Flashback: 2 May 1997 – Labour’s election landslide: “Things can only get better”?

On this day 18 years ago, Tony Blair’s New Labour won a landslide victory in the general election, with a staggering 419 seats and a majority of 179 over all the other parties.

A BBC exit poll that predicted the landslide was described as akin to “an asteroid hitting the planet and destroying practically all life on Earth”. As the results started to come in it was clear that the Tories would be swept out of office after 18 years in power.

The most memorable event was the defeat of Tory poster boy Michael Portillo, shown live on television in the early hours of the morning, later referred to as “The Portillo Moment.” The result elicited a huge roar at Labour’s celebration party and D:Ream’s chart-topper “Things can only get better” was played.

As the sun shone that morning, Blair strode along Downing Street, shaking hands with flag waving supporters from his party. At the door to No.10, he said: “We were elected as New Labour and we will govern as New Labour.”

In context: Blair’s triumph was the culmination of a process that went back to the dismal defeat under Michael Foot in 1983. Labour’s left wing manifesto pledged unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the EEC and nationalisation. Ironically Blair entered himself Parliament at this election.

Under new leader Neil Kinnock, the left was gradually subdued and Militant Tendency driven out of the party. Even so the Tories won a majority of over 100 seats in 1987. By the late eighties Blair was one of the key party “modernisers” along with Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson.

Labour’s narrow defeat at the 1992 election (which it had expected to win) led to the modernisation “project” gaining impetus. Under Blair’s leadership shibboleths such as public ownership of the economy, high taxation and wealth redistribution were dropped in favour of a programme that embraced neoliberalism and the Thatcher revolution of the eighties.

Shortly before the 1997 election the party published “new Labour, new Britain, new life for animals”, which made numerous promises on animal protection issues and said “Labour is the only party with carefully researched policies and the political will to carry them out.”

What happened next: Blair was true to his word and governed as New Labour,  being “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.” When Formula One was exempted from the ban on tobacco sponsorship of sport after Bernie Ecclestone’s £1m donation to the party, it was rocked by a sleaze scandal. Sleaze never went away and Blair was interviewed by the police in his final year in office over allegations that party donors had been given peerages.

The burgeoning financial services industry, based in the City of London, led to the rise of a new ultra-rich class. As wages for ordinary people flatlined, Labour tried to plug the gap with tax credits. Middle income people felt better off thanks to rising house prices and personal debt increased to record levels, paving the way for the credit crunch of 2007-8.

Under New Labour, the marketisation and privitisation of key public services such as the NHS and education was stepped up thanks to public finance initiatives (PFI), which the party had condemned while in opposition. Blair also broke his promise to abolish zero hours contracts. Compulsory work placements (workfare) and work capability assessments for disabled people were brought in under Labour.

Blair promised to be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” but in reality it was the former with over 3,500 new offences created and the prison population up by over 30%. ASBOs were particularly controversial with many people being locked up for trivial reasons. A compulsory ID card scheme was announced but later scrapped by the coalition government.

Dissent was criminalized with the term “domestic extremist” used to smear activists and the formation of the National Public Order Intelligence Unit leading to an unprecedented infiltration of political groups by undercover cops. The animal rights movement came off worse, especially anti-vivisection groups such as SHAC who were targeted by new draconian laws.

Labour broke nearly all its promises in New Life for Animals. Fur farming was eventually outlawed in 2003 but the fur trade expanded thanks to the use of injunctions against protesters. After much hesitation and deferment, the Hunting Act 2005 was supposedly intended to ban hunting with hounds but was ineffective and poorly enforced.

Blair ‘s nadir was the disastrous invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. Millions marched against the war but were ignored as he joined forces with George Bush under the pretext of WMDs which were never found. This led to the UK being a prime target for terrorists and the 7/7 bombings. Nearly half a million people died during and after the war and the destabilization of the region was a prime cause of the rise of Islamic State.

New Labour was Thatcherism rebranded with a smiley face and Cool Britannia. According to Larry Elliot, economics editor of the Guardian, its legacy was: “Inequality at levels not seen under Macmillan, Heath, Thatcher or Major. Real cuts in the incomes for those at the bottom of the pile. No progress in reducing child or pensioner poverty. A record number of working-age adults without children living below the breadline.” And on top of that, state repression at home and war without end abroad.

Flashback: 25 April 1992 – the biggest anti-vivisection demo ever

On this day 23 years ago, thousands of people marched through central London to mark World Day for Laboratory Animals (WDLA). The event was organised by the National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS) who said: “This year we broke our own record for the largest anti-vivisection march ever as in the region of 23,000 people supported a good natured but noisy march to Earls Court.

NAVS’ giant inflatable beagle, Charlie, greeted the marchers and inside Earls Court was a massive 35 screen video wall playing films. Numerous stalls distributed information and sold merchandise and there was even a fashion show.

The rally was addressed by Jan Creamer of NAVS, representatives of overseas anti-vivisection groups, MPs, MEPs and celebrities. An incident occurred when a group of people called out for ALF Press Officer Robin Webb to speak. NAVS said: “No-one was interested in this self-indulgent and destructive minority, who were quickly ejected.”

In context: WDLA was established in 1979 and 24 April was chosen as it was the birthday of former NAVS president, Hugh Dowding. It quickly became the movement’s centrepiece and large marches took place throughout the eighties against Porton Down, Shamrock Farm, Hazelton, Wickham and other animal hellholes.

From 1990, NAVS held protests in London to maximise the turnout. That year 10,000 marched from the Little Brown Dog in Battersea Park. This increased to about 15,000 in 1991. Grassroots anti-vivisection was also on a roll as there were high profile ALF raids against breeders and laboratories such as Interfauna, Royal London Hospital and Boots.

The campaign against Boots the Chemist intensified following an inspection of its Nottingham laboratory by the Animal Liberation Investigation Unit. This led to the formation of London Boots Action Group (LBAG) and other anti-Boots groups. It was reported that 60 of their stores were being attacked by the ALF each month.

What happened next: 1993’s WDLA was slightly smaller at 20,000 and along the route of the march there was a sit down outside Boots, which was condemned by NAVS. Resentment towards grassroots campaigners had been simmering for some time as they had refused to let the ALF Supporters Group, the Animal Rights Coalition and LBAG have stalls at their fair. An “alternative fair” was set up instead.

In their magazine The Campaigner NAVS railed against the activists for asking to speak at the rally (“No-one has the right to speak at World Day”), for being “money grabbers” by having stalls in Hyde Park, and urged “people who do not care about the future of the World Day march to organise their own events.”

In ARC News, Neil Lea defended using World Day to make money as it was used for campaigns to save animals. He also said: “I am not against national groups in principle but against the way our three major national groups are presently run. Talking to other activists…I feel this the general feeling of the movement.”

Another WDLA march and rally was held in 1994 but numbers had declined to about 15,000. An “alternative fair’ took place and also a protest at Shamrock Farm primate breeders in East Sussex. Activists were heeding NAVS’ advice to organise their own protests.

In 1995 NAVS dropped the demonstration as “there were no new elements we could add…and that it could start to become stale.” Since then no WDLA demo has come anywhere near the numbers of the early nineties. Boots caved in to pressure and shut its laboratory down in 1995.

Flashback: 31 March 1990 – the Poll Tax Riot

Exactly 25 years ago today, the biggest and most famous of all poll tax riots occurred in London. On a mild, sunny afternoon 200,000 people marched from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square to protest against the iniquitous tax.

A large group of protesters were penned in when police blocked the top and bottom of Whitehall. After several heavy-handed arrests, a series of scuffles broke out as people tried to break through police lines and march to Trafalgar Square.

Serious rioting began when mounted police attacked crowds in Trafalgar Square. Police vans came under attack after they were driven at demonstrators to disperse them. Builder’s cabins in the square were set on fire, as were parts of the South African Embassy nearby.

Fighting spilled out into the busy streets of the West End and continued into the night. Numerous shops, car showrooms and expensive restaurants and clubs – including Stringfellows – were attacked. Hundreds were reported injured, including many police officers, and 339 demonstrators were arrested.

In context:  The community charge – or poll tax as it became known – was the flagship policy of the Thatcher government. Everyone was liable to pay, regardless of income.  One of its instigators, environment minister Nicholas Ridley, bragged that a dustman would pay the same as a duke.

The tax was widely unpopular, especially when tax rates set by local councils were much higher than initially predicted.  By the end of 1989 there were 1000 Anti-Poll Tax Unions throughout Britain. The APTUs encouraged non-payment, and organised protests and resistance to bailiffs.

As councils held meetings to set their poll tax rates in spring 1990, a series of demonstrations turned into riots. These occurred in London boroughs such as Lambeth and Hackney and in other towns and cities as well. This set the mood for the national march.

What happened next: The riot was widely condemned not only by the Tories but also by Labour and even by the far left Militant Tendency who’d organised the march.

As well as those detained on the day, more than 100 were arrested afterwards due to video and photographic evidence. The Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign offered unconditional support and video footage it acquired from the police helped get people off trumped up charges.

The popular press had a field day and published “wanted” photos of the protesters. One iconic image showed a masked woman confronting a riot cop. In May the Daily Mail revealed the identity of “Britain’s most wanted poll tax rioter” as 21-year-old Lorraine Vivian after her mother recognised her. She was imprisoned for one year.

During 1990 the poll tax grew in unpopularity and more and more people said “can’t pay, won’t pay”. Margaret Thatcher resigned in November 1990 and her successor John Major announced its replacement by the council tax, which took some account of ability to pay.

An interesting footnote is the link between the anti-poll tax movement and animal rights, which was going through a militant phase of its own.  Police said 37 of those arrested “had some form of links” with AR, including one person who was found in possession of incendiary devices after his home was raided.

In March 1991 a rally to mark the anniversary of the riot went ahead as a ”victory parade” instead of a protest. Although rioting in London had received the most attention, it was widespread resistance and non-payment that defeated the state

Flashback: 14 February 1982 – ALF’s Operation Valentine Raid

Exactly 33 years ago today one of the most famous raids in ALF history took place at Life Science Research (LSR) in Essex. Over 100 activists forced their way into the contract-testing laboratory in broad daylight, rescuing nine beagles and a large number of rats and mice.

The BUAV’s newspaper Liberator said: “Damage estimated at £100,000 plus the almost total destruction of a van used to collect animals for vivisection was the score tallied by the Animal Liberation Front as a result of Operation Valentine.” People fled in cars with the police in pursuit and there were 64 arrests but, importantly, none of the animals were recovered.

Liberator reported a spokesperson for LSR as saying the rescuers were “Nazi-style thugs in uniforms”, before adding: “There is no way our tests are cruel to animals. The ALF’s response was that “the speaker himself must have been a Nazi.”

In context: The LSR raid was the culmination of a series of attacks against the vivisection industry going back to the formation of the ALF six years earlier. In 1977 over 200 animals were liberated from laboratories. In one raid activists broke into Condiltox in North London, causing £80,000 damage. Shortly afterwards the lab closed down.

In August 1979 arson was employed for the first time with a blaze at the Essex offices of lab supplier Tuck and Sons causing £20,000 damage. In 1980 there were about half a dozen raids against vivisection targets including the first attack on a vivisector’s home.

1981 saw a night of action with as many as 40 attacks, mainly with paint, on the houses and cars of vivisectors. A further 18 actions against vivisection targets took place by the end of the year, including a raid on Wickham Laboratories which freed 11 beagles.

According to the book Against All Odds (1986): “There was a further increase in anti-vivisection raids in 1982 and in many ways the year was a landmark for animal liberation action.” In February the first daylight ALF raid at Safepharm Labs in Derbyshire acted as a curtain raiser for Operation Valentine. Film of people fleeing with rabbits was shown on TV and unfortunately this led to eight arrests and suspended sentences for those involved.

What happened next: The raid had an immediate effect on the movement and LSR itself. It received unprecedented publicity including TV and radio coverage and the front page of the Daily Mirror with the headline, “Rescued: hooded raiders free lab dogs” alongside an iconic photo of a masked activist holding a beagle. As well as damage on the day, a £30,000 order was lost as a result of the action and 100 workers were made redundant.

In March 1982 15 guinea pigs were liberated from an animal breeders in Sussex and the following month the ALF raided a supplier of mice, damaging a car and rescuing several dozen inmates. In April the Western Animal Liberation League rescued a beagle at a protest against a lab supplier and the same month the house of a vivisector in Sheffield was daubed with slogans.

Actions continued during the year, including 12 beagles taken from Boots’ lab near Nottingham and Leicester University Psychology Dept’s animal house closed down. World Lab Animal Day in April saw hundreds of people tear down the fence at Porton Down and £2,000 damage was caused to the fence and alarm system at Huntingdon Research Centre during a demo in August.

An Operation Valentine Defence Campaign was set up for the 29 activists who were charged with conspiracy to cause criminal damage and steal. 17 were convicted in 1983, eight of whom were imprisoned for between 21 days and 15 months and a further nine were fined or ordered to do community service. The sentences were harsh for the time but they did not stem the tide of direct action. The rest of the 1980s would be an era of animal rights militancy.

Life Science Research never recovered from the raid and later in the decade it merged with Huntingdon Research Centre to become Huntingdon Life Sciences. The rest, as they say, is history.

Flashback: 20 January 2001 – HLS saved from the brink

The first in a new series of posts which look back at past events on a particular day.

14 years ago today the notorious Huntingdon Life Sciences, which tortures thousands of animals in cruel and unscientific experiments, was teetering on the brink of collapse. Outstanding loans were due to be paid back on Friday 19 January, leaving HLS facing insolvency.

As the hours counted down to bankruptcy, articles in the press and statements from scientists and politicians called on the government to step in. MP for Huntingdon and former Prime Minister, John Major, said: “The worst outcome would be for violent protesters to win. The real damage here is the domino effect.”

Only the last minute intervention of Lord Sainsbury, the New Labour science minister, allowed a deal to be brokered. Negotiations went on into the small hours of 20 January and eventually Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) wiped off the £11million owed to it for just £1. Meanwhile another financial institution, whose identity was kept secret, handed HLS a lifeline by extending the remaining loan.

In context: The campaign against HLS, Europe’s biggest contract-testing laboratory,  intensified following an undercover investigation shown on Channel 4 in 1997. Horrific footage of beagles being punched in the face led to the prosecution of four “animal technicians” for cruelty and a four month inquiry during which the company’s licence to vivisect was suspended.

Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) was formed in November 1999 and said HLS would close within three years. In 2000, SHAC obtained a list of HLS shareholders, including the pension funds of the Labour Party and Camden Council. The list was passed to The Sunday Telegraph and the Labour Party sold its 75,000 shares in January 2001. As a result the share price sank to just 1p. Also in December 2000 HLS was dropped from the New York Stock Exchange because its market capitalization had fallen below NYSE limits.

Throughout 2000 activists kept up the pressure by demonstrating at HLS’ three sites and at the homes of its workers, as well as against Nat West Bank and RBS who had given it the loan. Direct action increased as well with cashpoint machines a favourite target.

What happened next: The identity of HLS’ saviour was revealed as Stephens Inc., an Arkansas-based investment firm. Greg Avery, co-founder of SHAC, was defiant, saying: “Anyone who funds them, we will destroy. The government can do what they want, they will not save HLS.”

In February a massive mobile demo of 1000 people attacked the facilities of Glaxo, Bayer and Eli Lilly, who were customers of HLS. The same month managing director Brian Cass was assaulted outside his home. In March the company lost both of its market makers and its place on the London Stock Exchange. Shortly afterwards it moved its HQ to the United States, incorporating as Life Sciences Research

In July 2001 it was revealed that HLS was using the Bank of England as no commercial bank would go near it. The following year “global leader” Marsh Inc quit as insurer and the government had to step in to provide that service as well.

By 2003, however, the tide was turning. That year HLS won an injunction under the Protection from Harassment Act and eventually nearly 20 companies who used HLS did likewise, limiting the effectiveness of protests against them. Demonstrations outside peoples’ homes were banned and the offence of aggravated trespass was extended to buildings.

However, these measures did not stop over 100 companies severing links with HLS in 2004 and the laboratory was even forced into doing its own laundry. Finally in 2005 the government introduced new laws against SHAC activists. This meant much harsher penalties of up to five years for offences that previously might have resulted in just a few months imprisonment or even a fine.

This had a chilling effect on protest but worse was to come in 2007 with mass arrests in a police operation known as Operation Achilles. In 2009 and 2010, 13 members of SHAC, were jailed for between 15 months and eleven years on charges of conspiracy to blackmail HLS and its suppliers.

SHAC carried on for another four years until Debbie Vincent was convicted of conspiracy to blackmail in April 2014. In a final statement in August it said it had run the “biggest and most effective grassroots animal rights campaign the world has ever seen” but now was time “to reassess our methods, obstacles and opponent’s weaknesses, to build up our solidarity network for activists and to start healing the effects of repression.”