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.