I understand EM gives quite important speech later this week. It will mark the beginning of the pre-election campaign which will climax – if that is a suitable word to employ in relation to Ed Miliband’s speaking skills – at the Party Conference in September. Beyond his slightly nasal strangulation of vowels Mr Milliband struggles on a number of fronts in this world of slick Media-driven bubble where appearance is everything – in which we exist. He also has had pretty dreadful personal poll numbers since his election as Labour leader and there is no reason to think they will change.
The question that preoccupies the chatterati of the political class in the UK is – Has Labour already Lost?
Labour enter this election with little Media support. Miliband is not their story. Unlike its most successful election winners – Wilson and Blair – he has not got a good press and little traction in the elites that shape opinion in the Media. Labour’s poll number run ahead of the leader but still are upper mid thirties at best. These were the sorts of number Labour had in 91-92 against John Major and we know where that tragedy ended.
The government is coming good in economic terms and the concerns over immigration play better to the right wing zeitgeist than to those on the left. No government but Ted Heath’s has lost after only a single term.Economic growth will continue to strengthen and wages will rise. There’s maybe a boomlet on the way – if not quite on the scale of Barber or Lawson.
All of these things are true and all of them may add up to no more than a row of beans. Why?
Sometimes elections work in cycles of in and out like 1950 and 1951;1959 and 1964; sometimes elections – like 1945;1979; and 1997 immediately come to represent a decisive break with the recent political past. Sometimes elections dully reinforce an earlier decision – 1974( Oct) – 1983 – 2001. Sometimes elections stick with nurse fearing worse – 1987 – 1992 – 2005. Very very occasionally elections reflect a change in the political structure: 1901;1910;1924;1945;1974 (Feb).
By any of these measures the election on 2010 was out of the usual. It is perhaps difficult to believe that when government since has gone on very much as usual – this coalition behaving very much like a majority government with none of the political or personal tensions often associated by pundits with party coalitions.That too is remarkable. The election in 2010 was also remarkable for any number of reasons.
It gave us a coalition government for the first time since the 1920’s. (The National governments of the 1930’s must be seen in a different light.) The Conservative Party polled one of their worst ever national percentages – beaten only by 1997, 2001, 2005 and 1974 – against one of the most unpopular ever of governments in polling history. Between 1974 and 1979 the Conservatives had gained 8.1% of the national vote; in 1997 Blair’s Labour Party gained a similar 8%. By comparison the Conservative party vote rose a meager 3.5% from what was by then a historically terrible base of 32.4%. This relatively small gain was over Brown’s Labour Party polling a ghastly 29% – 7% down on its squeak in 2006 – but worse only just marginally better than its humiliating defeat in 1983 when Michael Foot led it to an ignominious defeat from which it took 13 years to recover. This was not a good election for two party politics.Unlike previous cycles the country had not turned decisively back to the Conservative Party. In many ways the questions about Conservatives have remained essentially the same since 1997. The difference was the collapse of Labour’s vote from 43% to 29%.
In 2010 the LibDems had their best election since 1983 although their 23% was only one point more than they had achieved in 2005 under Charles Kennedy. The Greens elected their first MP. The Nationalists and Unionist kept their share of votes and roughly their number of MP’s. The more disparate structure of multiparty politics established in 1974 was if anything decisively reinforced once again as the new normative – with two larger weaker parties and third party dangerously close to be equaling the other two and a good number of regional MP’s representing a fragmented local interest.
What the polls tell us is that this essential structure remains unchanged. Labour has gained something around 6% on average since 2010. Some of this may disappear as May 2015 approaches but it seems highly unlikely it will do significantly as badly as 2010. The Conservatives have yet to cross the Rubicon into the higher 30’s and on this form will do well to repeat something akin to their 2010 result. The LibDems – as history warned them – have been seriously damaged by the coalition politics.Their current numbers of a couple of points either side of 10% seem very low but the polls for the present are nothing but consistent. That said they held on to Eastleigh and have held on to good parts of their local government base. The chance is they will hold on to many of their seats but nothing like as many as their total of 57 – which was itself down on their 63 seats in 2005. The problem will come later this year – if the percentages do not edge up towards 13-15% it is hard to see how they can hold on to more than 25 of their current seats.
Finally there is a new girl on the block – UKIP. Here again polls may mean nothing but the rise of UKIP feels very much like the rise of the Liberals between 1972-1974. It would be a foolish to suppose they too will not poll somewhere around 10-12% of the vote. Thus from the math it seems highly unlikely there’s room for either of the big parties to squeeze the other enough to emerge with a clear working majority. If the Conservatives could not hit the magic 40% in 2006 there is little reason to believe they will gain 6% in the next 10 months to achieve this feat. Moreover, the coalition means inevitably if there is glory for the golden economy it is not all theirs to claim.
Labour has had its best period in opposition in an entire Parliament in my lifetime. In 70-74 there were quite a lot of growing divisions between the Left led by Benn and Wilson and the remainder of the party. It split over joining Europe then too. The 80’s into the 90’s are well known and there was plenty of murmuring when john Smith was briefly leader. The sixties too had their divisions before Gaitskill’s death in 1963. Given that history and the fineness of EM’s narrow victory that deserves comment and note. In many ways the fissisaprous Conservative Party need a figure like Cameron who can straddle opinion rather as Wilson did for Labour.
I am no clever reader of polls but it still surprises me given all the drift in economy in govt’s favour that Labour is in with a shout let alone still ahead at this stage.
The truth is often boring but in the end 2015 will all come down to the LibDem vote.This election is likely to see a further rise in Green vote as well as UKIP’s entry into political mainstream. There will be a modest rise in the Labour vote and with as little as 34% each Labour could emerge with more seats than the Conservatives.
It is hard to doubt that PR referendum will be a price of any new coalition formal or informal – though Labour and Conservatives may finesse this with an offer of AV. That would be easier for Labour than the Conservatives but it could equally be accompanied by the revised boundary package the Conservatives desperately want.
I guess the best hope for Conservatives is to be so close that a deal with NI Unionists would see them safely over the 326 seats. The problem is unless Labour gets well below 34% that is hard to do. Similarly, a rise in LibDem vote over 13% to somewhere in mid teens makes the arithmetic just as problematic. Not only is another hung Parliament likely it seems they will remain likely well into the next decade or so – unless one of the larger parties implodes. And that too has happened in recent history – first to the old Liberal Party in 1930’s and it almost happened to Labour in the 1980’s. Strangely, it may well be the Conservative Party that is more at risk if against all expectations they do not win in 2015 and instead do worse than 2010. No party since the war has increased its percentage of votes cast in a subsequent election outside Labour in 1966 and again in October 1974.
So to answer the question – has Labour already lost – the answer is most definitely not and it still looks likely to gain most advantages from the vagaries of the electoral system. The local elections were not as bad for Labour as the Media portrayed them to be and in an era of four party politics its practical electoral advantages are not to be disregarded. The coalition row over House of Lords reform may turn out to have been the very means to help Labour back into power.
Stranger things have happened – ask Harold Wilson in February 1974…..