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Whatever happened to the class of 1997?

A group shot featuring some of the 101 Labour women MPs elected in the May 1997 general election, Westminster | Alamy

7 min read

Some got a seat at the cabinet table; one even nabbed the Speaker’s chair, but did Labour’s class of ’97 live up to expectations? With Things Can Only Get Better echoing down the years, Sebastian Whale discovers how the intake has fared – just don’t call them ‘Blair’s babes’

Amid the scenes of jubilation at a landslide election victory, there was an overwhelming sense of relief in Labour quarters on 2 May 1997. After all, the party had endured 18 gruelling years in the wilderness, searching for answers, hungry for power. 

Many of the 418 Labour MPs sent to the Commons could not help feeling apprehensive too.

“There was a massive shock value,” says Caroline Flint, the MP for Don Valley from 1997 to 2019. “There were stories of MPs who thought they were just going through the motions in terms of standing, suddenly finding themselves thinking about changing their lives.”

Many new MPs, including Flint and Maria Eagle, had been Labour members for years. Others had held senior political positions outside of Parliament. As such, when they finally descended on Westminster, the class of 1997 – experienced, capable, impatient – was determined to make it count.

“You had people who were personally ambitious that you thought would be the stars of the intake, but there was also something that you don’t often see: a very collective ambition,” says Baroness Smith, former MP for Basildon and now Labour’s leader in the Lords. 

After the advent of Tony Blair as Prime Minister, Labour’s class of 1997 is perhaps best remembered for the election of 101 women MPs, with 120 returned across the Commons in total. Described as a watershed moment, it was also a boon to the party’s controversial decision to introduce all-women shortlists to 50 per cent of its winnable seats. Openly gay candidates such as Ben Bradshaw and Stephen Twigg were also elected, while Labour improved its representation from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

For all its enduring significance, at the outset, the group was tentative, its ambition in check, belying the influence it would go on to wield on public policy and other political parties. But while the cohort’s symbolic legacy is secure, did the class of 1997 live up to expectations?

Nearly two decades in opposition imbued a sense of unity among Blair’s MPs. This triggered a backlash among some in the watching media who, not content with the Daily Mail’s infamous moniker, “Blair’s babes”, often referred to Labour’s women MPs as “Stepford Wives”.

Once described as a “brown noser” in the press, Flint says MPs received “flack” for supporting the government. But, she asks: “Why wouldn’t we be [supportive], considering how long we had been out of power?”

Smith describes the media coverage as “terribly sexist and outrageous”. “There were comments on what we were wearing, what our hair was like,” she says.

Conformity in public masked the lobbying of ministers taking place behind the scenes. “People talk about the cultural change [the class of 1997] made... and perhaps, as a cohort, we should have made it clearer what we were doing policy-wise,” says Smith.

From domestic violence to debates on pensions, healthcare, equality and the economy, Labour women MPs raised issues from a perspective often previously unheard in the Chamber. Flint, who helped set up an APPG on Childcare, says public policy was “distorted” in favour of men before 1997.

There was something you don’t often see: a very collective ambition

Dr Sarah Childs, professor of politics and gender at Royal Holloway, and author of New Labour’s Women MPs: Women Representing Women, explains: “What you’ve got is a combination of a New Labour government that is concerned with equality, social mobility and shifting the way in which politics is focused on particular groups, with a group of women who are feminist by self-identification.”

For all the class of 1997 brought with them a more modern feel, the Commons was still utilising outdated practices. All-night sittings were commonplace due to filibustering tactics by the Conservative opposition, with MPs regularly sleeping on camp beds in their offices with “please do not disturb” signs stuck to their doors. 

The late hours fostered camaraderie. A group of Labour women, including Flint, Hazel Blears and Jacqui Smith, set up the Division Belles, a tap-dancing group formed to let off steam.

In July 2000, House authorities unveiled plans to ensure the Commons finished at 10pm. Following further lobbying, the time was brought forward on Thursdays to allow MPs to return to their constituencies at a reasonable hour. 

The new MPs gave added impetus to the likes of Harriet Harman, who had long been campaigning for change both at Westminster and the wider country. “There was an attitude change among people of both genders,” says Maria Eagle, the MP for Garston and Halewood.

With just 19 women MPs and little by way of diversity in the official opposition, Labour’s 1997 cohort well and truly showed up other parties. “They looked at us and knew we looked like Britain,” says Siobhain McDonagh, the MP for Mitcham and Morden. “The Conservatives looked like another species at that time.”

Some believe the 1997 intake triggered David Cameron’s modernisation of the Conservatives. “It had an influence not just in terms of women’s representation, but you can clearly see that ethnically the Conservative benches are more diverse than they ever have been,” says Flint. Dr Childs says future elections also started to see “inter-party competition on the women’s policy terrain”.

Though the Tories continued to resist the idea of all-women shortlists, Cameron introduced his own A-list of 100 to150 priority candidates ahead of the 2010 election.

And what of personal legacies? By 2023, any MPs remaining from the 1997 intake would have spent as much time in opposition as in power. For all the talent in the group, not many went on to high office.

The reasons for this are clear: Blair’s senior team was already well established before 1997, featuring politicians such as Jack Straw, David Blunkett, Robin Cook and Margaret Beckett. Given the sheer number of Labour MPs, there were not enough jobs to go around. And, as Maria Eagle explains, the culture was markedly different.

“There was a view that you had to know how the Chamber worked before you could think about being promoted,” she says. 

No Labour leader has come from the 1997 cohort, while their Conservative equivalents boast high-flyers including Theresa May, Philip Hammond, Dominic Grieve and John Bercow. The Labour contingent does have its own Speaker in Sir Lindsay Hoyle, while Alan Johnson, Jacqui Smith, Yvette Cooper and Hazel Blears were among those to enter the cabinet. John Healey, Alan Campbell and Baroness Smith are in the current shadow cabinet; John McDonnell and Barry Gardiner served under Jeremy Corbyn.

While the class of 1997 seemed content with their lot, attitudes changed with subsequent intakes, with some MPs pointing to the influx of former special advisers. An ambitious member of the 2005 cohort told an MP elected in 1997: “When you came in, you knew you had the time. We haven’t got the time now.” 

The newbie was right; by 2010, Labour was out of power.

In September 1997, Labour MPs travelled to Brighton in a buoyant mood. The new government had implemented a tranche of policies as part of its first 100 days in power, including making the Bank of England independent.

“After 18 long years of opposition, of frustration and despair, I am proud, privileged, to stand before you as the new Labour Prime Minister of our country,” Blair said in his party conference speech.

As the Labour Party heads to Brighton 24 years later, the joys of that warm September feel a distant memory. But for the class of 1997, who endured torrid times before entering the first three-term Labour government in history, there is cause for optimism.

Ben Bradshaw tells the younger generation: “However bad you think something is now or has been in the recent past, it doesn’t mean to say that it can’t get better again. The tide does turn.”

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