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September 1992The Labour leadership elections in the autumn of 1992 become significant. Having been ejected from the Exchange Rate Mechanism by currency speculators, Major's second administration had a particularly sharp end to its honeymoon.
John Smith has already been confirmed as the favourite by the media, which tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Smith is a traditional Labour right-winger, drawing some respect from all wings of the Party. His leadership reconciles the various shrunken components of the labour movement, and unites them as a consensual figure. He plans to continue along the lines of 1992, in widening Labour's appeal to the more affluent who want a compassionate government. He follows such theorists as JK Galbraith, who observed a "two-thirds rich, one-third poor" society, where altruism could be a means to win power and improve the position of the less wealthy. His phrases centre around "social justice," implying a social democratic perspective. In Parliament, Smith is a forensic debater capable of tearing the "stronger" Tories apart.
His challenger is Bryan Gould. Gould is a more interventionist politician, and an advocate of Keynesian-style economics. Whilst Smith emphasises re-distribution, Gould talks more of widespread wealth creation using regulated capital markets. Bryan Gould sometimes questions the wisdom of the tax policies of 1992, which is a major source of contention between Smith and himself. This means that they could not co-exist in a Shadow Cabinet. Gould is not a natural supporter of nuclear weapons or the EU and is opposed to the Maastricht Treaty which he perceived as institutional Thatcherism. Gould had acted as a mentor to Tony Blair and is an effective speaker. He is also efficient at attacking Conservatives.
In many ways Bryan Gould has interesting leftist ideas, but lacks a power base within the Labour hierarchy. He feels humiliated by his total of 9% of the votes and leaves Labour politics soon afterwards. This is a loss to the Party, but Smith was always likely to win the contest because of his stature and the cautious, conservative nature of the labour movement. Margaret Beckett is confirmed as deputy, an achievement for the "soft-left," which feels calmer with the elevation of Neil Kinnock as EU Commissioner.
October 1992Fulfilling Arthur Scargill's prophecy, the government announces the closure of a third of the deep coal mines in Britain. This effectively wipes out the British coal industry, leading to the loss of 13,000 jobs. A large demonstration in London attracts many people shocked at the vindictive nature of the Conservatives. Miners planning to strike are threatened with the loss of their redundancy payments. The National Coal Board is privatised soon afterwards.
Labour condemns the mine closures programme. There is growing appreciation of Smith's skill in destroying Major in debate, which becoming an enjoyable weekly ritual. Smith's leadership is more relaxed and accommodating to the Left than Kinnock's.
March 1993The big civil protests of the mid-1990s don't involve the Labour Party at all. Starting from the Twyford Down protests, through to the Newbury bypass protests and beyond, a new generation of activists is emerging. These activists don't participate within the centralised structures of political parties. Their response to the Major government's huge road-building scheme, "Roads to Prosperity" is clear and effective, making road-building uneconomic and politically costly. Many of the forces that had gathered in opposition to the poll tax are to contribute to other protests in the 1990s, eventually leading to what is described as the anti-capitalist movement. Whilst not overtly socialist, these movements for social justice draw support from trade unions and organisations. They are aligned or sympathetic to often forgotten labour movement goals - closer to the nascent environmentalism of Keir Hardie.
September 1993The Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act represent a further attack on the trades unions right to take industrial action, requiring 7-days notice before a strike and forcing all industrial ballots to be conducted through post. The Major government abolishes many protections for employees, such as the local Wage Councils, and whilst the Labour Party draw attention to this quite effectively, it is quite powerless to stop anything happening.
October 1993All-woman shortlists become an issue for debate within the party. A campaigning group called the Labour Womens Network, led by Barbara Follett, had been pushing the issue of gaining more woman MPs since 1987. The idea is to make some constituencies choose between women when selecting candidates. Whilst some were incensed by the idea, the plan is approved by Conference. It increases further the white, middle-class dominance of Labour, but does result in women being selected as candidates in winnable seats.
The Labour Party is still in after-defeat shock under the leadership of John Smith, but its condition has at least stabilised. At the 1993 Conference he nearly runs into trouble in trying to eliminate the union block vote from Parliamentary selections. He is "rescued" by John Prescott who makes a passionate last-minute speech in favour of the reforms. The reforms pass. The effects of this at the time are not known. In the long-term, this possibly enables more central control over the Parliamentary selection process.
November 1993The Railways Act breaks up British Rail and prepares one of the last massive state industries for sell-off. Clare Short is Labour's transport spokesperson. Whilst opposing the sale, Short falls short of promising to re-nationalise without compensation. This effectively means that investors are given the go-ahead to carve up the rail network. The effects of this are to be disastrous for passengers, but highly profitable for the companies taking over the divided and chaotic mess which had previously comprised the British rail network. The changes eventually mean increased wages for some in the industry, but allow much of the dangerous track work to be undertaken by casual, undertrained staff.
December 1993 The opposition of John Smith are given easy targets, as individual Conservative MPs came under increased scrutiny over corruption, many becoming mired in sex scandals and "cash for questions" issues involving corporate influences. Soon Labour builds a large lead in the opinion polls.
February 1994Some good opposition campaigns are initiated. Labour fights against privatisation of the post office and, with the trade unions and some rebel Tories, wins an important victory, the first in a long time.
April 1994After a string of byelection losses, the slim Conservative majority is narrowed dramatically. Legislation becomes harder to submit to Parliament.
May 1994On 12th May John Smith has a heart attack and dies. He had given Labour a sense of consistency which it had lacked for many years. There is no obvious single successor. By 1994, very few Labour MPs have experience of government. Labour branches in the country are de-moralised and battle-weary, having fought one fight after another. This is not to say that there is no activity; in fact Labour now run the vast majority of what is left of local government. With the Conservatives eliminated from Scotland and Wales, Labour has become the Party most representative of the UK.
June 1994In the vaccuum after John Smith's death, Peter Mandelson once again rises to pre-eminence as unofficial media spokesman. Tony Blair is announced as "clear favourite" and the "people's choice." He is relatively young and speaks with an upper-class English accent. He is tall and has few enemies in Parliament. He is known to be an avid "moderniser." The job of leader is apparently shared with Gordon Brown, in return for Brown's support in the contest. He promises further radical reform to the Labour Party, implicitly marking a split with the Smith years.
His opponents are Margaret Beckett and John Prescott. Beckett is a good politician, capable of totally mastering her brief. Whilst considered able and loyal, there is little that marks her as a future leader, and is considered too left-wing by some - having failed to totally renounce her CND membership, in line with late-Kinnock diktat. John Prescott rises to prominence on the basis of his good relations with the trade unions, as a leftist figure. He is capable of emotional rhetoric and is an effective spokesman. However he could be incoherent. As the acceptable and compliant representative of Labour's "soft-left," Prescott is to become deputy leader.
The elections are relatively close, Blair finishing with just 57% of the electoral college. After the 1980s there is a sad lack of talented men and women in Parliament.
July 1994Elements of the late-Kinnock-era coterie return, with a more forceful reforming agenda. They are determined to pick a fight with what remains of the Left, for the benefit of public consumption. The New Labour approach is, in policy terms, not entirely different from the Right-wing during the Callaghan era. However, rather than trying to lead the Party by consensus, Blair's attitude towards the Left of the Party is that of absolute hostility.
The group around Blair begin to pick people from students groups and young labour organisations to enforce the leadership's total command of the Labour machine. These groups and organisations are used as nurseries to "breed" compliant and passive MPs. Those who are "off-message" are excluded through various means, but rarely through the process of open debate.
The intensely repressive nature of Home Secretary Michael Howard is illustrated by the Criminal Justice Act, which grants a raft of new powers to the police. Labour promises to repeal the Act. The bullish Michael Portillo and the growing stories of Conservative corruption add to the grim realities of Britain in the wake of the longest recession in living memory.
October 1994Further clarification of what the Blair leadership actually means for the Party is shown at Conference. Figures emerge in Blair's inner circle who had formerly been associated with the SDP and Conservatives. In Blair, they see somebody who could provide power, influence and money as part of the "radical centre." This is described as a Thatcherite epilogue with a more paternalist or managerial slant. Though "big ideas" were flirted with, and then dropped, the main appeal is purely managerial. Within the Party, protest is muted and the movement remains generally compliant. Most Labour Party members are looking forward to being associated with victory and power after a long spell without either.
March 1995At the Special Conference of 1995, Labour votes to amend Clause IV of its constitution. Whilst the promise to "secure for the workers the full fruits of their industry" was not taken as a millstone for previous Labour governments, the removal is highly symbolic, removing common ownership as an aspiration for the Labour Party. The replacement arguably leaves the Party somewhat ideologically adrift.
September 1995Around 300 dockers in Liverpool refuse to cross a picket line and are instantly sacked by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company. The dispute sparks off a huge campaign of solidarity with the dockers, involving thousands of dockers and transport workers around the world, and even some high-profile footballers.
October 1995A strike erupts amongst health workers at Hillingdon Hospital. Threatened with a 20% pay cut and an attack on their working conditions, 54 catering and cleaning staff declare industrial action, and are somewhat reluctantly supported by their union, Unison. The strike rumbles on after the union stops strike pay in 1997, eventually drawing to a close following job relocation offers for the strikers, nearly 5 years later.
December 1996John Major's Conservatives lose their overall majority in Parliament. It becomes the first minority government since 1997. There is now a sense that the Conservative era is finishing.
April 1997Labour's Manifesto is a carefully composed document designed not to cause offence. There is a promise not to raise the basic level of income tax and to stick to the Conservative's spending plans for two years. Nothing can save the Conservatives, but the centrist nature of New Labour makes it hard for the Tories to respond without sounding like right-wing extremists. The Conservative vote slumps and Labour wins with a landslide 179 seats.

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