Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Labour Losing Power?

Today we see a tired government being dragged to the knacker’s yard by a leader hoist on his ego and lost in the frantic search for his legacy.

My political ear is improving. I decided to write today about the difficulties faced by Labour and the negative effects produced by Blair’s hanging onto power. Then I opened today’s Guardian to find an article by Jenni Russell on a very similar theme (http://tinyurl.com/3ctfr2). She picks up on the disillusionment of Labour voters, develops the theme and has as her last paragraph:

There is, for the first time in many years, a genuine competition in political ideas going on in the public realm. Whether it is won by Labour or the Tories will largely depend on which of the two leaders can most successfully free themselves from the baggage of their party's past. Attractive as Cameron's personality may seem, many potential voters retain a deep suspicion of the Tories' Thatcherite past. Brown, meanwhile, may have the harder task. Will he have the courage and the conviction to do any more than defend and fiddle with the record of the past 10 years?

My starting point is different: the Blairites’ claim, “How can you think about forcing Blair out of office – the man who has won an unprecedented three general elections for Labour.

The claim is a normal Blairite over-statement. Blair did not win three general elections for Labour rather he led the party which won three general election victories. As we will look at each victory in turn we learn more but firstly consider the Conservative victories between 1979 and 1992.

After 13 years of Thatcherism much of the country was angry and fed up with the Conservative government but, highly unpopular as it was, Kinnock’s Labour party couldn’t win. Thereafter, came the weak Major government with more accusations of sleaze and increasing dislike and dismay of its policies. Interestingly, despite the dislike of the government, in their four general election victories the Tories share of the vote hardly varied – between 41.9% in 1992 to 43.9% in 1979. In all probability, this is down to the electorate not perceiving the Labour party as a possible government.

However, after 17 years with in-fighting over Europe, a lack of freshness and direction about, and a lack of trust in the government the public was ready to throw the Tories out. Such was the dislike of the Tories that, probably, the Labour party would have won regardless of who was leading it.

But not just anyone was leading Labour: they had a star in Tony Blair. He was everything the Tories were not: young with a young family, honest, personable, charming and a brilliant performer in the Commons. He had moved the Labour party inwards to the middle ground with the Conservatives moving rightwards and out of contention for victory.

In the 1997 election, Labour won with a massive majority of 178 seats but with a vote share (43.2%) similar to that achieved by the Tories in their 4 victories. This was Labour’s high point under Blair’s leadership.

During their first term, such was the goodwill towards the Labour government that little could go wrong regardless of what they did. Meanwhile, the Conservatives continued to drift rudderless on the right and they became as unelectable as had Labour in the 1980s.

In the 2001 election such was the Conservatives positioning and the continuing distrust in them that Labour was returned again with another huge majority although their share of the vote dropped (40.7%) below that of the four Tory wins.

This time the Labour honeymoon ended. Labour spin, the Iraq war, Blair’s lies and his apparent disdain for his own party started to turn off voters. Blair, himself, was in trouble: he had been PM for two terms and many wanted to see the back of him but another election win was his target. So poorly was he considered and was the campaign going that Brown was wheeled out - almost as a minder – to hold Blair’s hand. But again, an unreconstructed Conservative party was in no fit state to fight an election. In 2002, there came another Labour victory but with a major drop in voter share (35.2%).

Now in power for another term, Blair was looking more and more like Thatcher: a leader who alone could lead; a leader who alone knew which policies to pursue and a leader who was always right. Blair was even more: a leader whose ideas of truth and honesty matched neither his claimed religious faith nor any ideal of justice. Blair’s ideas of justice did, however, match those of the worst kind of charlatan: say whatever it takes to get a sale.

Even worse, eight years in, Labour was in trouble. The longer any party is in power the more chance there is of turning off voters across a multitude of policies and actions. Less leeway is given for failure. This is the disillusionment which Jenni Russell discussed in her Guardian article. Thus all multi-election-winning parties eventually implode in voter dis-isms – dis-illusionment, dis-like and dis-trust.

But there’s yet more bad news for Labour. Under David Cameron’s leadership the Tories have moved back into the middle ground beside Labour and now they have the freshness and direction which Labour had in 1997.

Labour is struggling - needing more than a makeover but a rebuilding in much the same way that successful football teams must eventually be rebuilt. The trick in football is to rebuild before the team is too old. Many managers wait too long to rebuild and they, almost regardless of their earlier success, are sacked. Labour has waited too long. Blair’s insistence on power has given the Conservatives time to change and time for Cameron to grow into a potential PM but has denied a new Labour leader the time to reshape the party. Brown, Milliband or whoever has a much harder job today that they would have had in 2005.

Today we see a tired government being dragged to the knacker’s yard by a leader hoist on his ego and lost in the frantic search for his legacy.

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