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John Major: An Unsuccessful Prime Minister?

Charles Clarke contributed Chapter 20 of this book, published by Biteback, entitled 'The View from the Left'


The politically seismic impact of November 1990 was less John Major’s entry into 10 Downing Street than Margaret Thatcher’s departure. Thatcher’s leadership had been deeply polarising for the country. There was enormous opposition both to her approach and style and to many of her specific policy measures. The proposed poll tax was the last straw. She was initially shielded from the political consequences of her unpopularity by the fact that, following the formation of the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1981, she had been faced by an utterly divided opposition and, in 1983, by a discredited and divided Labour Party. By 1990 those protections were gone. Labour presented a powerful and united alternative which was more credible than at any time in the preceding decade. It certainly faced an uphill struggle but it knew that it could mobilise support for Labour on the strong foundation of a widespread desire to remove her from power. Conservative MPs were worried by Labour by-election victories in the Vale of Glamorgan and Mid Staffordshire and then the Liberal Democrat win in Eastbourne. They feared Labour success and lost confidence in Margaret Thatcher’s ability to lead them to one more victory. So they dumped her and installed John Major. Of course, that decision achieved, without a general election, the change the country had been looking for – the departure of Margaret Thatcher. Some argued about the extent to which there had been a real change or whether Major’s government was simply Thatcher’s by another name. But the change did make it more difficult to argue that Neil Kinnock, by 1992 Labour’s leader for nine years, was the fresh post-Thatcher face the country needed. But all of that was secondary to the new reality. Since Labour could no longer rely for support on popular opposition to Thatcher, even greater priority had to be given to demonstrating the credibility in government of its alternative. Since 1983 Labour had already changed its position on an enormous range of policies; from unilateral nuclear disarmament to selling council houses, membership of the European Union to renationalisation of utilities, trade union laws to management of schools. Through recognition of political necessity Labour had already accepted many of Thatcher’s changes, though often without enthusiasm or real conviction. But confidence in Labour’s ability to run the economy – and particularly its approach to taxation – remained the politically key and most difficult challenge. From summer 1991 onwards it was the core of Tory attacks, for example with its dishonest but effective ‘Labour’s Tax Bombshell’ propaganda. There were differences at the top of Labour about how to deal with this. Some thought it essential for Labour to publish its own detailed economic approach to reassure, and demonstrate clearly what Labour would and would not do in office. Others considered that unnecessary and risked offering hostages to fortune. The final outcome was Labour’s shadow Budget, published at the beginning of the election campaign. The internal disputes had prevented it being published earlier, so in the event it served mainly to focus attention on the subject, without giving enough time to disseminate its proposals powerfully. Ten days before polling day opinion surveys predicted a strong Labour win and so the final week of the campaign prioritised scrutiny of the likely Labour government. John Major, on his soapbox, reinforced this mindset by presenting himself as an outsider and oppositional figure.In the event, Labour fell short because it had simply not done enough to convince the electorate that it could be trusted with power.This history meant that for the rest of John Major’s premiership, Labour’s dominant concern was to convince the country that it could be trusted with office, whilst hoping to exploit Conservative failures. The latter task was made considerably easier by the collapse of the Conservative economic case and the consequent political turmoil. On 16 September 1992 – ‘Black Wednesday’ – the Major government withdrew the pound from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, so destroying its economic credibility and exposing its own internal European fault-line. On 22 July 1993 Labour and other opposition parties combined with anti-European Union Conservatives to defeat the government on the Maastricht Treaty. Though the government won the consequent ‘no confidence’ vote the damage was done. The tensions between John Major and those he styled ‘bastards’ never disappeared. Even the leadership election he forced on 4 July 1995, which he won with 66 per cent of the vote, failed to unite his party. John Smith, Labour leader from July 1992 until his tragically early death in May 1994, was politically astute and skilled at harrying the Conservatives and fomenting their divisions. His parliamentary tactics contributed significantly to the government’s defeat over Maastricht. However he was less concerned about Labour’s own credibility as a government-in-waiting, drawing confidence from his own personal standing and believing that internal Labour arguments about difficult policy issues were too risky. Tony Blair, who took office on 21 July 1994, had a quite different view. His overwhelming victory, with 57 per cent of the vote, demonstrated a Labour Party united in its view that modernisation and policy realism were the only way to show its fitness to govern. In order to exemplify that approach Blair chose to amend Clause 4 of Labour’s constitution. His proposal was hazardous, recalling as it did Hugh Gaitskell’s failure to make a similar change in 1959/60. However, Blair’s judgement was vindicated as two-thirds of the Labour conference in April 1995 supported the changes. As the general election approached, Blair embodied Labour’s policy approach by identifying five pledges – to cut class sizes, cut NHS waiting lists, fast track youth justice, reduce youth unemployment and implement tight controls on government spending and borrowing. He thereby set out the ambitions and limits of what Labour would do in office. By 1 May 1997, polling day, John Major, despite important achievements, was caught between the collapse of economic and political confidence in himself and his party, and increasing trust in the character and policies of Labour. The country decided to give the left, under Tony Blair’s leadership and with his New Labour brand, the chance to govern the country. Opinion remains divided as to whether the creation of New Labour, a conscious separation from Labour’s past, was necessary for Labour to win outright. Most Labour people believe that by 1997 the country so strongly desired a change of government that John Smith would have succeeded in winning power – though probably with a significantly smaller parliamentary majority than that achieved by Blair. Had that been true Smith would have won without any need for the New Labour changes, which many in Labour felt uncomfortable with. I do not share this outlook. Labour’s victory in 1997 was by no means inevitable, despite the national desire for change and the low standing of John Major’s government. People would only vote to put Labour into government if they believed it would govern well and in the national interest. Labour’s economic reputation in government, fairly or not, was one of failure, demonstrated by the 1931 government collapse, devaluations in 1949 and 1967, the 1976 IMF crisis and the 1978 – 79 Winter of Discontent. A crucial part of New Labour was the separation from this past, combined with a strong and positive economic message. These enabled Labour to win and then, at least until 2008, to demonstrate economic competence in government. Without the New Labour change John Major might well have been able to survive in office, and keep the left out of power for at least five more years.

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