Friday, 9 September 2011

The sheer cliff face that confronts the Labour Party


Though I've gone on and on about the task facing Britain's Labour Party, it's worth pointing out that there are two major and structural reasons why they're going to have run faster and faster up the down escalator of history.

These are, in no particular order: (a) the electoral boundaries review; and (b) the reform of party funding.

The first looks likely to rob them of some of their structural lead in the House of Commons; the second might obliterate their ability to compete in economic and financial terms - even with the Liberal Democrats.

The Conservatives' quid pro quo for allowing a referendum on the Altearnative Vote system for Westminster was a reduction in the number of seats in the House of Commons, and their greater equalisation. This means that Wales in particular (always over-represented for historic reasons) will lose out - to the tune of ten seats for the Principality. Smaller urban seats are going to be widened out. Labour are going to lose their grip on some of their strongholds. The Liberal Democrats, always reliant on gaining a seat and then digging in as the smallest of the three major parties, are going to be hurt even more as a proportion of the seats they already hold. In general, the Conservatives might have got a bit closer to an overall majority last time - perhaps winning just over 290 seats out of a new Commons of 300. They might, just, have been able to govern alone in 2010. We'll know a bit more on Monday, when the provisional proposals for England are published.

The present review of party political funding is another perilous moment for Britain's major Left-leaning party. In the wake of the expenses scandals of 2008-2009, the Committee on Standards in Public Life is reviewing the whole system supporting political parties in Britain. Due to report in October, it might well recommend a £50,000 limit on donations. That'll hurt every party, for sure, since rich individuals will be limited in what they can give. But for Labour, which relies on large individual trade union donations every year, it could be crippling. No wonder the Left are up in arms about it.

There'll be compensations. Eventually, Labour will become a more English, more socially conservative and more open party. Some of this work on that last front is already happening under Peter Hain's review of the party's structure and organisation, entitled 'Refounding Labour'. Supporters and community activists will be invited to play a key role in the party on the ground without necessarily becoming members. Labour's constitution might change to reflect local activism and small-scale good works as part of its mission. US Democrats were rejuvenated, before 2008, by voter registration drives and local activism. It could happen here.

There's no need to overdo the gloom and doom for the only Opposition party. 'Experts' said these sorts of things after the 1959 and 1992 general elections, only to be confounded when Labour was voted back in the next time the country voted. Ed Miliband (above) might make it to No. 10 as the head of a minority Labour administration, or (more likely) as the leader of a coalition with the post-Nick Clegg Liberal Democrats. But, day by day, it becomes ever more unlikely that he'll ever lead a majority Labour government.

Overall, Labour can make it to base camp by overtaking the Conservatives in terms of seats, fairly easily. If Scotland doesn't become an independent state in its own right. If the party funding review doesn't choke off their lifeblood.

But to get to the summit of 301 seats in the reformed Parliament? It now looks like a sheer cliff of ice. It's not really imaginable in a single climb.

It's not Ed Miliband's fault. Electoral and economic geography has turned against him.

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