My column for ConHome: The past elections the main parties love and fear

by Stephen Tall on January 16, 2014

con home cartoonHere’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here on Tuesday. My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke – constructively, I hope.

Which past general election will the next one most closely resemble? There are, lest we forget, just 16 months to go – that’s 477 days, if you want to make your own political advent calendar to count down to Election Eve, 6 May 2015.

I’m going to put in a massive caveat from the top – I’m not a believe in historical parallels. I’ve lost count of the number of articles I’ve read which say “the next election is shaping up just like the one in X”, where X can be shoe-horned to fit the pundit’s preferred thesis.

But there is something in Mark Twain’s view that “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” People are, after all shaped, by their experiences.

The current generation of Conservative MPs grew up wowed by Margaret Thatcher’s formidable élan, despairing of John Major’s weak fudging. They fear history is repeating itself as Cameron dallies with Clegg, and so fight ever harder to save their party from the collateral damage they witnessed last time they were led by a pragmatic compromiser. New Labour’s paranoiac self-discipline was born out of the pasting the party took from the right-wing press in the 1980s, with Blair, Brown and Mandelson ruthlessly eliminating all vulnerabilities, both real and imagined, whether people or policy.

So here’s my take on the elections the parties dream of re-living – and which ones they fear they may be veering towards repeating…

Labour

Hope for 1945 or 1997…
Today’s Labour Party is caught between two Utopias. For many, the night of 1st May, 1997, remains the happiest memory of their political lives: the Tories (and, of course, Portillo) expunged, Labour triumphant. For others, it is the folklore of the 1945 election: Attlee! NHS! Beveridge! (“Wasn’t he a Liberal?” “Shhh”) But in both cases, there is some poignancy. The scorching hope of Blair’s landslide faded into the damp disappointment of reality: even as two election victories followed, so too did the war on Iraq and broken promises on tuition fees. In contrast, Attlee’s was a one-off victory – though its welfare settlement endured – which was the prelude to 13 years of Conservative rule.

… But fear another 1992
It had seemed the election Labour couldn’t lose. They had led in the polls for much of the parliament thanks to the unpopular Poll Tax driven through by an unpopular Prime Minister. Even when both were despatched, the Tories still had an overheated economy – high inflation, high interest rates, record home repossessions – to reckon with. Yet Labour lost: by a significant margin in votes cast (42% to 31%), by a narrower margin in seats won (336 seats to 271). Why? Because they’d failed to convince the British public they’d be any better at running the economy. And because they’d failed to convince the British public Neil Kinnock was up to the job of Prime Minister. Ed Miliband has yet to cry out “We’re alright!” three times at a premature victory rally, but you can bet some of his advisers have just that nightmare.

Conservative

Hope for 1979 or 1983…
Which of Margaret Thatcher’s three election victories do Conservatives today cherish most? Perhaps 1979: after all, it’s when Butskellism was overthrown by Thatcherism. Yet Maggie’s first four years were constrained – partly by herself (the 1979 manifesto promised only limited reforms) and partly by her party (still dominated by Heathite ‘wets’). By 1983, the Maggie known and loved by Conservatives today – tested by intellectual wars at home and literal wars abroad; full-throated in her defence of Britain’s national interest; crusading in her liberalising trade union reforms – was fully formed. How the Conservatives yearn for Another Maggie now to woo back those voters in Bolton West who want a patriotic leader delivering better living standards for all.

… But fear another 2005
There was a time when Michael Howard had Tony Blair on the run. From his election as Conservative leader in November 2003 promising to “lead this party from its centre”, to their first clash at PMQs (which Howard won), to his much-vaunted and now completely forgotten “I believe” pledge exactly a decade ago, it was Michael Howard who set the pace. But then Labour performed the perfect U-turn, matching the Conservatives’ pledge of a referendum on the EU constitution in April 2004, the keystone of the Conservatives’ European election campaign that year. Outflanked by the better-off-outers of Ukip, then led by Roger Knapman (I’d mis-remembered and thought Robert Kilroy-Silk, or Joan Collins, had led Ukip then; but, no, RKS was just an ordinary candidate alongside a chap named Farage), the Conservatives lost votes, seats, and – more important still – vital momentum. Michael Howard soon went the way of all post-Thatcher Conservative leaders: his initially moderate pitch was ditched as he rallied right-wing core support behind the something-of-the-night slogan, ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking’, and he went on to lose the 2005 election.

Liberal Democrats

Hope for 1997
It was the party’s breakthrough election, up from 20 MPs to 46 MPs overnight, despite a fall in our share of the vote (down from 18% to 17%). Such seats were won thanks to a combination of years of painstaking, street-pounding, door-knocking, hard-slogging local groundwork, and a big chunk of anti-Tory tactical voting. In each parliament since, pundits have predicted this success would be reversed, only to be confounded by the Lib Dems’ tenacity in holding on to seats once we’ve put down roots. It is this incumbency factor (what party president Tim Farron has called our “cockroach-ish” tendency) which offers the party its best hope of surviving as a viable fighting force after 2015, even though our share of the vote seems set to fall from its Cleggmania-infused 23%.

… But fear another 1979
There are few things worse for a political party’s fortunes than being the junior partner in government at a time of national economic distress. The Lib-Lab pact offered a welcome dose of economic stability to the country – but, alongside the infamous allegations facing ex-leader Jeremy Thorpe, it was nothing but bad news for my party. We shed one-quarter of our national vote, held just 11 seats, and were shut out of power for the next three decades – all in return for “a joint consultative committee” and the (thwarted) prospect of some constitutional reform.

The imprint of elections remains in the way both politicians and public alike react to today’s events, seeking to re-create past glories and avoid past ignominies. The truth is, none of these hopes and fears will be realised, at least not in the same way they were first time around. A more accurate guide to 2015 is, as election expert Lewis Baston suggests, probably Heath’s Law (Anthony not Edward): “The next election will resemble the last election more closely than most people believe.”