What were you doing 20 years ago today?

Some of you reading this won’t even have been born in 1997, or have been too young to take part in the General Election that year.

20 years ago today was a blistering hot day in Chesterfield. I was knocking up all over town.

I had spent most of the campaign doing front of house in our brilliant little office which was happily situated right next door to a pretty decent Italian restaurant. Several times we ordered food from them and they brought it across on proper plates, with real cutlery. A total luxury for an election office.

We had been working hard to get Tony Rogers elected in Chesterfield. Over the previous few years, we had really been challenging the local Labour hegemony, winning by-election after by-election. While New Labour were very much ahead in the polls, it was very much Old Labour who ran the Derbyshire town.

It was such brilliant fun. Very busy, of course. Paul Holmes as agent is never one to under-estimate anyone’s capacity for work. Legend had it that he took envelopes to stuff to a woman in the early stages of labour. He says he can’t remember doing such a thing, but nobody who knows him seems to have much trouble believing it. There was one time during the European campaign in 1994 when he decided that sorting out a million election addresses wasn’t enough work for us to do and he got us all stuffing envelopes for a by-election in Bradford South too.

He certainly liked to challenge us. You’d be in the middle of doing something and he’d come along with some mailing that needed to go out by the last posting time which was impossibly close. And we always stepped up and did it. We called him lots of names in the process, always to his face and he bore that with good humour.

Although there was much humour to make the hard work more bearable, that election was also tinged with anxiety.

We all thought the Tories were gone in 1992. While New Labour was well ahead in the polls five years later, there was always that frisson of fear that they would somehow manage to retain power.

In those days, printing out the target letters on EARS was so much more of a faff than it is today and was the cause of much swearing and threats of violence. Entering data was time consuming too. None of these fancy barcode scanners that you have today.

I had something like 15 hours sleep in the last 5 days of the campaign. I certainly couldn’t do that these days.

We started out 6,500 votes behind Labour and ended up 5,800 votes behind – quite an incredible result to take votes from them on a landslide night like that. In 2001, Paul Holmes, as candidate this time, finished the job and won.

My memories of the count were having a quiet wee tear of joy in the tv room at the thought of us having a Scottish Parliament at last when Tony Benn walked in eating a white chocolate magnum.

We got to bed at about 7 am and I woke up just as Blair was going in to Downing Street.

The whole country seemed to be full of optimism, but I never warmed to him. I didn’t believe anything he said. He just left me cold. The only times I’ve ever felt moved by anything he’s said was when Diana died and his recent pronouncements about Brexit.

So that was my 1997 election. How was yours?

UPDATE: I’ve remembered now that the one thing I didn’t do on 1 May 1997 was vote. It is the only election at any level that I have not voted in. I was just too busy in Chesterfield. I had intended to nip back mid afternoon but it never happened. I don’t think Mrs Pankhurst would have been too upset because I was actually working to change the world, but I was determined never to let that happen again and I have had a postal vote ever since.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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37 Comments

  • Bill le Breton 1st May '17 - 9:39am

    Was running Martin Bell’s campaign … with a Labour colleague, who had just been told that his time to be in Downing Street the next day had been brought forward from 4pm to 12 noon – which fact told me that the deal between Paddy and Blair was off!

    Until the day before the plan had been that Blair would announce the great offices of state and then explain that he had spoken to Ashdown and offered places in his cabinet for Liberal Democrats provided A gave an answer in four hours – Blair’s equivalent of the great big open offer later used by Cameron.

  • @ Caron “The only times I’ve ever felt moved by anything he’s said was when Diana died”.

    Written by that well known Scot and bag pipe player who went to Bradford Grammar School and supports Burnley FC, Alistair Campbell. His Diary of the Blair Years makes rather pretentious reading these days. Whatever happened to “Cool Britannia ?”. I don’t think there’s even a blue plaque in Sedgefield these days..,…. too busy elsewhere.

    Tim, beware of siren voices.

  • I was in Twickenham. I can remember wondering to myself if later that night I was going to hear the words: “And I hereby declare that the said Dr John Vincent Cable is duly elected as the member for the Twickenham constituency.” I am wondering today if I will be hearing those words again in a few weeks’ time.

  • in 1997 I voted in Fakenham, then in North Norfolk, and Norman Lamb was the candidate. Two days before I’d been working in a field in Shropshire and it was trying to snow, but election day was sunny and warm. At the time, it felt great dumping the Major Government and helping tee up Lamb to a platform from which he could go on to win in 2005. But in retrospect, John Major was a statesman compared to May and her authoritarian, illiberal party.

  • Bill le Breton 1st May '17 - 11:25am

    David Raw, I saw the operational skills of Campbell up close at Tatton. We had a right tussle over what he wanted from the campaign and what I wanted, which at the candidate’s behest was for Martin to win.

    But Blair, Brown, Campbell, Mandelson and Gould were a phenomenal electoral team.

  • Peter Martin 1st May '17 - 11:28am

    And, in 1997, the EU barely rated as a subject of contention. It was quite possible for those, like myself, who had previously been cool on the idea of the EU to vote Lib Dem, albeit tactically, without so much as a second thought.

    The EU seemed to be working reasonably well at the time. I still had my underlying doubts about the structure of the project, its lack of democratic accountability and the underlying protectionism of key EU states, but I’d put those to one side. If pushed I might well have conceded that I was wrong to oppose membership in 1975. There was no mass unemployment in the EU. If there had been a referendum then, I probably would have even voted to remain. I’m sure most other people would too.

    1997 was before the disaster of the euro or the single currency experiment. I was right to have been worried about the lack of democracy in the EU. That was imposed mostly against the will of the people of those countries who made the switch. If the EU had been more democratic then we’d never have had the euro and I doubt Britain would be in the process of leaving the EU right now.

  • @ Bill Yes, I accept that.

  • 20 years ago I was campaigning to get a councillor from Newcastle elected to replace Alex Carlile who had stood down as MP for Montgomeryshire. The young man’s name – Lembit Opik. He defeated the man who is now our Tory MP.

  • Ruth Bright 1st May '17 - 12:15pm

    What a lovely slice of social history you have written Caron.

    In ’97 in Southwark and Bermondsey I recall hearing a teenager and her Dad arguing on the way to the polls.

    Dad: “But we always vote for Simon” and the daughter trying to persuade him to vote Labour. The daughter undoubtedly too young to remember a non-Tory government.

  • “And, in 1997, the EU barely rated as a subject of contention.”

    Rather selective memory given that every seat was contested by the Referendum Party and this election came post Maastricht which had significantly dominated the 92-97 Parliament.

    97 was one of the two Lib Dem MPs I got elected. In hindsight, today, I feel my time could have been better spent.

  • Ashley Pragne 1st May '17 - 1:32pm

    Voted nice and early at All Saints church in St Margarets Twickenham ! Voted for Doctor Cable! Then travelled down to my childhood home near Shaftesbury Dorset! My Dad and I stayed up all night ,and watched the results come in! It was a glorious Spring day! I eventually went to bed after Andrew George won St Ives seat number forty one that day, and gain number 27!

  • Ruth Bright 1st May '17 - 2:32pm

    Oh, forgot to say…(this anecdote for connoisseurs only, David Raw, Bill le Breton etc) pretty sure ’97 was the last time we ran a ward without a computer. Paper shuttleworths. Joy!

  • paul holmes 1st May '17 - 3:18pm

    Well Caron has already told you what I was doing 20 years ago – and today?

    Just back in from 5 hours delivering for one of the 9 County Council candidates I’m Agenting for in Chesterfield. Started with a very pleasant wander up a semi rural road on the edge of Chesterfield with lots of interesting birdlife to distract from trudging up and down the drives on a moderately steep hill. Plus a few old houses and some beautiful gardens to admire.

    It’s been a fun campaign (unlike 2013). A good group of well motivated people who have got their mojo back after the nightmare of 2010-2015; some excellent new members including I am sure some of the future new Borough Cllrs of the 2019 elections, Oh, and Labour are taking stick from the electorate!

    On Friday of course it’s straight into a General Election campaign. Just like 1987 30 years ago in fact, when I first ran an election (my own) and took a Council Ward from Labour -the first time they had lost that Ward in history. Then we went straight into the 1987 General Election campaign.

    I did BBC East Midlands Sunday Politics last week and chatting beforehand I said I did it for the joy and pleasure of fighting for the principles I believed in. So just how long have you been a Masochist asked the Tory MP on the panel.

    Hywel – like you I sometimes have wondered if I might have spent my time on better things. But however appallingly some Liberal Democrats may behave at times -especially internally to the Party – I remind myself that like democracy its the worst system on offer, except for all the others.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 1st May '17 - 4:16pm

    I was , in keeping with Tim s sensible understanding of the home sought by mainstream enthusiasts for the radical and moderate progressive stance, campaigning for a Labour victory, as now for a Liberal Democrat advance!

    My politics has or have , barely changed.

    I was a liberal minded social democrat.

    I am a socially minded Liberal Democrat !

  • I agree with Hywel – the EU then was the key issue that fatally undermined John Major.

  • Duncan MacInnes 1st May '17 - 6:57pm

    Wow, 20 years has passed very quickly, and how times have changed. This was just after my university days an I was campaigning in Edinburgh South. I cast my vote for Charles Kennedy, though, as I was still registered at my parents’ address. I was so pleased to be finally voting in a general election, as I had been two months too young for the ’92 election. I was even more pleased to see the back of the Tories, though.

  • It is worth remember that the first act passed by the Blair government was the National Health Service (Private Finance) Act 1997

  • It’s lovely to read all your reminiscences.

    I’ve just remembered something else. 1997 is the only election at any level I have never voted in. I was too busy in Chesterfield and couldn’t get back. I’ve had a postal vote ever since. I lived in Sherwood which was and still is a Labour/Tory marginals. Labour had taken it in 1992 and held it till 2010. Becky Thomas is fighting it for us this time round so good luck to her. We lost our deposit last time, but there should be potential for improvement.

  • Liberal Neil 1st May '17 - 7:38pm

    I was running the campaign in Oxford West & Abingdon from the same offices I’m sitting in just now.

    I also got elected as a County Councillor, pretty much by accident, when all the tactical voters in Abingdon South decided to apply the same tactic in the County election as they had decided to in the General on the same day.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 1st May '17 - 7:46pm

    Caron, didn’t know you had been a resident of Notts ?

    Becky is an excellent candidate, and , talking of Sherwood, the Nottingham City Council ward of that name too, is up for a seat in a byelection this Thursday-

    A big shout for our excellent candidate and vice chair of Nottingham City party, a real friend , personally and politically, in our party and community, Barry Holliday , trying to get one Liberal Democrat onto the council !

  • Chris Rennard 1st May '17 - 10:49pm

    Twenty years ago today, I was the principal organiser of the Lib Dems ‘target seat campaign’ and it was polling day in the General Election. We gained 28 seats (net), more than doubling our number of MPs to 46.

    Lots of comments on my Facebook page

  • 20 years ago I did believe things could only get better. After all my entire voting life had been under the Tories and they were finally out. And let’s be honest things did, my eldest was 6 and in a school that was crumbling (quite literally) and throughout the remainder of his school years things improved substantially. We reset our approach to the EU and benefited from that. Tax credits for the poor, better NHS funding a lot did get better. The New Labour years had many problems, but they really were better than the Thatcher / Major ones.

    The hangover from that day in May was only eclipsed later that month when Chelsea finally won a trophy after 27 years of domestic wilderness. Funny how both things seem unbelievable now, Chelsea going 27 years without winning anything and Tony Blair being so popular!!!

  • John Barrett 2nd May '17 - 12:39am

    20 years ago today, like Paul Holmes, I was the election agent, but here in Edinburgh West we won the seat from the Conservatives, making Donald Gorrie the new MP.

    It was today, as it was in the wee small hours of the morning when it started to become clear at the count that decades of having a Conservative MP in Edinburgh West would come to an end. Hopefully the seat will return, after two years with an SNP MP who has not been selected to stand again.

    Unlike Paul Holmes, since retiring from Westminster, my level of campaigning has reduced dramatically and on General election day this year we will be on the Western Isles on holiday (booked before the election was called) – unless I end up becoming our candidate.

  • Mick Taylor 2nd May '17 - 3:39am

    In 1997, I was the agent for a same day by-election candidate, who swept all before him in the by-election just as Labour hoovered up the constituency. It rekindled my enthusiasm for politics and in 1998 I was re-elected to the council for a new ward and served until I moved away in 2007.
    And yes, I shared the joy of finally getting rid of the Tories. I really thought Labour would do better. Sad that their initial radicalism faded so rapidly and we were left with a government that was little better than their predecessors.
    This will be the first General election I have not campaigned in since 1964. Not because I have lost my enthusiasm for the party, but because I am travelling and won’t be back home till mid-august. I’ve arranged a proxy vote though.

  • Mick Taylor 2nd May '17 - 3:41am

    Hywel. Perhaps when you’ve been in the party as long as I have you will come to realise that a Lib Dem MP is almost always better than any other kind. I very much hope to see you giving of your campaign experience instead of always carping on about how things aren’t 100% correct.

  • In the 1997 campaign I was part of the staff team at Scottish party HQ, so I got to experience the delights of election night there. Throughout the campaign I’d also taken the occasional ‘break’ to deliver leaflets in nearby Edinburgh West. I remembered the crushing disappointment of the ’92 campaign there, and feared a repeat. So John Barrett – I well remember answering the phone at party HQ sometime after midnight to hear your dulcet tones reporting from the count. I could recognise the broad smile in your voice: “No doubt about it Tony. No doubt about it!”
    Then similar upbeat messages came in from West Aberdeenshire, and then Tweeddale – which we’d feared we might lose after boundary changes. We were also really worried about Gordon for the same reason, till the redoubtable Sheila Ritchie called to report a 7,000 majority.
    There were also disappointments: we’d done incredibly well to keep Aberdeen South competitive but couldn’t quite withstand the Labour wave. Losing Inverness wasn’t a surprise, but still a sad moment. But the reports of incredible gains south of the border kept the mood upbeat. Then as the early light was breaking Donald G. came into the HQ to a huge cheer, made a typically awkward but funny little speech. After that people started drifting away to the EdWest party. I remember stupidly trying to do some work at my desk, but people were still drinking champagne and talking, and I suddenly realised I had been working non-stop with very little sleep and the adrenalin had run out. I tried to catch a bit of sleep in the big chairs in the club-room but it wasn’t working, so I went home and slept for a while. When I woke in the middle of Friday my flatmate Richard Pinnock (now the campaigns officer in Somerset I believe) updated me on the latest gain. “Winchester,” he said.
    “Winchester?? Are you serious???”
    “Yep. D’you want to know our majority?”
    I nodded. He held up two fingers.
    “Two thousand?? Wow!”
    He shook his head, held up two fingers again.
    20 years? Hard to believe.

  • Jayne Mansfield 2nd May '17 - 8:08am

    After years of tory rule, things really did get better under Labour, but they made some mistakes too.

    We really did become a more decent, caring, tolerant society with an internationalist outlook, a change that we have seen, can be so easily eroded by people of ill will.

  • Angela Davies 2nd May '17 - 9:44am

    Twenty years ago to day I was manning the shop in Victoria Road Surbiton. Ed Davey’s successful campaign was run from there. We gained the seat by 56 votes.

  • John Barrett 2nd May '17 - 10:00am

    I should have added at the end……… “in the Western Isles.”

    We now have an excellent candidate here in Edinburgh West, Christine Jardine, and all being well once again we expect to see a Lib-Dem gain in Edinburgh West for the second time in 20 years.

  • Richard Fagence 2nd May '17 - 10:04am

    On May 1st 1997 I was in The Magnet Leisure Centre in Maidenhead where the counts for the two constituencies of Windsor and Maidenhead were being held in the two adjoining sports halls. Following their creation from the old combined constituency of Windsor & Maidenhead in 1992, this was the first defence for both of them. As the night went on, the Maidenhead Tories were looking increasingly worried at the number of votes being counted for Kathy Newbound. I understand that, at one point, Theresa May was in a side room with her agent and she was in tears! Then they started adding the votes from Twyford and Ruscombe and she eventually pulled ahead by three thousand or so votes. The Labour candidate was John O’Farrell the author and scriptwriter who was born and went to school in Maidenhead and went on to work for the wonderful Alf Dubs. After the result was announced, John said he wished he had been more aware of what was going on as he would have told his voters to support Kathy. Thus is history made and the good folk of Maidenhead are still stuck with the blessed Theresa.
    In the other hall the utterly useless Michael Trend was returned as the member for Windsor. Readers with long memories will recall that the Mail on Sunday (of all papers) outed him for claiming expenses to which he was not entitled to the tune of £97,200 for the rent on a London flat that he didn’t use and which nobody was ever able to accurately locate. The night was also notable for Chris Fox (now Baron Fox of Leominster) achieving the highest number of Liberal Democrat votes ever achieved in Windsor. As for me, with all the other Unitary Authority candidates, I had to return at 10:00 am the following day for the local count. I was elected to the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead and managed to hold on to the seat for ten years, including four as a Cabinet member. I’ll be back to fight for it again in 2019 – in my 73rd year! Happy days.

  • I was contesting my first ever parliamentary election (for the Green Party) in Brent South and polled 389 votes, just a mere 24,000 or so behind Paul Boateng. Great night, though, in Brent Town Hall, Portillo’s loss probably the highlight of a mad night.

  • Richard Fagence 2nd May '17 - 10:33am

    They say that you know that you’re getting on a bit when your memory starts to go! The Theresa May story I related just now refers to 2001, not 1997. In 1997 she managed a majority of very nearly 12,000 but 2001 saw it reduced to 3,200 by Kathy Newbound. The Chris Fox story and Michael Trend’s fake expenses and my election to the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead are all accurate, however. Apologies to all readers.

  • Simon Banks 2nd May '17 - 5:20pm

    I was living on Tyneside at the time and working in a role that meant while I was not “politically restricted”, it was wise not to be upfront or deeply involved. I had election day off work and spent much of it in Berwick on Tweed. Leaving North Northumberland to get home to South Shields, I pulled off the road into a lay-by from which I could look over the darkening North Sea and I had a sense of being present at an historic moment. I desperately wanted the Tories out though I had more respect for John Major than most and my view of Tony Blair was that I wanted him to win but there was something about him that bothered me, perhaps a lack of centre, a lack of depth.

  • Peter Martin 2nd May '17 - 11:07pm

    @ Hywel & Alistair,

    James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party may have stood in every constituency. But they didn’t win a single one. Their candidates lost their deposit pretty much everywhere and their final tally was about 2% of the vote.

    There probably should have been more discussion about Maastricht than there was. But at the time it wasn’t well understood in the country just what changes the EU were letting themselves in for with that Treaty. The average person maybe thought it was going to be interesting that they wouldn’t need so many currency changes when they went on holiday to Europe. That’s about as far as it went. They didn’t foresee the economic damage that the Treaty and the common currency was going to bring about. The so-called experts weren’t much wiser either.

    The Tories heavily lost the 97 election because the electorate wanted a change and were tired of sleaze. Not because they had any significant complaint about the EU at the time. It was actually working well in 1997. It was when it stopped working well after the 2008 crash that the problems started.

  • nick cotter 3rd May '17 - 8:50pm

    Getting my Dad elected as Lib Dem MP for Weston-Super-Mare – 1st non-Tory MP there for over 70 years !!

    Happy Day(s) !!!

  • John Littler 14th May '17 - 1:20pm

    I know what Brown was doing shortly after, which was pressurising Blair & co to drop Labour’s pledge on AV Plus PR voting, which had helped them to get in the centrist vote that gave them the biggest majority since ’45.

    There would be no Tory landslides possible if they had not been so shortsighted, cynical and dishonest.

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