Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Is General Election victory really in Labour's own internests?

As the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) surge continues, and Labour's number's continue to fade away like morning mist, the two 'main' Westminster parties do now seem to be running neck-and-neck in the race to Downing Street. Actually, our present governors are better placed to go for another five years: there are a lot more ex-Conservative voters in that UKIP pile than there are in Labour's, so any reversal in UKIP's fortunes will help Prime Minister David Cameron's re-election bid much more than it will assist Ed Miliband's (above) quest for No. 10. Thest best statistical models we have show that there is rather more likelihood of a Conservative-led administration continuing after May than there is a Labour-dominated one taking office. Labour's latest disappointing numbers, reported at the start of this week, will only reinforce that impression. That's no surprise to readers of Public Policy and the Past, of course, who have long known that a Labour victory is less likely than the traditional commentariat would have you believe. But you know what? This might be Labour's great escape. This might be a good election to lose.

Now you could have said this about almost every General Election since 1945. Had the Conservatives won that time, they would have run into a massive power crisis and a dollar convertibility disaster. Had they won in 1974, they would have faced asking the International Monetary Fund in to help out. Only the elections of 1951 and 1997 look good ones to win, given the sunny economic conditions that then prevailed and the subsequent eras' advances towards some - and only some - of the sunlit uplands of prosperity.

But there do seem to be specific reasons to be doubtful, this time, whether victory really is in Labour's own interests. Everywhere you look, the party faces a plausible enemy - to a far greater extent than Mr Cameron's Conservatives, who would in Opposition be able to regroup around a right-wing leadership and outflank some of UKIP's wilder promises. Labour faces what looks like an existential threat from the Scottish National Party north of Berwick and Carlisle. Its blue-collar fortresses in the north of England are clearly vulnerable to UKIP. It might be pushed out of the South of England entirely by a combination of the Conservatives, a rejuvenated set of Liberal Democrats freed from the burdens of office, and Greens appealing to left-leaning city dwellers. It simply does not have the resources to fight on all those fronts at once. By-election and council defeats would very quickly leave it clinging to office, shorn of confidence as well as authority. The Callaghan administration of 1976-79 is a good example, if you want to look back.

Any Miliband government will very likely be a minority administration (just as Jim Callaghan's was), perhaps reliant on Social Democratic and Labour MPs from Northern Ireland, Plaid Cymru and the acquiescence of the Lib Dems for the oxygen of Parliamentary survival. Could it really slow down all the cuts, lift wages and reform benefits in a way likely to bring it up from the low 30s - where it now seems permanently stuck? With this inheritance? With this less-than-popular leadership? Probably not. Not with the massive debt stock that has recently started growing again, rather than shrinking. Not while the Eurozone crisis looks like rumbling on for many more years, Chinese, Indian and Brazilian growth seems to be slowing down, and the international banking system still seems so vulnerable to the slightest knock.

It's a doleful spectace, really, not just because of the present administration's a disasterthon in so many areas (Universal Credit? Work Capability? Defence cuts? Courts 'reform'? Tuition fees? The badger cull? Can any government really be re-elected on the back of such a trail of error?) But most of all because the Conservative Party has done nothing that it said it would. In Opposition, Prime Minister David Cameron promised to be a more caring type of Conservative than British voters had got used to for so many years, letting 'sunshine win the day'. He also promised to lead 'the greenest government in history'. And yet food banks have become an alarmingly integral part of welfare policy as Work and Pensions officials increasingly sanction individuals failing to meet each and every target and deadline they're given. And under pressure from local activists, Mr Cameron's Communities Secretary is increasingly vetoing every onshore wind farm that he can get his hands on - even as the public show in every opinion poll that's every been conducted that they're in favour of them, and threat of power outages and blackouts grows and grows. The Conservatives' flight rightwards, under the pressure of the UKIP challenge, has been a rapid cavalcade to behold. A big cloud of political dust has been left in the air as they've ceded the centre ground. If Labour were a better Opposition, they'd be doomed.

So Labour can be patient, and continue to rebuild. Sooner or later this version of the Conservative brand will collapse under its own weight of contradiction, rather like the George W. Bush edition of Compassionate Conservatism 1.0 did in the Senate elections of 2006. President Bush had promised to govern from the centre. He didn't, in case you hadn't noticed. And at the end of six years of what they hadn't voted for, American voters took their revenge in the Senate elections of that year, handing an enormous battering to the younger President Bush's Republicans. Control of the Senate was knocked out of their hands, perhaps until they gain it back (on a temporary basis) next week. Eight years in the wilderness is a long time. If the Conservatives go on like this, they'll do further permanent damage to a brand that is already toxic to the majority of voters. They'll be left out in the cold, too. Eventually.

Labour might be better off waiting until that decisive moment when the dam breaks. Winning power back in the spring of 2015 just looks like a dangerous gamble with the party's very existence.

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