Can things only get better?

You have shown me prejudice and greedAnd you’ve shown me howI must learn to deal with this disease

There’s been a lot of talk in the last few days of 1997. Of the Labour landslide that swept a youthful Tony Blair into 10 Downing Street, on a wave of optimism and enthusiasm, to herald the start of 13 years of Labour government.

It’s down to the huge swing to Labour in the two by-elections last week, Tamworth and Mid-Beds, which had Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer talking of ‘making history’. Even the estimable Sir John Curtice, the politics professor,  has got in on the act, claiming that if this swing is replicated in the next General Election, Starmer’s landslide might be larger than even Blair’s was.

He may be right. He often is, with the seemingly uncanny knack of looking at polling numbers, and pulling out the correct result like a rabbit from a magician’s hat.

This isn’t 1997 though. The world, the UK, and British politics have changed a lot in the last 26 years.

1997 was the world of Cool Britannia, the world of the Spice Girls, Oasis and Blur, when the UK was riding high economically, thanks in no small part to the prudence and financial nous of Kenneth Clarke’s Chancellorship. The satirical TV puppet-show Spitting Image had Blair as a rambunctious 9 Yr old, bouncing through 10 Downing Street, calling “this room can be my playroom, and this room can be my playroom”, followed by an ashen-faced Sir John Major. It was all about youth, and trendy music, hope, optimism and expectations. And the Labour Party’s 1997 anthem was no exception: Things Can Only Get Better, by D-Ream, the keyboard player of which was Professor Brian Cox, the man responsible for sexing up astro-physics and making science relevant and, well, cool.

This is not 1997. We have had Covid, Ukraine, and now Gaza. We’ve had a coalition government, two Conservative polling triumphs, and one, thanks to Teresa May, that nearly undid the seat gains of the previous election. And we’ve had a referendum and Brexit.

This is not 1997. In 1997, the turnout – the percentage of eligible voters who actually vote – for the Tamworth and Mid-Beds constituencies was 75% and 78%, respectively. This year, it was 36% and 44%. Not numbers that scream ‘engaged voting population’. More numbers that give out a sense of intense ennui with the whole Westminster game.

Not surprising when you consider who the previous incumbents were, though. Christopher Pincher, the Minister whose wandering hands proved the final straw that broke the back of Boris Johnson’s premiership, and Nadine Dorries, the Johnson-groupie who threw a hissy fit when denied a seat in the Lords. Dorries apparently spent so little time and effort in her constituency that, not one, but two, local councils wrote to ask her to resign. It had been a Tory seat since the 1930s – to mess that up takes incompetence and indifference to whole new levels.

So, Sir John Curtice may be right, Sir Keir Starmer may be on the cusp of a historic landslide. Or, it may be that people have simply had enough of politicians and politics. In the case of Tamworth and Mid-Beds, I’m not sure I blame them.

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Totally gratuitous picture of the sexy professor. Yes, I am that shallow.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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