. By Paul Vallely, Christian Wolmar, Colin Brown, Steve Boggan and Barrie Clement
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The Independent Online
It was the longest election campaign this century. But the crusade to make the Labour Party electable once again had started long before that - when four men met to talk late into the night in a private room in the House of Commons.

The four were Tony Blair, then the party's spokesman for home affairs; Gordon Brown, the man who was later to step down from competing with Blair for the succession after the sudden death of John Smith; Peter Mandelson, the MP for Hartlepool who had been Labour's director of communications during the first of Neil Kinnock's two unsuccessful assaults on Downing Street in 1987; and Alastair Campbell, then political editor of the Daily Mirror and now Blair's press secretary. It was not one meeting, but a regular gathering. Yet the question was always the same: how to professionalise the party. With the election of Blair as leader it took on a new urgency and a new purpose.

It was no secret. An insistence that a transmutation of the party's inner core was under way was Mandelson's recurring theme during dinners with newspaper editors and political correspondents long before the concepts of Old and New Labour had been put into words. It was the first stage in the skilful wooing of the media which broke the almost universal bias against Labour which had been such a persistent handicap in previous elections.

The baseline was Michael Foot's shambles of a campaign in 1983 when Margaret Thatcher was returned with an increased majority of 144 - one seat less than Labour had gained in the landslide which followed the Second World War. Behind Thatcher's victory was a Tory election machine which had moved into a different gear; advisers like Maurice Saatchi, Tim Bell and Gordon Reece brought the tools of modern advertising, marketing and PR to bear on politics. Mandelson knew that if Labour were again to become electable the party had not just to compete but to leapfrog that into a new level of sophistication in these black arts.

In the months which followed he began to develop that, even as Blair was instilling a new discipline into the diffuse party he had inherited.

When the campaign began the Conservatives resorted to the techniques which had served them well in the past. Their campaign, conceived by Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman, Michael Heseltine, the deputy leader, and Danny Finkelstein, head of Tory party research, was built around the personal appeal of John Major: "Honest John against Phoney Tony". But it lacked focus - they never resolved the issue of whether they were attacking Old Labour or New Tories. It also lacked a strategic momentum.

By contrast Labour had both. The party's campaign strategists owed much to the success of Bill Clinton's successful campaigns in the United States with its remodelling of his party into New Democrats. Clinton - still smarting from the support which the Conservatives had given to his rival George Bush in opening British secret service files on Clinton's student days at Oxford - opened his election strategy to Blair's aides. The hierarchical structure of the Labour election machine was jettisoned and replaced with a dozen task forces on key seats, party, media, trade unions, attack and rebuttal, presentation, regions, leader's office, message delivery, logistics and so on. It was a meritocracy with junior staff sometimes heading task forces including their own bosses.

As a result Labour has been following a detailed week-on-week electioneering strategy for almost a year - from last summer, leading up to the party conferences, the budget and the re-opening of Parliament after the Christmas break. It also learned from Clinton's people the techniques of how to stay on that strategy and deflect Tory attempts to derail it.

Throughout the campaign a central control room at the party's Millbank headquarters provided a rapid rebuttal unit which responded instantly to any new Conservative claim. Its liaison with the media was slick, feeding out approved messages and effectively emasculating attempts to undercut the official version of events. Its use of pagers, the Internet and faxes helped keep its candidates consistently "on message". Its advertising was focused and effective; at one point, private polling showed that Labour's "Britain Deserves Better" campaign was agreed with by 84 per cent of those questioned, compared with just 7 per cent who agreed with the Tories' "Britain is Booming". And the simplicity of Tony Blair's message - boring to the reporters who trailed in his wake but appealing to the voters - helped keep up the appearance of a united party.

"Fallback strategy and contingency planning were so good," said one Labour insider, "that when the wheels came off - and believe me those on the inside know that they did - outsiders didn't even notice."

The thinking behind the new-style campaigning was to concentrate resources. To gain a working overall majority, Labour needed to win 90 seats, which required a 6 per cent swing. The effort to win these seats began two years ago with a massive canvassing effort. The target was for 80 per cent of voters to be contacted by the end of 1996. The main weapon was the telephone bank, of which there are 20 located around the country. Telephone numbers were gathered not just from the directory, but from petitions, and teams of volunteers began contacting voters by telephone and on the doorstep.

The aim was to find around 5,000 in each seat who would be enough to swing the election. Each was categorised into: against, undecided, solid Labour, second choice Labour, Labour but don't vote regularly, and switchers. Everyone in the three latter categories was then targeted with personal letters from Tony Blair tailored to their category. Every month, the information from each constituency was sent in to the Millbank databank. And the efforts to switch the switchers were kept up right to the end, with spare Millbank staff telephoning them during the last few days.

In January, the strategy moved on to GOTV - Get Out The Vote. More letters were sent out to each type of target voter and young people were sent a "hip" video of Tony Blair showing them how to vote. Candidates were required to contact personally at least 1,000 switchers. Canvassers were asked to send back issues of concern raised by the voters, which, together with information from the focus groups run by Philip Gould, the party's advertising guru, were used to inform future campaigns.

Labour, then, were on plan from 17 March, the day that John Major announced the general election date instituting the longest election campaign anyone could remember. True, though the Labour strategists had always expected a 1 May election they did not predict a six-week campaign. Their War Book - leaked towards the end of the campaign by rattled Tories who had got hold of a copy six months earlier - showed the meticulously planned schedule for the campaign only covered four weeks. But Labour had the back-up to hastily add to it.

Supported by the Liberal Democrats, the Labour leadership began by putting pressure on the Government to publish the Downey report on cash-for-questions before Parliament prorogued. They succeeded in making sleaze the first issue of the campaign.

The Tories were on the back foot from the outset and were unable to recover. Labour was able to exploit a succession of events involving prominent Conservatives to keep the issue before the public in those first days: Allan Stewart, the former Scottish office minister, stood down after newspaper reports of an improper association with a married mother of four he met in an alcohol addiction clinic; the backbencher Piers Merchant was accused by another newspaper of having had an affair with a 17-year-old nightclub hostess; and the party's Scottish chairman Sir Michael Hirst quit over reports which claimed he once had a gay lover.

But the damaging sleaze was financial. Tim Smith, the former Northern Ireland Minister, who admitted receiving cash from Mohamed Al Fayed, quit as candidate for Beaconsfield. By contrast Neil Hamilton, the Tory at the heart of the cash-for-questions storm, continued to protest his innocence and refused to stand down prompting Martin Bell, the BBC war reporter, to stand against him as an anti-corruption candidate.The voters delivered a crushing defeat on Hamilton.

Amid all this the Conservatives were unable to gain any momentum. When Labour wobbled badly on the unions, when Blair made his embarrassing "parish council" slip over the issue of Scottish devolution, and when Gordon Brown did his U-turn on privatising air traffic control to cover an apparent hole in Labour's tax plans, the Government was unable to sustain the attack.

It was the only time in the campaign that Labour became unnerved. Momentarily one section of the party - Gordon Brown's office - was briefing against the accepted line. But the Tories could not press their advantage. Indeed sleaze went on so long that Labour began to be nervous about it, and were anxious to move the agenda on.

Tory strategists at Smith Square hoped to find solace in the gaffes they were convinced Labour would make during the long campaign. But Labour were prepared for that. Blair was tense at the start of the campaign, an aide later admitted, because he knew all eyes would be on him; the Tories would attack him, Labour would present him as its greatest asset. "When you realise that the entire election is about you, you would have to be inhuman not to feel tense," the aide said. "It would mean a lot of changes for him and Cherie and the children, and he wants to protect the children."

Despite all that Blair's guard slipped hardly at all. Nor did his deputy's. Labour were aware that Smith Square had put a gaffe unit on John Prescott, following him round to highlight any mistakes, "but they gave up and went home after two or three weeks", said one Labour insider, "because he was so good".

Tight control was the secret. It characterised Tony Blair's relentless tour of the country in which he visited 74 places in 60 constituencies during 34 days of campaigning, covering 9,168 miles by road, rail and air (the later in a chartered BAC 1-11 which became known as Blairforce One, and, at times, fleets of up to 11 helicopters for the Labour leader and his media entourage). In Northampton market square, where he began, he emerged from the dark-windowed bus to his People's Platform and shouted: "Hello Northampton! The sun's out... and in a few weeks, with your help, the Tories'll be out too!". It was a performance the reporters imprisoned in his entourage were to witness on dozens of occasions in dozens of locations - local reference - joke - soundbite - and away. But Blair's minders ensured that the journalists had virtually no access to the Labour leader; he spoke to the press on only three occasions, once at a drinks party and twice aboard Blairforce One, but he never seemed comfortable.

Labour's strategists preferred the press to concentrate on the photo- opportunities. The Tories followed suit, to the extent that the launch of the manifestos of the three main parties was overshadowed by shenanigans with activists dressed up as chickens - headless and otherwise (following the Tory accusation in week two that Blair was "chicken" after Labour pulled the plug on talks over a possible television debate between the two party leaders).

Meanwhile John Major was working hard too. He travelled 10,000 miles across Britain (including seven set-piece rallies in the Albert Hall, Plymouth, the JCB plant in Staffordshire, York, Manchester, Aberdeen and London Arena), dropping in to see the postponed Grand National at Aintree after a mad day criss-crossing England in helicopters, and visits to countless marginal seats. His tour seemed to prove that everywhere he went that he was more popular than his party. There were gaffes - the visit to the racing car with no wheels, and stepping into a shop called Slees - but throughout, he never flagged in his smiling, polite campaign to persuade the voters not to turn their backs on 18 years of Tory rule, in spite of the polls. Each day, the Major battlebus was sent out with the message "Britain is Booming - Don't Let Labour Blow It". It was the only clear slogan of the Tory campaign.

While Major was out on the hustings, Tory Central Office was the scene of squabbles between Maurice Saatchi and the party chairman Brian Mawhinney over the advertising campaign. Lord Saatchi wanted to attack Blair directly, depicting a grin with the question "What lies behind the smile?", but Major would not sanction it. Other advertisements were unconvincing: a lion symbol attacking Labour over Europe was quickly dropped; the "Tony and Bill" campaign - an attempt by Mawhinney to focus on the cost of Labour pledges - looked like a Labour poster, and was ditched.

By contrast things were going according to the meticulous plan at Millbank. With Blair out on the road, the Labour campaign was being run by Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson. Each day there were three meetings - at 7am, 11am and 3 30pm. They were attended by Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Blair's chief of staff Jonathan Powell. Also there were David Hill, the chief media spokesman and Adrian McMenamin, the head of attack and rebuttal. No longer were shadow cabinet members to be allowed to spin their own yarns away from the web of Millbank Tower. Internet, faxes and pagers kept politicians in the field in touch with the ops room with its massive computer system, Excalibur, which can instantly turn up the most obscure information imaginable on rivals. Briefings were sent nightly, sometimes twice a day, ensuring that everybody was "on message". The messages were simple - small promises, on class sizes, jobs, the health service and crime, dressed up as big ideas.

It was from Millbank that the decision came - after Blair was accused of being dull - to raise the stakes. Next morning Campbell gathered the media in a conference suite in Stevenage to tell them about a change in tactics. The press had, he said, been too boring in its coverage of the campaign, so from the next day Tony was going to be passionate. It was planned, he announced without conscious irony, that henceforth he would break out into spontaneity.

It was more spontaneous even than planned. Blair's microphone broke and he was forced to shout, to pace the stage and to use all his energy to get his message across. The reaction was extremely positive and resulted in his personal ratings going up overnight in Scotland.

What Labour could never have planned for was the Conservatives' determination to snooker themselves on the question of Europe. At the beginning of week five the Home Office minister David Maclean became the most senior government figure to join the ranks of ministers junior ministers and well over 100 other candidates speaking out against a single currency. The continual sniping from his own candidates was damaging to John Major's authority throughout the campaign and eventually forced him into addressing the subject head on. It was a mistake, Labour strategists said privately "because it brought out John Major's weak leadership". Their internal divisions on Europe also meant that the Tories were forced to keep their best hitter - Kenneth Clarke - away from the centre of the political stage.

"There was absolutely no way they were going to hold it together over Europe for six weeks," a senior Labour source said. "They should have been on the economy the whole time but they couldn't because they were worried about Ken Clarke [and his support for a single currency]. That was crazy because he is by far their best performer and their most popular politician. It is a measure of the division within the Tory party that they couldn't use their best advantage and their best player."

If it was Europe which lost it for the Tories, the received political wisdom is that the election was probably lost on Black Wednesday, when John Major's economic policy was blown apart by the speculators against sterling in the Exchange Rate Mechanism, and with it, the Tories' claims to economic competence over Labour. But the imposition of VAT on fuel also destroyed their claims to be the party of low taxation in the minds of the voters. As a result, the Tory campaign team were left searching for a tax bombshell that it could no longer drop.

In any case Paddy Ashdown's forthright approach to increased taxes drew the sting of the Tory attempt to create a tax scare. Throughout a campaign in which he covered 17,300 miles by coach, turbo-prop aeroplane, taking in 64 constituencies, the Liberal Democrat leader conducted a campaign which gave the lie to the old "woolly Liberal" image. First, it was targeted ruthlessly on winnable seats and constituencies where the party hoped to build up a strong presence based on their incumbency at local authority level. But strikingly Ashdown kept hammering home his key theme that the electorate would have to pay more tax if they wanted to see an improvement in education and health; his insistence that "you can't get something for nothing" seemed to strike a chord with voters.

Consistently Tory strategy seemed to backfire. Their poster depicting Tony Blair as a tiny ventriloquist's dummy sitting on the knee of Helmut Kohl was brushed aside by Labour as a sign of "panic and desperation". And Lord Saatchi grew increasingly frustrated as the Prime Minister insisted that three planned party election broadcasts be dropped so that he could attack the spectre of Labour embracing European federalism.

It was the same with the row over pensions. When Tony Blair claimed the Tories planned to abolish the state pension, John Major fumed that it was untrue, said Labour had got into the gutter and came close to calling Blair a liar - but all he did was invite the judgement from many that it was the Tories who could not be believed. Whatever, like Brian Mawhinney's precipitous embrace of the diversion of whether the journalist Will Self had taken heroin on Major's campaign jet, it all only succeeded in preventing the Tories from regaining the momentum. They never returned to the effective attack on tax which in the final week, Central Office had briefed journalists to expect. The sense that the Tories were falling apart was dramatically underscored by Edwina Currie predicting a Labour landslide in a newspaper article and announcing it would be a "miracle" if she could hold her own Derbyshire South seat - as, in the event, she did not.

Towards the end of the gruelling six weeks John Major was sitting in the VIP section of the Prime Minister's campaign jet, flying back late at night from one of his election rallies. In the darkness he turned towards a Tory aide and asked her: "If the worst happens, and we are defeated, what will they say about the campaign in the long term?"

"They will say you fought the best campaign. They won't blame you."

"Look me in the eyes and say that," he said.

In the short term, he knew he would get the blame - for not fighting on a Euro-sceptic ticket, for fighting on a One-Nation ticket, for refusing to allow Michael Howard to make immigration an election issue, for keeping open the option on a single currency. He could live with that.

But in the long term, he was worried he would go down in history as the loser, not the man who against the odds had held the party together for so long. In the end, however, the seismic fault lines within the Conservative Party proved too deep and wide for one man to hold together.

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