The 1997 Labour Landslide – 1 May, 20 Years Ago

Remembering the day of the 1997 Labour Landslide.

I was doing what I had often done. I collected the candidate from his home and ‘minded’ him for the day. Martin Salter didn’t really need much minding, but as a candidate in a big election you need company on polling day. Stuff happens, people get over excited and can get blown out of proportion. You certainly don’t want to be driving yourself around, you shouldn’t be on your own and, what’s more, you need a witness should anything go wrong.

On 1 May 1997 nothing was going wrong. Labour was winning, as it had been since the untimely death of John Smith in 1993. The only real question was whether or not we would win by enough to bring home the two Reading seats in a 1997 Labour landslide. The town’s MPs had been both Conservative since 1979, on the best polling projections we brought both home, on the average we just missed out. We also faced an ‘all out’ election of 45 seats on the new unitary Reading Borough Council, of which we then held 36 under the two-tier system.

Martin knew the election was close, but also knew it was possible. We called at a couple of committee rooms in the morning and wrestled with fitting the Party’s ancient and entirely worthless portable PA system and ‘Make it Martin’ posters onto my suitably red motor. We then drove around and visited a few polling stations, said hello and thanked presiding officers and asked pointless questions about turnout, as you do, helped with a few car calls to take people to vote – postal votes on demand were still a thing of the future. We stopped to say hello to Martin’s Mum who was taking numbers on one of the polling stations in Calcot – part of then Newbury District though entirely Reading and one of the areas in which we would re-possess Labour voters the Liberals had borrowed in the thin years.

The Sun was out and the breeze was warm. We had a pub lunch of gammon and eggs at the George and Dragon on Bath Road just west of Prospect Park. We talked about the campaign that had seemed endless but had given us the time we needed to trash the carpetbagging Conservative candidates in both the Reading seats. (‘a failed former Tory MP from Wales’ and ‘a Tory MP on the chicken run from Slough’) We didn’t speak of what to do next – that would have been very bad karma.

In the afternoon we toured the committee rooms (a quaint term of a ward HQ, since dropped) going first to core-Labour Whitley where Martin’s fishing mate, John Cook and his wife Jacqui, ran the shop. John discretely showed me his sampling against past years. Four rows of neatly scribed, highly satisfactory numbers showing shares of turnout by polling district.

“Can’t be right, John, can it?”

Not only were John’s numbers right, they reflected the movement from 92 to 97 exactly. These days I would have snapped the scrap of paper on the mobile phone. I trusted John’s figures and it was the first evidence that confirmed we were winning. As we travelled round the town, stopping off the leaflet a few houses or knock on doors as instructed we found similar stories. Come sunset and we are somehow getting embarrassingly lost on Dee Road Estate – a sixties council estate where unban environmental problems had been designed in and street signs were optional – trying to find the last few voters. We found nothing but people in good humour, please to see Martin and expecting what they had long waited for. Dee Park has since been entirely rebuilt – a key achievement for Labour in the town.  

We knocked off at 9:30 and I drove Martin to the Theale committee room at a friend’s house – a tiny restored cottage where we waited for the exit poll. I called Martin’s agent, Chris Gavin, who was reluctant to call the Parliamentary results from his figures but was happy to tell me 30 of the 36 Council seats were in the bag. At 22:01 the landslide was confirmed and I told Martin he was in though naturally, he was reluctant to take anything for granted. Having driven him home and, a quick change and shower and the ginning face of Chris Mullin from his count in Sunderland confirming it would be a good night, I headed to the count.

Sunny polling days result in happy sunburnt, slightly sweaty people in various states of optimism and despair. They all enjoy the bizarre ritual of British elections and let go somewhat at the count. Although we had seen early results from Northern parts and the first swing gain of Birmingham Edgbaston for Gisela Stuart we still had nothing we could compare directly with Reading. Eventually, I think at about 1am, Portsmouth North fell to Sid Rapson and we started to feel confident.

Reading Borough Council has the innate ability to make an election count take longer than it should. Stephen Twigg had hilariously toppled Michael Portillo – who Martin had thought it wise to chase into a cupboard during the long campaign – and Tony Blair had made his ‘new dawn’ speech on the South Bank. We were still stuck in the soulless Rivermead Leisure Centre some 40 miles upstream coming up for 6am when we eventually declared the two Labour gains we had, against the advice of Labour’s regional machine, worked for.

We emerged into a slightly overcast morning by this time just too tired to celebrate much. We made up for it later when we closed out the 36 council seats. We had achieved every target we had set. Within days we had set new ones, we achieve all of those too. Primarily, we kept Reading Labour through three terms of Labour Government – something no comparable Council managed and we used the platform to deliver lasting benefit.

From 20 years distance I remember 1997 fondly. In Reading now I see the fruits of our achievement in a robust local economy, urban regeneration, renovated homes and infrastructure investment. As I drive around the UK I see hospitals, schools, universities and many more facilities built with investment driven by those three Labour victories. In the years after on those estates we toured on that sunny Thursday we would meet people for whom Labour’s tax credits meant that working was worthwhile and whose lives and opportunities were transformed through policies like Sure Start. Many more, quietly or flamboyantly, benefited from progressive social legislation held up for too long by Tory backwoodsmen.

They were great times, great days and they are great memories, but it’s worth keeping in mind that five years before in 1992 after a forth defeat many had wondered if Labour would ever govern again. We did then because we captured the centre ground and shifted it to a progressive agenda about a modernising, fit-for-purpose future based on freedom, opportunity, redistributive social policy and collective social provision.

1997 was real Labour – the only Labour that works.