Sunday, 3 August 2008

W(h)ither Labour ?

The political blogsphere is currently dominated by discussion over the future of Gordon Brown and Labour. Tory bloggers are positively salivating at the prospect of winning the next General Election and some are predicting landslides and even the end of Labour with the Conservatives in power for a generation or more.

Could the 2010 General Election mark a major shift in British politics with the end of the two-party system and the return of the Conservatives to their position, as defined in the post-election analysis in The Times in 1992, as "the natural party of Government" ?

Landslides, as defined as an overall majority of over 100, have occurred frequently since the war. The elections of 1945, 1959, 1983, 1987, 1997 and 2001 all produced such majorities with 1966 not far behind. Thus, a landslide Conservative win in 2010 wouldn't be that unusual.

In 1983, Labour won just 209 seats, its lowest post-war total while the Conservatives won just 165 in 1997 and 166 in 2001. In 1997, Labour won 418 seats, in 1983 the Conservatives won 397 while Labour won 393 in 1945.

Yet the basic Labour-Conservative duopoly has survived and has been challenged seriously probably just the once with the creation of the SDP in 1981. The Falklands War not only ensured Margaret Thatcher's supremacy in the 1980s but it also saved Labour in Opposition from being overtaken in terms of votes by the Alliance in 1983.

History thus shows us that irrespective of the scale of defeat, a party in Opposition will recover over a longer or shorter period of time until, aided by the exhaustion of the incumbent Government and a new updated policy programme, it is able to become a successful alternative force.

History also tells us that it is as important for parties to understand and manage defeat as it is for parties to manage and understand victory. If or when Labour is defeated in 2010, the survivors will need to come to terms with that defeat and become reconciled with it. How that happens and how long it takes is impossible to say. It is perhaps true that the longer a party has been in Government, the more difficult it finds acclimatising to Opposition but that need not be the case.

There's little doubt that David Cameron is building a formidable coalition which may well propel the Conservatives to power but the nature of such coalitions is that they are inherently unstable and even contradictory. Even the best Governments fall prey to problems, unexpected events and crises and the next Conservative Government will be no exception. There's also little doubt that Britain faces substantial challenges in terms of social, economic and international developments in the 2010s and beyond. As the era of cheap oil ends, how will our society react and change to a new energy-short reality ? How will Government manage this process and the expectations, aspirations and anxieties connected ?

How will Conservative Britain deal with the continued emergence of China as a global economic power, how will we manage Europe, Russia, Africa, global environmental challenges and climate changes ? I suspect the 2010s could be a very bumpy ride and it may be that David Cameron gets little time to enjoy the trappings of office.

Does this present Labour with opportunities ? Clearly, Labour will need to respond to international and domestic socio-economic and cultural change of an unprecdented nature. I think there are two possible strands for this response:

1) New Environmentalism - Labour adopts a far more Green agenda than hitherto and this may well resonate if global climate change proves to be more acute and violent than predicted. Clear and uncontrovertible proof of man-made climate change might lead to a more austere outlook among voters who might be more willing to accept draconian environmental measures than currently.

2) New Socialism - It seems likely that Governments in the 2010s will move away from "big Government" solutions with greater involvement from the private and voluntary sector. If, however, there is a perception of declining living standards and no improvement in health and education, it's possible that the argument might swing back in favour of more Governmental involvement perhaps articulated as a "renaissance of the State".

I'm guessing of course but of one thing I'm certain - a defeated Labour Party after 2010 cannot rely on its own past policies for its future survival. I don't believe there is the same ideological internecine struggle within Labour now compared to 1979. "Blairism" isn't an ideology and neither is "Brownism" so the survivors will most likely hang together.

In time, by-elections will be won, Council seats regained and Councils regained and this will in itself bring a resurgence of confidence. Landslide Governments generally survive because their Opposition is either weak, divided or both. It's arguable that the 2005 Labour victory was as much down to a divided Opposition than any confidence in Labour. David Cameron might well enjoy an extended period in Government if the forces of opposition remain themselves divided but that will not always be so.

Recent history tells us that a newly-elected Government has about a decade before it is too out of touch with a changing society. It is also hugely difficult for incumbent Governments to reinvent themselves in office. In a fast-changing and challenging world, the "2010 model Conservative" may look out of date very quickly. Whether Labour are able to take advantage of this will depend on Labour and its activists.

1 comment:

Andy Cooke said...


I'd actually quibble about "
History thus shows us that irrespective of the scale of defeat, a party in Opposition will recover over a longer or shorter period of time until, aided by the exhaustion of the incumbent Government and a new updated policy programme, it is able to become a successful alternative force."

History shows that in the absence of a more credible alternative to the defeated Party, it will lick its wounds, regain in strength and coalesce anew its support, true. But the crucial component is tha lack of a more credible - and close - alternative. In the 1920's, the divided Liberal Party, pulled to the "soggy centre" was attacked on both left and right and wasted its strength on internecine quabbling until Labour overtook it. Duverger's Law usually prevents this, but once the threshold is overcome and the damaged party overtaken, the challenging former third party is then aided by Duverger to pull away.

it's only happened once, and the circumstances of that time will never exactly recur. Demographic moves assisted the winds of change, blowing adversely for the Liberals and fresh and helpful for the Labour Party, but once is enough to know that it is possible that a party in government - one that has held a record landslide in recent memory - can be all but fatally wounded.

labour has moved away from its core again and again, "triangulating" mercilessly. It sacrificed its base for electoral success, but now it is far away from its home, which is itself imperilled by demographic change. Fissures are appearing in the Party, it's stranded in the soggy centre and its Celtic redoubts are threatening to reject it. Labour was in very real danger in 1983 - I believe that a further left Alliance would have damaged it far more (defecting Labour voters tended to jump straight to the Tories - the Alliance was closer in the spectrum but still far enough away to need a fair old jump, and if your going to make a real effort to leap away, you may as well go to the winning side). The Tory troubles under Hague (and especially IDS) would have been far greater if a more centre-right Lib Dem party had been a close refuge for disillusioned Tories.

I agree that it's unlikely, but if the Labour unpopularity continues to the election, I feel that there's a real opportunity for the Lib Dems to overtake Labour.