I am still haunted by the ghosts of 1992

11th April, 2012 3:16 pm

Like many geekier political folk I spent a lot of Easter Monday glued to the BBC Parliament channel 20th anniversary re-run of the 1992 General Election results programme.

I missed some of the coverage at the time as I was a counting agent for Labour in Bristol North West. As viewers on Monday will have seen, we lost that seat by 45 votes after multiple recounts. It was not a pleasant experience 20 years ago or re-watching it on Monday.

Unlike 2010 when we were braced for defeat for at least two years, and in many ways relieved to get away with only the drubbing we did, in 1992 we were convinced we were going to win. We had been ahead in the polls and won several by-elections. Our canvass returns looked great.

The Tories had made a major strategic mistake on the Poll Tax and were deeply split on the Exchange Rate Mechanism. John Major was hardly Mr Charisma. We felt we had participated in a fundamental shake-up of the party, moving from the expulsion of Militant in 1985 to a policy review in 1988 (my first year as an active party member) which saw us embrace Europe and reject unilateralism. We had a frontbench team full of talented moderates like Shadow Chancellor John Smith and Deputy Leader Roy Hattersley, as well as younger rising stars like Jack Cunningham, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. Peter Mandelson had revamped our image and was himself part of a strong new batch of candidates.

My memory of the campaign was of a few national hiccups – the Jennifer’s Ear broadcast, the Sheffield Rally, but nothing that shook my youthful conviction that the hero of the modernising wing of the party and particularly of those of us in NOLS (Labour Students), Neil Kinnock, was about to end 13 years of Tory rule. Locally the only flies in the ointment were David Blunkett’s guidedog falling ill on a campaign visit to us, and our car cavalcade breaking the leg of a rather foolish youth on the Lockleaze estate who decided to kick our cars and miss-timed it.

I guess I should have realised we were not on track for victory from the tell-tale signs that Bristol North West, a seat we needed to form a majority, was under-resourced compared to the slightly easier target seats of Kingswood and Bristol East, which I also spent some time in with my Bristol Uni Labour Club colleagues. Maybe I imagined this and everyone was under-resourced, or maybe it only happened in the last few days as the polls tightened, but I got the distinct impression we were being written off by someone at HQ, and with us any shot at an overall majority.

Maybe I should have realised Labour’s organisational weakness when our excellent candidate, Doug Naysmith, and experienced agent, Phil Gregory, asked me to use students to run a polling day operation in the safe Tory bit of the seat, Westbury-on-Trym Ward. I said no because I didn’t feel I was ready for this, and assumed they had someone else who could do it. They didn’t. There was no ward party organisation at all in 1/9th of a target constituency.

On the day I continued to feel upbeat in my student greenhorn way until the veteran Co-Op Organiser I was spending the day doing a loudspeaker car with (him driving, me loudhailing) poured metaphorical cold water over me. He had been around in elections since the 1950s and he knew what defeat looked like. It looked sheepish, like the voters in what should have been our safe areas like Southmead and Kingweston, but who were looking down, avoiding eye contact, as we drove past, embarrassed to show they had rejected us. I should also have guessed that a polling day operation in one council estate bit of Avonmouth that consisted of only the elderly lady running the Reading pads (perfectly) and her daughter taking numbers, and no one to knock up, was not going to do the trick.

That count was surpassed only in its slow-motion horror by the local election one month later when we lost all our council seats (and perhaps by the Hackney one I was at in 1998 where we lost wards on 30% swings and the attendant Lib Dem hecklers seemed straight out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting – that one we subsequently discovered had partly been down to massive electoral fraud). Inside the hall we appeared to have won by 5 votes. Then someone found a bundle of 50 Tory votes on the floor (!) and we were 45 down. Outside in the lobby crowded round the TV we cheered as we won Bristol East and Kingswood and the Lib Dems took Bath. But our candidate Doug was silent and ashen. His grasp of maths was better than mine – he needed a 6.1% swing and Bristol East and Kingswood had been 5.9%. He got a 6% swing. Not enough. And had to wait until 1997 for his day.

I bailed out when the count adjourned in the early hours, and slunk back to my mum and dad in Kent for sleep, a good cry, and contemplation of five more years of Tory decay.

I was at a total political loss about what Labour should do next. I assumed we had pushed modernisation to its limits and we were about to face a massive backlash from the Bennites, still a potent recent memory in Bristol where Benn and his sidekick Dawn Primarolo had in 1987 deselected Chief Whip Michael Cocks, who in consequence had been a political refugee in our Bristol NW campaign. Surely they would come and destroy us now our project had failed to deliver victory? Luckily there was a guy called Blair who could see what Labour needed to do to win and within two years was taking us there.

Still, I learned some lessons in my first General Election campaign:
• Some people lie when you canvass them and/or change their mind afterwards
• Opinion polls can be wrong
• Even poor people are afraid of higher taxation
• If you are not credible on the economy you can’t win
• If an Agent or Candidate asks you to do something, do it, there’s no B Team of activists in reserve to do it instead
• Targeting discipline and key seats matter – we had people wasting their energy on polling day coming third in Bristol West when they could have tipped the next door seat over the line – in an election where the Tories only just got an overall majority
• Don’t stop knocking up until the polls close – you never know if it will be your seat we are only 45 behind in

For those of you who know me to campaign with, if I come across a bit driven and obsessive about finding those last few contacts or squeezing in an extra half hour’s canvassing, forgive me. I am still haunted by the ghosts of 1992.

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  • Dave

    The founding myth of Blairism reveals itself again, that Blair’s journey to the centre and beyond secured victory. It ignores the evidence of the polls, which show a public who began to have second thoughts fairly quickly afterwards, doubts which crystalised on Black Wednesday. The importance of that was because the Tories weren’t seen as great on the economy, and Labour terrible, but that despite the recession of 1990-91, people on balance gave the Tories the benefit of the doubt ahead of Labour, cheered on as they were in that regard by the right-wing press. 

    Then, in a single day, the Tories lost that for a generation, as interest rates doubled. For a day, nearly everyone in the country with a mortgage (the Thatcherite working and middle class) worked out that they’d be unable to meet their monthly costs and copuld be out on their ear and in a day, the Tories’ reputation plummeted to the point where doubts about Labour were no longer enough to make people think the Tories deserved their support.

    Blair, convinced as he was that Britain was more conservative than it actually is, surrounded by advisors terrified of losing again, didn’t really believe a rubicon was reached that day, and when Smith died, resolved to not leave anything to chance. The Labour party which could have preserved some decent policies – not least on the economy and regulating the city – was similarly too terrified to fight to hold those much-needed policies (read any Parliamentarian’s diary from the period and you get a flavour that the spirit was broken, and no policy was too precious to junk in favour of keeping the Sun and Mail quiet).For gutting the core of Labour, Blair turned what would have been a clear mandate for Labour into a landslide. This was sold as being a chance to fundamentally move the goalposts of British politics, but as we see with the ease by which the Tories dismantly the welfare state and trabnsfer wealth to the rich, that was all just self-regarding nonsense, with whatever settlement Labour affected washed away in the sand. Or to put it another way, as Cameron shows, who needs a stonking majority to change the country? 

  • AlanGiles

    ” Benn and his sidekick Dawn Primarolo ”

    Love him or hate him, Tony Benn had principles, unlike Ms Primarolo who went on to become one of the loyalist of the Blair Babes and was suitable rewarded with promotion.

    With all due respect, like so many you seem to blame all Labour’s troubles then and now on the left-wing. It’s worth pointing out that the majority of expenses swindlers were not left-wingers (Harry Cohen is about the only well known Left ex-MP), it was not the left-wing who had “a moment of madness” on Clapham Common, or made false statements on a mortgage application, or boasted about making anothers man’s wife preganant and then writing a whining self-pitying diary about it, It wasn’t a left winger who promised “no more boom or bust” nor was it a left winger who said Iraq could discharge “weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes”, nor was the wife of a “colourful” solicitor who was enduced to sign remortageg applications regularly on the left wing. You see my point?

    I could suggest to you in thhree words what lost us the 1992 election – THE SHEFFIELD RALLY

    • Brumanuensis

      Have to disagree unfortunately Alan. Benn has always only cared about his own ego and his own reputation. The man’s role in stoking the Party’s internal conflicts in the early 1980s is both undeniable and unforgivable. Whilst decent members of the left like Michael Foot were doing their best to fight the Tories and hold us together in the face of the SDP threat, Benn remorselessly aggravated divisions for the sake of his own advancement. He was a brilliant orator, but his selfishness, particularly when he ran for deputy leader, was his Achilles heel.

      I also have to disagree about the Sheffield Rally. It was daft, but it had little effect on the polls at the time, as the New Statesman observed, Labour had already dropped by about 6-7% in the polls, due to Major banging on about the ‘tax bombshell’.

      • AlanGiles

        We agree on so much, my friend, we won’t fall out over this. I wouldn’t attempt to convince you about TB, but I do  have a very strong feeling about the Sheffield Rally. When Neil came on to that stage yelling “We’re Aright!” x 3 my heart sank, and I wished for his own sake the floor had opened up for him – it allowed that sense of triumphalism to be contrasted with Major’s soapbox stunt – and you know how Britain takes the underdog to it’s heart. That’s my honest belief, but as I say, let’s not fall out over it, I do respect your views.

        • treborc

           You were lucky Neil was my MP we had to put up with that all the time.

        • Brumanuensis

          It was embarrassing, I’ll agree. I still cringe when I see that clip on television. Poor Neil. He was so much more honest and authentic than the Labour leaders who followed him – with the honourable exception of John Smith. Blair, Brown and now Miliband are all men of straw in comparison.

          Kinnock knew, after all, what it was like to grow up in a poor area. He understood Labour values instinctively because he’d seen them in action, not read about them in a ‘progressive’ magazine. So much of our politics these days is second-hand and cheap. You have to say, whatever Major’s faults, the man was willing to get up on a soap-box and fight for his position. That was what won it for the Tories, as you correctly point out.

          I still think tax was the key issue in that campaign. As far as I’m aware, the Rally didn’t get a great deal of attention until after polling day, but I could be mistaken. I was too young to have clear memories of the contest anyway, alas! Like Luke Akehurst, I’ve only ever seen re-runs on YouTube and elsewhere.

          • Major managed to reinvent the Tories in the public eye after the demise of Thatcher and the poll tax.

            However, a very short time after the election displayed why they weren’t capable of governing, and they spent the remainder of their term proving it.

          • Mike Slater

            Lol, Even I have to agree with that!

          • Mike Slater

             Hasn’t stopped him or his wife stuffing their faces in the Euro-trough since tho has it. Poor man? My arse!

          • Brumanuensis

            He was offered a post. He accepted and by almost all accounts, served with distinction. One of his most prominent actions was to crack down on the EU gravy train, by reducing staff salaries. Hardly someone wallowing in it.

      • Duncan Halll

        It’s a common but nevertheless ridiculous charge to accuse Tony of selfishness. He took anything but the path of self-advancement, whatever you think of that. Kinnock on the other hand only cared about his own achievements – an unprincipled loser, sadly.

        • AlanGiles

          “It’s a common but nevertheless ridiculous charge to accuse Tony of selfishness. He took anything but the path of self-advancement, “I don’t mean to imply bad faith, but you have to be joking Daniel. He is the epitome of selfishness and as for self-advancement look at some of the people he consorts with for money.

          • Duncan

             I’m not called Daniel – and I was talking about Tony Benn – which Tony were you talking about?

          • AlanGiles

            My sincere apologies  DUNCAN. I thought you were speaking about T. Blair not T Benn. As for the Daniel bit – it’s old age.

            I agree with you hence a “like” appears” as a token of my agreement – and my apologies.

        • John P Reid

          A couple of weeks after the ’92 election the first one I was old enough to vote (labour) in and campaign for, I was Made homeless and ended up living in cardboard city, couldn’t get the NHS operation I wanted, Without geting into Mony python In my day we were lucky to live in cardboard boxes (territory) Hearing Tony been living in his mansion going on about how the fact that labour lost was  Amoral victory as it still supported clause4 , Didn’t have OMOV, Didn’t help me when i was freezing, Now I’m not saying had laobur won in 1992 there wouldn’t have been 1000’s of us homeless straight away,but who knows,

          Regarding Luke akehurst and Hopi sen, Or sunder katwala, or Swntntra or Peter watt, Al lsimilar ages to me,and of Similar views not shoree what your problem is Treborc, Dave I don’t know if you saw the coverage of teh ’92 ELection,on the T.V it was pointed out that 18months before the ’92 Election Laobur was 26% ahead,and on the Eve of that election we were 2% ahead and the Tories won that election by 8% So the Fact that Laobur was 10% ahead of the tories 6 months after the 92 election doesn’t mean that Blair got it on A plate as they were good at geting their side back close to elections ,that’s why when People Like Sunny hunday and Medhi hasan who supprt Ed milband say that Ed will win the enxt eelction becasue he’s ahead no, i’m glad there’s people like Luke around here to say that it’ll be a struggle to win next time and Ed ought to up the Ante.

          actaully I forgot that election saw Terry field and Dave nellist lose their seats and John Cartwright and Rosie barnes for the SDP seats go back to labour too.

  • Johndclare

    Great blog, Luke Akehurst.

    I have just finished reading Hopi Sen’s blog (http://hopisen.com/?p=4574), where he responds very politely to someone’s comment ‘Why were you even in the Labour Party’.  In it, Hopi asks his detractor how someone who “joined the Labour party at the age of sixteen, has been a councillor and worked for the party for nigh on a decade
    is insufficiently pure of heart and soul for your purposes”. I think he was kind not to reply more aggressively.

    Reading this blog, with its on-the-ground authenticity of experience of what it is REALLY like to fight (and lose) an election, I was reminded that you too, Luke, have worked long and hard for the Labour Party, and great personal cost of time and money, and yet still suffer abuse at the pens of Labour Party members.

    My own experience is at parish level, but it includes election after election treading round my ‘patch’ of 1,500 houses, delivering leaflet after leaflet, and even doing much of the canvassing – occasionally on behalf of candidates who could not even be bothered to go round with me.

    And, just personally, I think those years of service deserve more respect than to be told to get out of the party by so-called ‘activists’, some of whom you know for a damn fact have only just re-joined the party having left allegedly for ‘conscience sake’ in the years after 1997.

    I know that your blog did not have this message, but this is the message I am taking from it; that anyone who might want to have a say needs first to do this – “Serve your apprenticeship, earn your spurs, do the work.  And then maybe you’ll have earned the right to suggest who should be in the party and who shouldn’t.”

    If this is too harsh, or stirs up a hornet’s nest, I apologise.

    • treborc

      Somebody pass me the sick bag

    • AlanGiles

      It should be said for the sake of fairness that there are many New Labourites, who, when those of us of the more traditional, plain old “Labour” supporters, say anything they don’t like they tell us to “shut up” (Dave Talbot to me a few weeks ago) or “join the SWP” (Purple Booker) or even that I am a Conservative! (I won’t name the person who suggested that out of charitiable feelings).

      I do feel sometimes that New Labour supporters just think if you keep uing the word “change” it will automatically make people think you have new ideas, and will make old Labour supporters look even more prehistoric. Perhaps they would do well, next time they advocxate 2change” to remember the wise advice Lord Palmerston gave Queen Victoria: “change, change, change, – all this talk of change. Are’nt things bad enough already?”.

  • Billy Hickey

    Alan G iles

    I think Ron Davies was  a left winger.  Who’s the wife of the colourful solicitor.  Did I miss this one?

    • AlanGiles

      Tessa Jowell. She had no idea that it wasn’t normal practice to sign remortgage forms every few weeks, poor love. According to her she just signed everything that was put in front of her. Without reading it.

  • Doctordrink

    Dear Luke, yes being in Bristol in the early nineties was crushing. In 1992 Labour ran a “good campaign” without mentioning the elephant in the room – the Poll Tax.  Blunkett’s proposal to engage with the mass movement of non-payment was rejected, leaving the leadership of the antis in the hands of Militant, the SWP,and Anarchists. Bristols Labour council (“…a Labour council…”) managed to jail some pensioners for non-payment, rather than any political thug. Possibly not mentioning the most despised Tory legislation, and its legacy of Bailiffs and prison sentences cost Labour those votes.
    I seem however to remember that it was a chap called John Smith who became leader, and was consistently ahead in the polls post 1992, who tragically died before his time.
     Blair just seized his opportunity, and afterwards his supporters have rewritten history.

  • Doctordrink

    Still, your points about organisation and how to run campaigns are well worth reading and applying.
    Organisers often get charged with being monomaniacs, yet they are almost always right come election time.

  • Jack Cunningham was hardly a young rising star, being only a year younger than John Smith.

  • Toaster

    Say what you like about Blair – he won power for the Labour Party.  Trouble is that he and we funked it.

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