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Neighbours’ values are Labour’s values

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The Australian soap opera Neighbours is reportedly under threat from Channel 5 bosses looking for cuts. The economics of this are slightly unclear – whatever its many merits, it does not appear drastically expensive television to make, and still does decent numbers for its timeslot. In any case, within the priced-in ridiculousness of soap operas, Neighbours remains very watchable, well-acted fare. Anyone hankering for some nostalgia will be glad to find Paul Robinson and the Kennedys still kicking about. And, in a nod to the show’s glory days, Jason Donovan’s real life daughter Jemma currently plays Robinson’s onscreen granddaughter, Harlow.

Whilst remaining on air for over thirty-five years is no mean feat, as I show in a new academic article, the magnetic hold it had on the British public in its late 1980s and early 1990s heyday was really something – and tells us something about progressive politics. Its peak popularity was staggering: save England’s knockout games at that year’s FIFA World Cup, the most watched event on British screens in 1990 was an episode of Neighbours. Of the 21 million or so then viewers of Australian suburbia, there was particular loyalty from teenagers. 83% of 12-15 year olds claimed to watch the show – with 74% watching most days. These are amazing numbers.

Both the regularity and motivation of its viewers remains interesting. Of course, heartthrobs like Kylie Minogue played their part. You could barely attend a nightclub or pantomime across the UK in the early 1990s without some of the show’s slightly less successful alumni making an appearance. But the show was not just – or even mainly – about such entertaining froth.

In his recent book on nineties television the comedian Josh Widdecombe notes that ‘Neighbours was good television…I was more emotionally involved in the storylines and felt a stronger affinity to the characters than with any other show I watched growing up.’ This view was mirrored amongst many of his generation – the show was successful because it was safe, repetitive viewing as much as it was anything glamorous. Unlike Eastenders or Coronation Street, the show was on five days a week – meaning its calm and friendly message was hammered home in a truly metronomic sense.

Whilst one million or so British viewers cling on in 2022 – apparently not enough for Channel 5 – the same number claimed to watch both episodes of the show screened each day in 1990 on BBC One. Certainly, this must have been a real kick in the teeth for ITV. But there is perhaps a more profound point. In the words of one of its stars, Geoff Paine (who returned to play Dr Clive Gibbons in 2017), Neighbours portrayed an albeit imagined ‘society where a plumber could live next door to a doctor and architect in an almost classless way.’ In the late eighties and early nighties, the alternative on British screens was the reality of late Thatcherite Britain as depicted on the ITV Early Evening News. Better to watch a co-operative, amiable Erinsborough rather than grim stories about the Poll Tax.

Though some may sniff at the practice of ‘intellectualising pop culture,’ the extensive viewership of Neighbours had real political significance.  As Ian Murray recalls, in 1989 it even entered the House of Commons when Shadow Chancellor John Smith sang its theme tune to mock the then divisions in Downing Street (watching on, William Hague remembers loving this set piece). Still, leading lights in the opposition would have been better to have actually watched the show, and engaged with the reasons why it was so popular.

The imperial connection with Australia rendered its chances of success in Britain greater than elsewhere, but, crucially, it was the show’s small ‘c’ conservative, communal, unchallenging, and morally uplifting nature that drew in viewers both young and old. Like politicians, TV executives conducted regular focus groups to understand their audience, and the verdict on Ramsay Street was fascinating. The joy of Neighbours, for many, was that its characters weren’t ‘extreme in any way,’ provided ‘harmless, sexless stories about everyday people,’ and ultimately ‘set a good example to young people.’ This amiable, non-radical vision of Bob Hawke’s Australia – then led by a moderate Australian Labor Party – was not so distinct from the type of politics that would prove electoral dynamite under New Labour.

Instead, in the 1980s and early 1990s, Labour was pitching itself to the wrong audience. East London MP Tony Banks declared himself the ‘member for Walford’ whilst Roy Hattersley sought to claim Coronation Street as his own. But Walford and Weatherfield were already solidly Labour constituencies – the party needed to win over Erinsborough Britain: a significantly female and suburban audience.  Albeit set thousands of miles away, Neighbours both portrayed and attracted the ‘home and family oriented’ suburban voters later identified by modernising MP Giles Radice – including those women ‘less likely to buy or read a daily paper [and who generally preferred] soaps and popular drama.’ It would take a reorientation of centre-left politics to speak to such ostensibly a-political types. In 1994, under Tony Blair, New Labour would begin to find this perfect blend.

Whilst the multi-channel age would serve to diminish Neighbours’ fortunes, its long term impact on British culture and politics should be noted. Come 1997 millions of former childhood and teenage Neighbours fans would enter the franchise for the first time, and 10% more women would vote for Blair than had backed Kinnock in 1992. They had many reasons to vote for New Labour – a charismatic leader, a skilful campaign, its association with a largely successful Clinton administration in the US, and the unpopularity of an incumbent, sleazy government. But having had a vision of an alternative world of community and fundamental niceness drummed into them for years should be part of this story, too. Good Neighbours, to a meaningful degree, helped the British electorate and New Labour become good friends. It would be a crying shame to see it go off air.

For more on Labour and communities, see this blog on Keir Starmer’s Labour and community power.