1997 in retrospect
There are relatively few occasions when power moves directly from one
Party to another in the British electoral system. Since the war, this
happened on only four (arguably five) occasions. The first was in 1945,
when Clement Attlee delivered the welfare state. The second was in 1951
the Conservatives returned, and remained in power until 1964, when
Harold Wilson just squeezed home before securing a working majority in
1966. He lost this again in 1971, the third change, and was back in majority
in October 1974. The fourth change came when Thatcher won in 1979, and
the Conservatives held on until 1997.
Labour had believed that the removal of Thatcher would see the
Conservatives out of office in 1992. Rogue opinion polls and the exit poll
on election night suggested this would happen, but Major held on and won
a working majority. This shaped Labours approach to the 1997 election,
where there was a conscious approach not to repeat John Smiths tax
proposals in the lead up to 1992, and to view the polls with suspicion.
While some polls gave Labour a lead of 20%, no one quite believed it, and
planning included some early discussions with the Liberal Democrats in
case of a hung parliament. A by-product of the a huge Labour lead was to
bring Hornchurch back into play as a winnable seat. Indeed the Guardian
ran an article shortly before polling day which suggested Romford was the
sort of seat Labour ought to be winning.
So there was some optimism in respect of the electoral prospects in
Havering. This section of the newsletter will reflect on the views of some
of those involved in the 1997 election, including one of the successful local
Thoughts on 1997 – the Candidate
To begin at the beginning. It was election night in 1992 and we were all
driving to the count in Hornchurch. On the way, we heard the Basildon
result and we knew then that Labour would not be forming the
government. We were bitterly disappointed because it meant another 5
years of a conservative government that we despised.
At the time, as well as being the candidate, I was constituency caseworker
for Tony Banks M.P. and knew the misery caused by Tory government
policies. We knew that we had to keep campaigning hard until the next
Forward 5 years to 1997. Along with massive support, the campaign to
save Oldchurch Accident and Emergency was still going strong and
Romford Labour Party had gained a high profile and when it came to the
election campaign, we could immediately sense a change in support.
Romford market had not exactly been a friendly place for the Labour Party,
but now we were being approached by the public, wishing us good luck
and offering to help in the campaign. The desire for change was palpable.
It was obvious that people wanted hope that things could be different and
we sensed that along with the national swing to Labour, we could win
Havering Fabian Newsletter Volume 2 Edition 30 March 2017
Romford. I had a large team around me, who were enthusiastic and
worked their socks off. Most of us had campaigned on Oldchurch hospital
for years and thus we had a really strong bond, which made the campaign
fun as well as ultimately successful.
We knew that we could win. On election night the National Party phoned
our headquarters with a request to send people to help in another
constituency. My husband Tony, my agent, told them, not too politely
where to go and told them that we could win. I don’t think they believed
him, but there was no way he was going to let the workers out of Romford.
Well, the rest is history. The count was tense. my family, friends and
campaign team were with me and when our victory was declared, it was a
marvellous moment and a tribute to all those who had worked so hard . As
the results tumbled in from around the country, we knew that there would
be a Labour government with a huge majority. When I arrived back at
Saffron House, the place had been decorated with lights, there was a cake
and they were playing “Come on Eileen”. I have to admit we did party, it
was a perfect end to a very exciting day.
Now when I look back, even though I only had one term in Parliament, it
was a huge honour to be the first and only woman M.P. for Romford, so
The world seems a darker place now with events in America etc. People
want change, but it is change for the worse. I can only hope that optimism
and tolerance return. Let’s work to ensure that “ things can only get better”.
MP for Romford 1997-2001
Elm Park campaign
We had felt confident in 1992 of reducing the majority in Hornchurch, but
despite the poling, knew we were not going to win the seat some time
before polling day.
So while the mood was more positive as the campaign began, we remained
nervous about the results. The exit poll in 1992 meant we took the Labour
lead with caution. However the campaign drew in new people, and the
older hands suggested this was the key sign. There was no great animosity
on the doorstep, although the growth of trading hours meant contact with
voters was harder than previously.
The polls before Election Day suggested Upminster was in play, which
meant a win in Hornchurch was now expected.
The day was free from rain, and a well oiled machine ensured that the
polling stations were covered from 7am until we pulled off in the early
evening. Mary Cruikshank had taken numbers at the polling station in
Rosewood at every election since 1945, and was confident of a Labour
victory. She was always confident of a Labour victory!
As we did the car calls, the mood improved when three of us arrived in
separate cars taking voters to the polls at the point sitting MP Robin Squire
arrived to thank those working in the polling station. A few friendly if brief
exchanges with Ray Harris and Jack Hoepleman and we were back to get
out the vote.
Jack Hoepleman insisted we break for food before the final push, although
it was a co-incidence this was timed around Star Trek on TV. The final
couple of hours saw a massive effort to get out the vote, with three or four
teams out in the ward.
As the light faded we gathered around Jacks for a coffee, and were
optimistic of what was to come. We departed in time for the exit polls, and
despite the prediction of a Labour landslide, remained anxious. The first
few results were enough, it was indeed a landslide, in all probability a once
in a lifetime majority with a huge swing. Hornchurch was announced on
the BBC in passing amid a flurry of Labour gains. Upminster and Romford
followed as Labour ended with a 179 majority.
I returned home in time for the Blair “New dawn” speech, and dozed until
midmorning, and the entry to Downing Street. The Hornchurch celebration
Havering Fabian Newsletter Volume 2 Edition 30 March 2017
party on the Saturday night was a great evening, with many of those who
had been campaigning solidly since 1979 in an odd state of relieved
Did it make a difference? Well yes, peace in Ireland, the minimum wage,
sure start, an end to Section 28, more funding for schools and the NHS.
Could the Blair government have done more? Well governments can
always do more, so expectations can never be fully met. The
true achievement of the Blair / Brown era was to move to a more
progressive agenda, the benefits of which became apparent as the Cameron
government began to roll back the progress made. 1997 ended the
Conservatives dominance of the political agenda – if you have read John
O’Farrells book “Things can only get better”, politics is not my side
beating your side, politics is about the ability to shape the agenda and
deliver a better society. The Blair government was not perfect, but Britain
was a far better place for its election.
Memories of a brighter future
From the moment, the election was called by John Major on 17th March
1997 there was a desire to see the Tories out. In Newham, which was and
still is staunchly Labour the idea was to get the voters to the polling station.
Delivering leaflets to household and plans to get voters to the polling
stations on the day. Every action was another step on the way to victory.
There was a real feeling that with a new leader and new policies the
electorate might be able to vote for a Labour government once again.
As poling day approached anything was looking possible. Poling day
arrives 1 May 1997 a beautiful sunny day and I was up by 6am to deliver
more leaflets to household to catch them before they left for work. After
that kit was assisting with getting the less mobile voters to the polling
station and they all seem determined to rid us of the Tories.
I spent some time outside the Polling Station in Roman Road, East Ham
watching the people turn up to vote. Once the stations were closed at 10pm
it was back home to watch the results to arrive.
Having been up early and busy most of the day by 2am I was wilting and
went to bed to await a new dawn. The following morning there was the
news that a magnificent majority had been achieved and Labour was now
the party in power. It was a day to remember and the rolling television news
was a joy to watch as number of Tory seats lost to Labour.
I never tired of seeing the results coming in and most memorable Portillo’s
loss and Labours gain.