Paul Anderson, in Kevin Hickson and Ben Williams (eds), John Major: An Unsuccessful Prime Minister? (Biteback, 2017)

John Major’s governments of 1990-97 are not often discussed in terms of their impact on Labour – except insofar as Major’s travails with his party from summer 1992, particularly over Europe, provided the backdrop against which first John Smith and then Tony Blair built commanding opinion-poll leads for Labour, culminating in Blair’s general election victory of May 1997.

Even two decades after that triumph, protagonists, commentators and historians typically assign only a minor role to Major in the making of New Labour. As in the dog days of his administration and in Blair’s first years in office, he is still considered primarily as the inept grey man who happened to be at the helm of the doomed Tory ship as Labour rode a tide of popular enthusiasm to win an inevitable landslide.

The keepers of the Blairite flame – and there are a few of them yet – insist that the New Labour victory marked a decisive breach in British politics. There are plenty of David Cameron Tories who agree. Left-wing critics of New Labour emphasise the continuities between Blair and Margaret Thatcher, not Blair and Major. And Eurosceptic Tories dismiss the Major years as the time when the Tory leadership sold the pass on Europe and paid dearly for its apostasy.

So – nothing to see here, move along. Except that it’s just a little too easy to dismiss Major’s impact on Labour quite so summarily. Of course, Major’s second term was a catalogue of disasters, from Black Wednesday in September 1992 until the very end. You name it, it went wrong: the bitter Tory row over Europe, Michael Heseltine’s pit-closures programme, the arms-to-Iraq fiasco, the shocking complacency of the government over the crisis in former-Yugoslavia, “back-to-basics”, cash-for-questions…But Major became prime minister in 1990, not in 1992. And his first – very short – term was a quite stunning success, not least in forcing Labour into a fundamental rethink of its political positioning, particularly on the economy.

Labour in 1990

The defenestration of Thatcher in autumn 1990 was of course traumatic for the Conservative Party, and the wounds remain sensitive today. But when it happened, to all but the Thatcherite faithful it seemed less of a problem for the Tories than it was for Labour. Under the leadership of Neil Kinnock, particularly since 1987,Labour had made great strides towards electoral credibility after the debacle of the 1983 general election, which it lost under Michael Foot. Labour lost again in 1987 – and lost badly, winning only a handful more seats than in 1983 – but its campaign had been competent. The party saw off the threat of the Liberal-SDP Alliance. And in the wake of defeat Kinnock had not only launched a major policy review to bury his party’s unpopular commitments to nationalisation, unilateral nuclear disarmament and anti-Europeanism, but had also got serious about expelling Trotskyist infiltrators from the Labour Party.[1] Meanwhile, the Thatcher government had embarked on an extraordinarily inept reform of local taxation, the introduction of the community charge, the poll tax, which was hated by voters.[2] The economy boomed through 1987, 1988 and early 1989, but the house-price bubble it created began to deflate in spring 1989, and with it went the feel-good factor that had won Thatcher her third term. Simultaneously, Tory divisions on Europe became glaringly visible – particularly over whether sterling should join the Exchange Rate Mechanism of the European Monetary System, but also over how Britain should respond to the disintegration of communism in east-central Europe.

Labour’s opinion poll standings improved steadily, and in the European elections of spring 1989 the party won a convincing victory. The Tories’ troubles reached a first crisis point in autumn 1989, just before the Berlin Wall came down, when Nigel Lawson resigned as chancellor of the exchequer because he felt his pro-ERM position was being undermined by Thatcher’s anti-ERM economic adviser Sir Alan Walters: the new chancellor was Major, previously a rather lacklustre foreign secretary, whose views on the ERM were considered by just about everyone as rather more conciliatory than Lawson’s. But still it went wrong for Thatcher. By spring 1990, when the poll tax came in –  greeted with a giant riot after a demonstration in central London – Labour enjoyed double-digit leads in all the polls, and Kinnock looked set for Number 10.

Labour’s poll ratings declined slowly over summer 1990, but the Tories remained in turmoil. The row about the ERM continued, exacerbated by government divisions over German reunification (which Thatcher, unlike most of her cabinet, opposed).[3] Then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, adding an international security crisis to the government’s troubles – one that required anything but a bunker mentality in Number 10. There followed a period of high political drama in which, in rapid succession, sterling joining the ERM, the Tories lost the Eastbourne by-election to the Lib Dems, Geoffrey Howe resigned as deputy prime minister, Heseltine challenged Thatcher for the Tory leadership and Major came through the middle as the compromise candidate after Thatcher was persuaded by her colleagues that she had lost their support.[4]

The Major effect

The transformation in the Tories’ fortunes brought about by the arrival of Major was dramatic – and a massive shock to Labour, which had watched transfixed, unable to get any kind of media hearing as the Tories sharpened their knives to remove Thatcher. Kinnock’s political strategy since 1987 had been to reposition Labour as centrist and responsible. But he had worked on the assumption that he would be fighting a strident, tired and unpopular Thatcher at the next election – not a youngish, inoffensive, classless moderate who was a fresh face to most voters. Major had spent just two-and-a-half years as a senior cabinet member before he became prime minister, and he came to power promising reconciliation and inclusivity, with an end to the poll tax the keynote policy. The “Major effect”, boosted by the success of the war to remove Saddam from Kuwait, shifted the opinion polls emphatically in the Tories’ favour through late 1990 and early 1991. From spring 1991 until the election in April 1992, the two main parties were neck-and-neck, with the Tories on average marginally in front.

Labour’s response to the Major succession was, faut de mieux, to stick to the game plan it had devised after 1987: a vague broadly pro-European policy, no significant dissent from the government (or the US) in defence and foreign affairs – Labour supported military action to remove Saddam from Iraq – and a moderately redistributive line on tax and spend. Above all, it did its best to project a professional and respectable public image. The expulsion of Trotskyists from Labour continued apace. There were no concessions either to the left-wingers and pacifists who opposed military action against Saddam or to the campaign for non-payment of the poll tax. There were a few rumblings of discontent, with suggestions from the party right that Kinnock should give way as leader to John Smith, the shadow chancellor, but there was never any serious momentum behind the rumblings (let alone any articulation from Kinnock’s critics of a different strategy) – because the perceived problem wasn’t for the most part policy but Kinnock’s personality and demeanour.

Although his minders had put him into sharp suits and he had developed a tone of gravitas for his TV and platform appearances, he was still the Welsh windbag to readers of Private Eye and viewers of the popular TV satirical show Spitting Image. It wasn’t obvious, however, that replacing him as leader with a Scottish bank manager would make a great deal of difference before a general election. The hard left was out in the cold with nothing by way of a programme beyond what it had been pushing for 20 years, and it was compromised by its association with the “anti-imperialists” of the Trotskyist left who thought Saddam was quite right to invade Kuwait. The soft left wanted to give Kinnock a chance, even though part of it harboured doubts about the Gulf War and worried he had given up too much to the right, while another part thought that he hadn’t gone far enough in modernising Labour’s message.[5] And the old right, whatever its gripes, really didn’t want too much disruption: it was sitting comfortably after seeing off the left insurgencies of the 1980s and was in control of a string of shadow cabinet portfolios as well as the Labour policy-making process. The unions were all on board but for a handful of leftist Scargillites. Labour adopted an outward stance of disciplined unity – every journalist disparaged the Labour conference of 1991 in Brighton as the dullest in memory – and set about creating a modern electoral machine, all phone banks and targeted direct mail, presided over by Larry Whitty as general secretary, an affable but intellectually razor-sharp operator, with Jack Cunningham as campaign co-ordinator.

Labour’s 1992 disaster

What could go wrong? As it turned out, everything. Labour’s 1992 campaign was well organised and efficient. But it was completely unable to counter the Tories’ message, relentless from late 1991, that Labour would tax and spend recklessly. The line was most memorably relayed in the Conservative “Labour’s tax bombshell” poster, plastered over billboards the length and breadth of the country, declaring that “You’d pay £1,250 more tax a year under Labour”. The claim was untrue for all but top earners – but Labour had set itself up to be attacked on tax with longstanding proposals for small increases in top income-tax rates to pay for modest increases in pensions and child benefits. The details were haggled over semi-publicly for months in late 1991 and early 1992 – with Kinnock favouring a phased introduction of the tax increases and Smith resisting – and the plan was eventually released by Smith in a “shadow budget” on 16 March 1992, nearly a week after Norman Lamont had kick-started the election campaign by delivering a real budget that included big reductions in the basic rate of income tax. The shadow budget was a public relations disaster. The next day’s stories in the press about Labour tax hikes might have been expected, but they were given a helping hand by Labour’s failure to supply journalists with “what this will mean for typical voters” factsheets on its proposals.[6]

The shadow budget wasn’t all that went pear-shaped in Labour’s campaign. The party was wrong-footed on the NHS when its party-political broadcast about a little girl whose ear surgery had been delayed by spending cuts was shown by gleeful Tory campaigners to have been at odds with some of the facts – a spat that was dubbed “the war of Jennifer’s ear” by the press.  And on 1 April, a week before polling day, Labour overdid the glitz by hosting a giant rally at the Sheffield Arena. Kinnock arrived by helicopter and, emboldened by what turned out to be a couple of outlier opinion polls showing Labour would win, took the stage like a wannabe Mick Jagger: “Well, all right!” he shouted at the audience, to wild applause. But Jennifer’s ear and the Sheffield rally were not what lost it for Labour (and nor was the Sun, despite its claims that “It was the Sun wot won it”).[7] It was tax and spend – economic policy.

It is difficult to exaggerate the impact of the 1992 general election defeat on Labour. It was closer than 1987, but still a massive humiliation when it had expected at least a hung parliament. With 34.4 per cent of the popular vote, up from 30.8 per cent in 1987, Labour took 271 seats, up 42. Yet the Tories won 41.9 per cent, just 0.3 percentage points down on 1987, and 336 seats, down 40 but still enough for a narrow majority in the Commons.

Labour’s performance was particularly poor in the affluent south and east of England, where it failed to win target seat after target seat. (The failure that hurt most was in Basildon in Essex, where the Tories’ David Amess, a populist right-winger, held on with a safe majority at just the moment TV viewers were tiring of election coverage.) Kinnock announced his resignation the weekend after polling day, and the major trade unions moved fast to endorse Smith as their chosen “safe-pair-of-hands” candidate. They pointedly refused to opt for Bryan Gould, the shadow environment secretary and a longstanding Eurosceptic, or skip a generation for Gordon Brown, Kinnock’s shadow chief secretary to the Treasury. Brown rejected appeals to enter the leadership contest, pleading loyalty to Smith. Gould stood anyway and lost to Smith by a landslide after a lacklustre campaign that Gould wanted to be about Europe but turned into a dull wrangle about how Labour’s internal structures should be reformed to ensure that the union bosses could not anoint a Labour leader again.

The post-mortem

The leadership election was mercifully brief – Smith was crowned in mid-July – and as it came to its close the first party post-mortem on the election appeared. The Shadow Communications Agency, the ad hoc advisory body Kinnock had set up to supplement the Labour HQ campaign team (which had worked closely with it, with only minor bust-ups), produced a report in late June that made it clear that Labour was seen by voters much as it had been in 1987 – as the party of high tax and irresponsible state spending, favouring benefit claimants rather than hard workers, over-reliant on the trade unions, soft on crime.

The analysis was backed up by the centre-right Labour MP and intellectual Giles Radice, whose Fabian pamphlet Southern Discomfort, published in September 1992, was one of the talking points of Labour’s conference in Brighton. Radice was clear: Major had had a better reading of the politics of class in late-1980s and early-1990s Britain. The Tories won in 1992 because they recognised that lower-middle-class and skilled-working-class voters with mortgages didn’t see why they should pay more tax – and that Labour was vulnerable because it had not yet worked this out. “With respect to tax and spending,” he wrote, “it is vital that spending commitments, if they have to be made at all, are made very cautiously indeed.”[8]

The academics David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh, in their Nuffield election survey of the election, The British General Election of 1992, published a few weeks later, supplied a vast amount of data to support the conclusions of the SCA and Radice.[9] Mood music came from the veteran American political economist John Kenneth Galbraith, whose jeremiad on the failure of the US liberal left to respond to Reaganism and its creation of a “two-thirds, one-third” society in which the poor were ignored, The Culture of Contentment, was a must-read paperback in British Labour circles in summer 1992.[10] “Two-thirds of the people are not doing too badly thank you, but there’s one-third knocked out,” Smith told me. “The Labour Party cannot in good conscience turn away from that. But I want to get a wider consensus: there are decent people who don’t vote Labour yet who are troubled about it too. I want to reach out to them.”[11]

Days of hope

Labour’s post-mortem on the 1992 election was, however, only one running story in the six months afterwards, and it was by no means the most spectacular. In domestic politics, the Tory civil war over Europe – suspended for the election campaign – resumed within weeks at full intensity.

After Denmark voted in a referendum in June to reject the Maastricht treaty, anti-European Tory MPs went into all-out parliamentary rebellion against Major, who had delayed British ratification of Maastricht until after the election. Labour did its utmost to cause the government embarrassment in the Commons by siding with the Eurosceptic Tory rebels, on the grounds that the government’s opt-out from the social chapter was unacceptable (though the opt-out on the single currency was fine and there really was no need for a referendum on Maastricht). To add fuel to the fire, over the summer of 1992 it became increasingly obvious that Britain would not be able to sustain the valuation of sterling in the ERM to which the government was committed – to which Labour responded by saying as little as possible that deviated from the government line until well after sterling crashed out of the ERM on 16 September 1992, “Black Wednesday” as it was immediately described by the media. Little more than six weeks after that, Bill Clinton shocked every British Labour supporter who had imbibed Galbraith’s pessimism in The Culture of Contentment by winning the American presidency.

This sequence of events had profound and lasting effects on Labour. Labour’s stance on Maastricht, adopted in the last days of Kinnock’s leadership but continued by Smith, was in part a means to neutralise left Eurosceptic support for Gould. And the refusal by Labour to endorse any realignment of currencies within the ERM, doggedly reiterated by Gordon Brown as Smith’s shadow chancellor, was orthodox safety-first politics.

Both positions made tactical political sense. In opposition, you do your best to undermine not only the government but the critics on your own side; and you don’t advocate devaluation even if you think it is inevitable or a good idea. And in their own terms the tactics worked. The hardline Eurosceptic left became a marginal rump in Labour politics on Smith’s victory (and remained so until Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader in 2015); and Brown’s refusal to talk currency realignment until after the event gave Labour easy pickings after Black Wednesday forced devaluation on a panic-stricken Major government (though at the cost of Brown’s popularity among soft-left MPs).[12] Labour’s opinion-poll ratings rocketed, and the lead established in autumn 1992 remained until the Labour victory of 1997.

But if the tactics worked, there wasn’t a great deal of strategic thinking behind them – which was clear very soon.[13] Labour was playing Europe for party-political advantage with little sense of what it wanted for or from Europe. Partly because the tactics were effective against a riven Tory party, partly because opening up a debate about the future of Europe would have exposed rifts inside Labour, the Labour leadership was content to leave long-term thinking about Europe until later.

It is difficult to discern any coherent Labour line on Europe under either Smith or Blair as leaders of the opposition beyond enthusiasm for the Social Chapter and “wait-and-see” on joining the single currency. Brown and Blair stamped on attempts by dissident soft-left Labour MPs and MEPs to raise the idea of modifying the Maastricht criteria for monetary union to make growth and employment as important for the new European Central Bank as low inflation; and no one in Labour’s upper echelons had anything coherent to say about how the EU should develop political union, the great unfinished business of the Maastricht process.

Blair promised a referendum on joining the single currency in 1996, after Major had made the same pledge. But that was it. When Labour came to power in 1997, it was all over the place on Europe policy: completely at odds over whether Britain should join the single currency; in favour of enlargement of the EU to the east in part because it would give succour to countries only recently under the Soviet yoke but also because enlargement would scupper plans for a federalist, rather than intergovernmentalist, Europe; at once proclaiming its enthusiasm for the European project and parroting the Major government’s antipathy to European red tape.

Despite its professed pro-Europeanism under Kinnock, Smith and Blair, Labour never dared to become more European than Major or Kenneth Clarke except on the single issue of the Social Chapter. The Tories set the agenda, and no one more effectively than Major. And in the end it was Brown, in 1992-93 Labour’s keenest Europhile, who in 1997 effectively ruled out British membership of the single currency, setting the Major settlement on Europe in mud until the 2016 Europe referendum.

It’s the economy, stupid

But in 1992 Europe was complicated for British politicians – not least because it was not clear how events would pan out. The single currency was a relatively distant prospect on which crucial detail had still to be negotiated, and it was by no means obvious that it would even come about (let alone what a Tory UK government’s attitude would be if and when it did).

The election of Clinton was a lot easier to grasp for Labour than anything happening in Britain’s own back yard. The British left had been fascinated by American politics for more than a century, and after John Kennedy became president in 1960 the fascination turned obsessional, fuelled by TV coverage and a constant traffic of politicians and academics across the pond. Britain’s position in the world in the early 1990s might have been rather more tied up with Europe than with the US, but it was the US presidential election of 1992 that became Labour’s big talking point, with “modernisers”, as they called themselves – essentially the part of the soft left that felt Smith should move faster to ditch Labour’s 1992 baggage – insisting that Clinton’s campaign was the model for Labour in the UK. Partcularly influential here was the pollster Phillip Gould, a key figure in Labour’s 1987 and 1992 campaigns, who worked on the Clinton campaign and returned to Britain an evangelist for Clinton’s centrist politics and electioneering style.[14]

Blair and Brown were the most prominent moderniser MPs – and they visited the US with Gould to meet Clinton’s campaign team in early 1993.  But they were backed by the major trade unions whose bosses had shooed in Smith, including the Transport and General Workers Union, led by Bill Morris, and by the GMB, led by John Edmonds. And Smith more-or-less demurred – even though one subtext of the modernisers’ message was that Labour needed a generational shift in leadership of the kind Clinton had given the Democrats. From early 1993, everything from the Clinton Democrats’ playbook that could be adapted for use in the UK was embraced by Labour: a relentless emphasis on economic policy (business-friendly and  no tax hikes), a hard line on criminality –“Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”, as Blair put it in the New Statesman in early 1993 – and (later, after Blair became leader) heavy investment in spin-doctors and the paraphernalia of electioneering, from focus groups to databases designed to give Labour the opportunity of “instant rebuttal”.

It was economic policy that was most important, however. As shadow chancellor under Smith, Brown enforced a strict line on his shadow cabinet colleagues: no spending commitments that might require tax increases, no interventionist promises that might scare big business. His stance won him few friends in the parliamentary Labour Party – which was one of the reasons that Blair was able to supplant him as leader of the moderniser faction and become its candidate for the party leadership on Smith’s sudden death in spring 1994. But his single-mindedness was effective. By the time he promised, shortly before the 1997 general election, that a Labour government would stick to Clarke’s spending plans for two years, he had all but eliminated Labour’s popular reputation for profligacy and high taxation.

And in the end…

Labour’s economic policy was transformed by its response to its defeat to Major in the 1992 election; and on Europe Labour copied Major without a great deal of thought. Those were fundamental influences – but they weren’t all that Labour took from Major. Despite his administration’s deserved reputation for crisis-management, incompetence and tinkering reform,  there were plenty of  Major policies with which Labour continued. Labour stuck with rail privatisation (horribly botched but too expensive to reverse), the council tax (too politically sensitive to reform), the Northern Ireland peace process, polytechnics becoming universities, the private finance initiative (supposedly a cunning scheme to keep public spending off the books, which the Blair government embraced enthusiastically and at great cost) and various market reforms aimed to make the welfare state more efficient: student loans, tougher qualifications for benefit claimants and so on. Which is not to claim that Labour made no difference. In several areas, the Blair government marked a radical break with the Major years: devolution, the minimum wage, the signing of the Social Chapter, the Human Rights Act, the Freedom of Information Act, the Sure Start programme, tax credits and so on. But 20 years after Blair came to office – and in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the Labour leadership and the Brexit vote – it is the continuities between Major and Blair that are most striking


[1]On the policy review, see Colin Hughes and Patrick Wintour, Labour Rebuilt: The New Model Labour Party (London: Fourth Estate, 1990); Richard Heffernan and Mike Marqusee, Defeat From the Jaws of Victory: Inside Kinnock’s Labour Party (London: Verso, 1992); and Paul Anderson and Nyta Mann, Safety First: The Making of New Labour (London: Granta, 1997). On the Leninists, see Michael Crick, Militant (London: Faber and Faber, 1984).

[2]The best account of the poll tax fiasco is David Butler, Andrew Adonis and Tony Travers, Failure in British Government: Politics of the Poll Tax (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

[3] One cabinet member who agreed with Thatcher on Germany was Nicholas Ridley, who was forced to resign as trade secretary in July 1990 after telling the Spectator in an interview (14 July 1990) that economic and monetary union was “a German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe”.

[4]On the Major succession, see Dennis Kavanagh and Anthony Seldon (eds), The Major Effect (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1994).

[5] At this point, the soft left in the parliamentary Labour Party – as reflected in membership of the Tribune Group – included Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and many others who redefined themselves as “modernisers” after 1992.

[6]“I can’t believe this,” said Meghnad Desai, one of Labour’s key economic advisers, as we walked around the room at the shadow budget launch. “There’s nothing at all here.” Private conversation, 1992.

[7] See Holli Semetko, Margaret Scammel and Tom Nossiter, “The media’s coverage of the campaign”, in Anthony Heath, Roger Jowell and John Curtice, Labour’s Last Chance? The 1992 Election and Beyond (Aldershot: Dartmouth, 1994) and Martin Linton Was It the Sun Wot Won It? (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994).

[8] Giles Radice, Southern Discomfort (London: Fabian Society, 1992), p24.

[9] David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh, The British General Election of 1992 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992). The Butler-Kavanagh analysis was broadly backed by Heath, Jowell and Curtice inLabour’s Last Chance?.

[10] John Kenneth Galbraith, The Culture of Contentment (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992).

[11] Paul Anderson, “Easy does it? Interview with John Smith”, Tribune, 19 June 1992.

[12] Brown eventually accepted that Labour would have supported a realignment. See Paul Anderson, “New economics: Interview with Gordon Brown”, Tribune, 1 January 1993.

[13] Paul Anderson, “A fine mess over Maastricht”, Tribune, 10 July 1992.

[14] See Phillip Gould and Patricia Hewitt, “Lessons from America”’, Renewal, January 1993, and Philip Gould, The Unfinished Revolution: How the Modernsiers Saved the Labour Party (Little, Brown, 1998). 


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