Professor of Politics, University of Strathclyde
A general election defeat for Labour could bring advantages for the Scottish party
2010 looks set to join 1945, 1979, 1997 in the list of watershed election years. But whereas each of the previous watersheds ushered in a new government that made a significant break with the past, 2010 will mark a significant change regardless of who wins.
If Labour wins, then it will be hugely significant for three reasons. First, Labour will have won four elections in a row – an amazing enough feat. Secondly, it will have done so against the most difficult economic conditions, with the country facing a fiscal crisis of monumental proportions. John Major’s victory in 1992 during a recession will pale into insignificance by comparison.
Thirdly, changes in public policy will be required on a scale that few have even begun to appreciate to tackle the fiscal crisis this country is facing. With the highest deficit as a share of national income of any Group of Seven states, the UK is in deep economic trouble.
But the most likely outcome remains that Labour will be out of office in a few months.
Whether the Conservatives under David Cameron will be firmly in office remains uncertain. Cameron may be heading a minority government and we may well be heading for another UK election within a year but the prospect of Labour remaining in power looks unlikely. What then for Scottish Labour? No one in the party can be expected to answer that question or even dare ask it at this conference. Labour can no more confront the reality that it is staring defeat in the eye than Alex Salmond’s SNP could admit that twenty SNP seats at Westminster is not going to happen. But privately, Labour will be asking that question.
A number of scenarios can be painted. The one that will probably be paid most attention is the one that is least convincing. Labour’s defeat will be painted in the primary colours so much loved by many of today’s journalists and commentators. We will have a spate of articles – probably the odd book – explaining that Labour is finished, that the Liberal Democrats are set to out-poll Labour in due course. Any lazy commentator reading this seeking a template for such an article on ‘Labour’s terminal decline’ should simply go back to 1997 and read the kind of stuff written then about the Tories or, if feeling more historic, go back and read what was written about Labour in 1979.
Defeat need not lead to defeatism.
Defeat for Labour in Britain could be an opportunity for Scottish Labour. As soon as this election is over, next year’s Scottish election campaign begins and Labour’s defeat at Westminster may prove helpful. Scottish Labour activists will not relish defending a Brown Government that had embarked on an inevitable round of cuts in 2011. Labour members are completely convinced that the SNP wants a Tory government. Maybe so for a few unthinking Nationalists but the more rational of them can see opportunities aplenty in Labour remaining in office in London, with all the attendant misery that will befall it over the next year. One thing is certain: whoever wins in May will have one of the shortest honeymoons in recent British electoral history. By next May, the UK’s governing party is most likely to have slumped in the polls. From Iain Gray’s perspective, better that it was a UK Government led by David Cameron than Gordon Brown.
Defeat will not be welcomed but neither should it be feared by Labour. It will be an opportunity to put past bad decisions behind it. In its heart, the Labour Party regrets many decisions made since 1997: not just the wars, the failure to tackle the widening gulf between rich and poor and the obsequious attitude towards big business but something more fundamental that lies behind each of these failures. So long as Labour remains in office in London, its post-1997 policy mistakes will haunt it. Gordon Brown has simply been unable to put distance between himself and the Government in which he was effectively deputy before he became Prime Minister.
Harold Wilson, whose rehabilitation once seemed so improbable, is fondly remembered in some Labour circles these days for his 1961 conference speech in which he said that Labour was a ‘moral crusade or it is nothing’.
Maybe Tony Blair just misunderstood what Wilson meant by a crusade.
But burying bad history will not be enough if it only involves the kind of spin that led to burying bad news. The party needs to reflect on what it stands for. The old certainties have been cast aside and, whatever else Blair may have bequeathed to his party, there will be little appetite to return to the old shibboleths.
Clause 4 wasn’t killed off by Blair – he simply buried it. The party has struggled to find a replacement. The ‘third way’, stakeholders and the rest were as transient as any other slogan from the advertising industry. In its heart, Labour remains an egalitarian party.
It was always disingenuous for Labour supporters to whisper that Brown was really redistributing wealth, with his stealth taxes, as if the super-rich might not have noticed if he had really been squeezing until the pips squeak, something that Denis Healey really did. A party that runs scared of its real beliefs is in trouble.
The challenge for all serious political parties is to combine a winning electoral strategy with the freedom to pursue what it believes in. New Labour provided one half of the equation – electability – for a long period of time but neglected the other half creating an imbalance. Indeed, even New Labour’s electability owed as much to the unelectability of the Tory opposition before David Cameron became leader. Parties need to work out what it is they believe in and how they are to achieve these goals and Labour may need a period in opposition to work that out. There will not be a lot of time between the UK General Election and next year’s Scottish election – maybe not enough time – but it will be an opportunity to rebalance the party.