New Dawn? The 1997 General Election
Professor Steven Fielding curated 'New Dawn? The 1997 general election', an exhibition that ran at the People's History Museum from 25 March to 8 June 2017. It explored a vital but controversial moment in Britain’s recent democratic history, and helped visitors reflect on the issues it raised. For the exhibition was held at an interesting time in British politics, with Labour now led by Jeremy Corbyn a staunch critic of Tony Blair, New Labour and the policies and strategy that underpinned the party's 1997 landslide.
Of those who visited the exhibition and left feedback, comments ranged from the person who penned 'I miss Tony Blair' to the individual who wrote WAR CRIMINAL' and drew an arrow to Blair's face. The exhibition clearly provoked strong reactions.
On the basis of these responses, while it cannot be claimed the exhibition transformed all minds – although one visitor did claim ‘It’s changed my view of things’ - it helped provoke visitors’ engagement with the contentious issues associated with the election and its consequences. For some the exhibition was a nostalgic experience. As one visitor with experience working in the NHS wrote: ‘I yearn for those times again’. A gay visitor declared it reminded him of how the election had ‘heralded a ‘rebirth of the UK’. Another, 14 in 1997, considered the election a galvanizing, inspirational moment and said it was ‘good to be reminded’ of that by the exhibition.
It appeared to have a particular effect on those too young to personally recall the events depicted. ‘Thank you for the exhibition’ wrote someone who was just 5 in 1997 while another, born after the election, claimed that many of their generation express ‘blanket hatred’ of Blair due to the Iraq War but that the exhibition helped them appreciate the record of the government elected in 1997 was much more nuanced. For older visitors perhaps the exhibition reinforced existing views. One who had worked for Labour during the 1997 campaign said it reminded them that the party ‘need[ed] to be pragmatic’.
Certainly, as one visitor put it, this was considered ‘A stimulating exhibition’, such that it led to critical thinking about the exhibition itself, with another writing that, ‘The exhibition is great though a tad nostalgic – dodging many of the implications for contemporary left UK politics’. Another stated: ‘Whoever created this has a somewhat simplistic understanding of politics!’ Whatever its impact, the exhibition appeared to leave few unmoved!
The exhibition and the 1997 anniversary attracted media attention, such as this piece in the Guardian by Polly Toynbee while Professor Fielding was interviewed in Newsweek about the election.
If you missed it, the exhibition is on Periscope. There is also an online version. Steven Fielding gave a talk at Nottingham Lakeside Arts on the 1997 election: it is available on their Facebook page.