Saturday, May 07, 2005

Our spirit must be stronger, Our heart bolder, Our courage greater.

“Labour has either a one point polling lead or an eight point lead. So I’ll split the difference. I suspect we’re in a scenario where Labour is between 36-39%, the Tories are between 33-35% and the Lib Dems are between 20-23%.” Me, March.

Labour were at the low end, Tories were at the low end too, and the Liberals advanced in places with the least pay-off in terms of seats.

So where are we? Two days into a historic third term Labour government and the election already feels distant. All that effort, toil and rhetoric is finished and now winners and losers have to face the results.

After what was regarded as a boring campaign, election night had it all.

Bob Marshall-Andrews appeared before us, so eager to cast the blame for his loss on Tony Blair that he didn’t wait until the result before launching his broadside. Unfortunately for the effectiveness of the knifing, a couple of hours later Marshall-Andrews was returned as the MP for Medway. The credit, of course, was all his own.

There was tragedy too, as George Galloway won in Bethnal green. The people of Gethnal Green have chosen a strutting blowhard for hire, a lick-spittle of dictators and friend to servants of tyrants in the mask of a populist.

These moments stand out, as does the election of Peter Law in Gwent, for their drama. Yet the story of the night was drama enough. Each of the three parties has lessons to learn, decision to take and strategies to revise.

First, Labour. It is tempting to accentuate the negative. Seats lost. Ministers defeated. Decline apparent. (See, that no verb approach that labour’s initial slogans took is catching) Against that, this is an astonishing moment. Labour has fought a campaign against the backdrop of a controversial war, with opposition on both flanks angry, strident and passionate, after eight years in government, and returned to office, if not by a landslide, then by a thumping majority. No Labour leader has ever done anything like it, and those writing the political obituaries of Tony Blair should remember that before they pick up their pen (yes, that means you, Polly).

As importantly, while there are decisions to be made about crucial issues – from Pensions, council tax and energy to the precise level of private involvement in the NHS, the course of New Labour is firmly set. The political debates that the party will have will be fierce and will matter, but they will stay within the boundaries of that political settlement. The most credible left wing candidates for succession or preferment would not change much of the last manifesto. The hard left and the intellectuals reserve their vitriol for the Prime Minister, while not presenting much of an electoral alternative to his policies.

The soft left, the great mass of the party, while frustrated by particular polices and resentful about Iraq, also recognises that this Government is a success. However, there’s no doubt that the progressive professionals need some stroking. These people may like the Child Tax credit as an idea, but they don’t benefit from it. It’s ID cards, civil liberties, Iraq and Bush that motivate this crowd. I predict an emphasis on overseas aid, social justice and fairness to secure the progressive flank, coupled with a renewed emphasis on crime and anti-social behaviour to hold the centre ground.

Overall, I suspect the tone of the third term Labour government will be more obviously “progressive” than the second term, even though the meat of the policy will be little different.

The Liberal Democrats have managed an interesting progress. They made spectacular gains amongst three groups, Muslims, Professionals and students. They broadly held their southwest base, and had some very good results in their new gains (North Norfolk, for one). Yet their progress against the Tories was poor, and limited their seat gains.

For some time I’ve been predicting a strategic choice for the Lib-dems which they keep refusing to take (and doing very well by not doing so). Are they a party of the economic and political right, left or centre? Let’s be blunt about this. A party that encompasses the political position of both Brian Sedgemore and David Laws has a few questions to answer about what it actually stands for.* If they embrace the positions espoused by say, Simon Hughes, they have the opportunity to gain seats from Labour in cities. If they reject that advice, they might win seats from the Tories. What this election shows is that they cannot do both at the same time.

Charles Kennedy seems to lean toward favouring the left option, or at least does not intervene to stop them. I regard this as a major strategic error, if only because it keeps the Conservative party alive at a time when it could be destroyed and rebuilt. Against, me, Liberals can point to their very real successes. However, I predict that many of these gains are temporary, a protest against the leadership and style of one man and cannot be relied upon for long-term political gain. Where would Charles go if Labour took a rhetorical step to the left under a new leader? Is the electoral coalition Kennedy has assembled stable?

Finally the Conservatives. Until 1997 only one Conservative party leader had never been Prime Minister. In the last Eight years, there have been three unsuccessful leaders. Tony Blair will face five opposition leaders in nine years. If you want any measure of Tony Blair’s political success that’s not a bad place to start.

The conservatives have a big choice to make. In Labour terms, are they going to choose “New conservatism” or “one more heave”? There are now a lot of Labour ultra-marginals that could fall to a renewed Tory effort. The ideological and European distinctions that haunted their first term in opposition have departed. The new parliament will include some 40 optimistic new conservatives, hungry to make their mark. For the first time they can credibly think about winning power at the next election. All these favour one more heave.

Yet the Conservatives in eight years have barely increased their popular support. They’ve done better in marginals than before, and benefited from Labour abstention and defection, but conservative vote totals have barely risen. There a million or so votes that need to be converted to conservatism that refuse to do so. The question any aspiring leader needs to answer is who are you going to convert to conservatism, and how?

Without a good answer to this question, I lay out what might be called the 1959 scenario. In four years, a new party leader stands for Labour, offering a more social democratic rhetoric and a record of economic success, a painful foreign adventure is no longer an issue and with a stronger opposition credibly hoping for government with a new leader, Labour’s disaffected support begins to return. Of course, this requires a strong economy, success in the public services between then and now and a sense of a fresh new Labour leader.

Still, basking in the glow of a third victory, forgive me for feeling optimistic about the future. Four more years of social democracy and social justice are reasons to be cheerful.

*The same can be said of Labour- A party that encompasses Dennis Skinner and Andrew Adonis has some questions to answer, the point is that with labour the answer is clear, but with the Lib-Dems it isn’t.

Final note- A few commenters quite rightly took offence at my reference to middle class women in the last post. The mistake was mine. I intended to neutrally refer to “Middle class women” as a type sought after by polling experts (think worcester woman). When you read the piece it doesn’t make that clear and seems to contain a rebuke to middle class women as somehow deficient. This wasn’t intended at all, and is entirely unfair. My apologies.

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