Can things only get better, again?

Can things only get better, again?
With the re-emergence of D:Ream’s euphoric 1993 hit and a ’97 style Labour landslide looking likely, Hannah Ewens dives deep into the creation of Cool Britannia, and asks experts whether it could be repeated again.

As Rishi Sunak emerged from 10 Downing Street in May 2024 to announce that there would be another election, a delightful pairing of unfortunate factors occurred. First, the rain. A miserable, pathetic fallacy of a downpour that drenched him to the bone. Umbrella-less, he was forced to ignore it as he desperately tried to convince us all that this Conservative government had done a good job at running the country. As if that wasn’t painful enough, the music began. At first, it was a tinny warble. Then it got louder – a flicker of barely detectable panic in Sunak’s eyes – until there it was audibly clear and competing with his announcement: the New Labour anthem, D:Ream’s ‘Things Can Only Get Better’.

The song is a joyful and jazzy 1993 dancefloor filler. Adopted a few years after its release as Tony Blair’s ‘New’ Labour theme tune, its celebratory choral arrangement quickly reaches soaring heights as it claims again and again and again that things, truly, can only get better. Its appearance at the beginning of the 2024 General election, 27 years after it first entered the political fray, was the responsibility of anti-Brexit protester, Steve Bray, who blasted the song from a PA balanced on railings at the bottom of Downing Street as Sunak signed his own death warrant. At the time, Bray – who is admirably dedicated to shouting about Brexit along Whitehall – told reporters that he chose the New Labour tune because it was the “top trolling song for the Conservatives”. A funny answer for an equally funny act of disruption. He was clear to underline, though, that the song’s association was with the Tory landslide defeat; by playing it he did not intend to show his support for Labour in the upcoming campaign.

Aaron Reeves, Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at Oxford University watched this tableau with interest. To him, the use of the song that had so amplified the “feeling of background excitement” to Labour’s ‘97 campaign, unintentionally read as a dual criticism. “It was clearly embarrassing for Sunak but it also doesn’t feel like that’s the moment that we’re in right now,” he says. “It doesn’t feel like there’s a buzz and I think that’s legitimate. Starmer is going to face a much more difficult set of economic challenges than Blair faced in those early years. So I read it as a critique of the current Labour Party: ‘you’re not capturing this mood or feeling about what is coming,’ as well as being obviously a very direct critique of what Sunak and the Conservatives currently represent.”

D:Ream, for their part, have banned Labour from using the song again. When approached for comment for this piece they declined, saying that they’re not interested in “going on about a tune we did over 30 years ago”. Despite their best efforts though, the tune was back, at least for a little bit. The question is what does its unwanted comeback reveal about the Labour party of today?

Back in the mid-80s, in the aftermath of the worst election Labour ever had – Michael Foot’s disastrous loss in 1983 – the party’s director of communications, Peter Mandelson, created The Breakfast Group. It was a collection of people largely from the advertising and research industry who were Labour sympathisers and wanted to pro-bono help Labour to “regenerate its presentation”, according to Leslie Butterfield, leading British brand and communication expert and core member of the group. New policies and a fresh approach were desperately needed, and fast. Butterfield busied himself conducting qualitative research on the impact of Thatcher’s policies on the public’s voting intentions and how Labour could respond. Strategy and polling adviser to the Labour party, Phillip Gould, described this in his bookThe Unfinished Revolution, as “the single most influential piece of research ever conducted for Labour”.

“The research that I did then led to a very fundamental beginning of a change in the way we presented ourselves,” remembers Butterfield. “The rose imagery came out of that research to get away from the red flag and the images of Labour in the true sense of the word and having something more positive and brighter and more ambitious to talk about.”

Though Labour lost the next two elections, Butterfield and the team put this down to a leader too “tarnished with the old Labour brush”, rather than the ideas they were introducing as a result of the research. During the “depressing” post-mortem of ‘92, they seriously considered the impact of the party’s name in turning potential voters off. “Labour still had those connotations of hard work, sweat, blood, tears and toil – look at that word and those are the things that come to mind. In one of the presentations, we said, “maybe we should even think about the name Labour,” he says. “Suddenly in that mix of things that idea of ‘New Labour’ came up and Blair basically took that thought and changed it into the name of the party effectively.”

The name was “absolutely crucial” to the success of Labour because by then the Tories looked “tired, corrupt, lazy and incompetent”. They had been in power for 17 years – comparable to the 14 years that this government has been in power – and appeared, to Butterfield, “tired and forlorn.” In contrast to John Major, Blair was an excellent communicator and had the charisma, character and newness that was missing in Major. The whole movement was something fun and sexy that British pop culture could cheerfully endorse – think Noel Gallagher, the Spice Girls and even soap stars from Eastenders. Blair was more the face of Cool Britannia than Oasis or Blur ever were.

So that choice of ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ to front this era was both smart and apt. “The music was absolutely central casting for that campaign and that song was very appropriate because the spirit then was more optimistic than it is now about the future,” says Butterfield. “The contrast was there in these two men.” To hear that track was to revel in its ambition, a key theme of New Labour’s pitch to the country. It embodied that upwards trajectory which said if you worked hard, paid taxes, the economy would be safe and you, that working people would see benefits in the form of a thriving health service and public services. Butterfield associates it most with the Labour celebration that occurred on the South Bank outside Royal Festival Hall, when it was clear that enough seats were falling for Labour to secure a clean win. “It was an impromptu party from 2am and it was fantastic, an amazing spirit to it.”

Could it be played again at a celebration if, as polls predict, Labour win big on 4th July and produce similarly euphoric effects? Butterfield is unconvinced. “That would be a stretch – there’s a greater cynicism now, a feeling that things won’t really change, that politicians are in it for themselves.” There is a feeling that a vote for Labour might not make any difference, is it even worth turning out for? Sure, things can only get better, but that’s only because they really can’t get much worse.

Sean Aidan Calderbank / Shutterstock

You only have to be alive and cognisant as a person living in Britain to know that the mood feels despondent. Before we consider Labour being a very different party now, we’re all too aware of the socio-political global setting, as well as how long it would take, even with the proper investment, to turn around the past 14 years of Conservative rule. Kitty Stewart, an associate professor at the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion and an associate professor in social policy at LSE, tells me that during New Labour, “the economic outlook was far, far better; we had economic growth in 1997 itself and then a decade of more economic growth. Blair had money to work with and put to use. Labour now know – and there is a sense from the public certainly – that Labour are going to really struggle if they’re elected to make changes.”

“There was something around 1997 that made it feel like a golden era,” she continues. “9/11 hadn’t happened yet, borders were open so there was plenty of travel, the world felt like a safe place and there was little climate conversation. Now two very destructive wars are happening close to home and we’re very concerned with climate change.”

“There’s a greater cynicism now, a feeling that things won’t really change, that politicians are in it for themselves”

Leslie Butterfield

There is something similar happening contextually in what both iterations of Labour faced and face: their opposition. “What has been lost now and what was lost in the 90s is the perception that the Conservatives are good on the economy,” explains Professor Aaron Reeves from over a zoom call he’s taken in his office, surrounded by books. Thatcher pitched herself as building a property-owning democracy but many felt the negative consequences of rising interest rates and falling house prices in the early to mid-‘90s. “We’re facing a very similar moment now with the decisions made by Liz Truss and a very specific set of announcements that have really harmed a lot of middle-income people, people with mortgages, which is basically a core part of the Conservative vote.”

As such, while a cohort of (predominantly younger) Corbyn supporters have been put off by how centrist the party has become and what many consider to be Starmer’s support for Israel, Labour is not attempting to appeal to a youth vote. They’re not trying to be fun and sexy, like New Labour who managed to do that and capture the rest of the country with their air-tight combination of leader, policy and circumstances. But, under Starmer, the party is looking at winning over many of the same undecided voters, discontent with the Conservative party that powered New Labour’s victory. Which, if the polls are anything to go by, is a lot of people. As Stewart deftly puts it, “If you feel like Labour are not speaking to you, it’s because they aren’t trying to because, in fairness, they probably don’t need to.” They’re banking, she says, on young people not voting Conservative and being less likely to turn up to vote anyway.

Butterfield has watched the Labour campaign thus far with natural professional interest, though he’s long since retired from working with the party. He’s noted that they talk of change without giving potential voters a strong understanding of what would be done if they got into power. “They would argue that stability itself is change after what we’ve experienced in the past three years, particularly with the Liz Truss government,” he says. “There’s a paradox there – what they’re trying to do is build a picture for people of trust and belief that their vote for Labour will be a safe vote. I think that’s quite important actually.” In contrast to Blair’s embodiment of ambition and freshness, Starmer is a very different politician and one that people haven’t taken to in the way they did to Blair. “Some would argue that the very fact he isn’t a razzle-dazzle Mr. Charisma is a good thing when people want stability, reassurance, integrity. It’s a different climate now and a different kind of leadership is needed,” concludes Butterfield.

One thing is clear, if Labour have a vision that matches the ambition of ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ we certainly haven’t heard it yet.

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