Harold Wilson’s famous dictum was crafted in the aftermath of his and Labour’s unexpected election defeat in 1970. It was my first general election – I was sixteen and I sat up all night with mum watching the results – heartbroken. It then Creena decided to join the Labour Party. I joined when I was in sixth form – at eighteen.
At the time we entered into party politics Mr Wilson entered upon one of his unhappiest periods as an active politician. The Labour Party was – under the push me of the Unions and the pull me of an newly emergent left-wing activist cadre – being decoupled from the managerial socialism-cum social-democracy – which Wilson, Crossland, Castle, Crossman and Benn had used between 1964-1970 as the means to update the bureaucratic centralism of Attlee’s post war economic and social model.
This must seem a long way from Newark. On one level it is on another it is not. Labour’s unhappy period of internal and intellectual uncertainty ran parallel to Edward Heath’s serious flirtation with market-driven economic and social policy. In the event in face of the miners and others they backed off but the wheels came off their government chariot and they careered out of control into the elections of 1974 when they went down to a famous if very narrow consecutive defeats. The way was cleared for Sir Keith Joseph and Mrs thatcher – newly made true believers in the cult of markets.
Mrs Thatcher until the Falklands saved her looked as if she might repeat the same stupidity. Sadly, for Britain and the Labour Party, Labour was even more determined than Mrs Thatcher to throw aside the old order and seize the commanding heights of the British economy as the late Tony Benn would have put in – eyes swiveling, fist banging on a desk.
These upheavals gave impetus to the rise the Liberals under Grimond and then the flashy not-quite-a-gentleman, Jeremy Thorpe. In time it also split the Labour party and Jenkins, Williams, Owen – and Bill Rogers – the man history forgot even at the time they were making history – went off to found the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The SDP thought it would be big brother to the Liberals little Joey. It turned out that the SDP brought with it too many of the old Labour traditions of in-fighting and the resurgent Liberals who built up from the ground ended the stronger part of the new third force.
The three party politics emergent played straight into Conservative hands who in every election between 1979 and 1997 prospered on that split vote. In the south west and south east Labour’s vote eroded and passed into the hands of the LIbDems and in the East and Midlands it passed directly into the hands of the Conservatives. In the North and Scotland and Wales it was the Conservatives whose vote ebbed into the nationalist and other parties and Labour who emerged dominant. Thus, underneath the unchanging blue of the political landscape there were tectonic forces moving slowly which were gradually as undermining of the Conservative Party as they had been of the Labour Party. The sun was about to set on the Empire of two party politics whose imperium had never been quite as boundless as it had appeared briefly to be in its post-war heyday.
UKIP has a particular view of post war history. Like blinkered Marxists its version overlooks inconvenient facts which do not fit into its theory of past misdeeds leading to present woe. This comedy of fact and fiction should actually lead only to present laughter. It warrants no serious conclusions of any sort.
For most of the nineteenth century England’s two party politics was in fact a complicated foursome with remnant Whigs and Tories in the Lords; and the Irish nationalists and unionists supplying the two smaller parties in the Commons. With Home Rule the unionism of the protestant Irish mainly in the north of the Ireland spilled out into Unionism in the great cities of England and in Scotland and Wales. At the turn of the century Labour entered into this complex political world.
Last night’s result in Newark tells us three important things which will alter play in May next year. First, UKIP has for the moment replaced the LibDems as the larger force in England. It has no local roots and finds it hard to win seats in elections. The Newark result represents a serious set back for the Farage inflatable. Secondly, the Conservative Party looks certain the regain most if not all the voters it had in 2010. Thirdly, Labour looks set to gain unevenly from the emergence of UKIP but because the electoral system is skewed in Labour’s favour it would take only a small numbers of voters in fifty seats to swing back to Labour and still leave Labour as the largest party or even with a small overall majority on a minority of the vote. Look back at the election results in the 1920’s to see how seats can switch quite dramatically in a four party political system in the first past the post system of voting.
Coalitions were part and parcel of the politics of the UK for much of its modern political history. Prepare yourself for another coalition – for at the moment it seems politically impossible for any single party to win outright next May. Mr Cameron as Prime minister has the first go – and we know how well prepared he and his colleagues were last time for such and eventuality. You can stuff a game old bird with a lot of Patronage.