Monday, June 08, 2009

The fall of Labour: A Strange New Ocean

As expected the results of the local elections which came out on Friday and the European elections which were published last night have proven to be at least as bad as the worst projections for the Labour Party. After coming third behind the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in the local elections, their position was even worse in the European elections. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats having made progress in the local elections could only hold their own in the European elections. Yet for the Conservatives the picture is not one of unalloyed joy either. Apart from the result in Wales which is an undoubted triumph for the Tories, the progress that they have demonstrated, even despite the fall of Labour, may still prove to be insufficient to gain a stable majority at the next general election. Meanwhile the spectacle of two neo-Nazis being elected certainly made me feel quite nauseous, and I suspect that the Conservatives will feel the same.

So what do the two results prove?

Well, on those numbers the Liberal Democrats would hold their own and probably even make some gains at the next general election. It also, sadly, shows that the SNP will do well in Scotland- with a real risk that Scotland leaves the UK. The Conservatives will, at the very least, make solid progress across the country.

Yet the most remarkable feature is still that fall of Labour. Although it is unlikely that the European result of 16% would be duplicated at a general election, with a much higher turnout, the fact is that Labour, in terms of the vote percentage, is on course for a result at least as bad as their 1983 disaster. Their only positive is the fact that the electoral system is currently skewed in their favour, so they are unlikely to fall much below 250 seats- although if tactical voting against them were strong enough, that could still happen.

With Liberal Democrats still around the 60-70 level, and the SNP at -say- 12 seats, and even the prospect of one or two Green MPs, the task for the Conservatives of forming a majority government looks extremely difficult.

Of course even on their own side, there is a general recognition that Labour has run out of road and they should now leave office as quickly as possible (Labour politicians would call this "a period of reflection and recovery"). However Gordon Brown continues to hang on like grim death- and for Labour there are good tactical reasons why he should. In the Labour world, the current situation is probably the nadir of their fortunes, and they can hope- however mistakenly- for a recovery in the economy to help them. Even if one accepts that Labour will inevitably lose in May 2010, they can at least then go for a complete new broom, whereas a leader chosen now could only ever hope to be a caretaker.

However such hopes could prove to be a disastrous miscalculation, on a par with Mr. Brown's decision to avoid an election in the first autumn of his Premiership. The recovery will be slow in coming, when it comes at all. Between then and now unemployment will spike dramatically, to the serious detriment of government finances- cuts are need now, and the longer they are delayed, the more savage they will have to be. The large number of foreigners who have staffed the City, and fixed our plumbing are already leaving the UK, and our competitiveness is falling as a result. The election of the BNP is not exactly a welcome mat to these many talented, skilled and necessary people. In the economy, things are not likely to improve in a way that will benefit Labour over the next eleven months. Indeed if the high-risk gamble of quantitative easing fails, then the UK would be faced with both rising unemployment and rising inflation at the same time, and any incoming government will have a real crisis on their hands.

Britain needs a new direction, yet there remains scepticism that the Conservatives can truly deliver. Mr. Cameron has not yet made the breakthrough that he needs to, and although doubtless, the Tories will redouble their efforts, the scale of the problem is that they may fall short, no matter what, simply because the system is so skewed against them.

The Liberal Democrats' results are more solid than they appear. Although the loss of Somerset and Devon county councils was clearly bad news, it was off-set by much more solid results in their target Parliamentary constituencies. On these numbers, the Conservatives will not gain Cheltenham and probably not Taunton either. Meanwhile the polls have been stronger for the party of late- a clear positive trend. So it now seems quite likely that the Lib Dems can even top their result of 2005. As the likelihood of a hung Parliament becomes a more settled thing, there will be greater attention given to the Party over the next few months- a situation that historically boosts their support.

The Conservatives will need to start providing answers to the charges that they are lightweights- and I expect that much closer to the election we ought to see some policy meat that finally tells us what the Tories actually want to do in office. If not, then the charges of political cowardice will be accurate.

As for Labour, they face an existential crisis. Politically exhausted, they can only offer incompetent managerialism and the devious tactics of Mandelson- whose fingerprints are all over the so far successful attempt to head off revolt in the party- and indeed Brown himself. They deserve total annihilation, yet the electoral biases are such that even if they are decisively behind the Conservatives in the percentage of the votes, they can still thwart a Conservative majority.

Yet in the end, the fact is that Labour has been destroyed in large parts of the country, and is even even losing its grip on its heartlands in Scotland and Wales. Once removed from office, the wizardry of Blair's "New Labour" project will finally destroy the Socialist party that it used as its platform. Expediency and opportunism were poor stars to steer by, and the Labour party will hit the rocks once the rudder of government power has slipped from their grasp.

"The strange death of Labour England" may be the doctoral thesis of 2016. The question for the Liberal Democrats will be how to prosper in the more pluralist, more multi-party system that emerges from the eclipse of the party of massed labour.

Still, at least the Liberal Democrats understand such politics. In the end the failure of David Cameron to grasp the thorn of electoral reform may show that the Conservatives too may also struggle in this strange new political ocean.

5 comments:

Newmania said...

The Conservative vote was held down by UKIP “Play votes” not likely to be repeated at a GE. I noticed that the Euro add on vote operated as a sort of proxy second choice. The sort of politics that results is, in my view, a great deal worse than what we have.

Looking to the future, if as is not impossible the Labour Party loses the ability to win elections on its own , I think it is quite impossible for the Liberal Party to move into its working class constituency whose views on most subjects you despise . I can see a further fracture of left wing opinion between the right of the Labour Party and its Union backed left. Quite how the Liberals are going to fit in I am unsure but somewhere in this lefty melange certainly .

Blackacre said...

Newmania, I agree with your second point which I think our host was also inferring in the original post. The Labour Party has always been a melange of groups from Trotskyites to near-liberals and as such is inherently unstable. Blair brought it together in order to win after 18 years, but that coalition broke down mostly over his unwillingness to pander to leftish policy priorites in favour of triangulating the right.

The SDP was the last attempt at a breakaway, but that failed as it was too close to the Liberals. There is now a market for a formal party to the left of New Labour to pick up the BNP white working class votes that are in danger of going to the BNP otherwise. I would hope that there is a break in Labour to address this constituency before the BNP gets much stronger.

On your UKIP point, I am a little less convinced. What is there to say that UKIP voters will all "go home" to the Conservatives? If anti-EU feeling is as strog as you and some other right of centre commentators think, why would these people who now have a strong representation in the main EU democratic institution return to the Conservatives? The Tories are unconvincing over Europe with a large number (possibly a majority) who want to leave but a leadership elite who recognise that is not a viable policy position. They look to be confused, so why merely lend your vote to a party with a more convincing policy when you can transfer it long term?

Of course, this argument fails if Europe is not really such a driving issue for the right wing voters.

Finally, no idea where the Liberals fit in save as an independent voice with a cogent policy platform and fewer tensions that the other parties. Could be good for them!

Richard T said...

I'd like to add a Scottish dimension to the comments.

I noticed David Cameron had not swanked about his party's performance here. The SNP vote is a reflection of the relative lack of success the 3 other parties have had in laying a glove on Alex Salmond and the SNP so far. Accordingly, I'd read the results here as being in line with our domestic politics. You'll note the absence of support for UKIP (or the BNP for that matter).

Looking further at the votes, I think there is a possibility of trouble brewing if the Conservatives win well in the UK elections and take what is going to be a cooler line on the EU. The Scottish vote indicates a significant majority for the parties sympathetic to the EU. In the event of a deterioration in relations between the UK and the EU, this will give the SNP a very good anti unionist platform against the London government which the Lib Dems and labour might find it hard to counter. This is not only on Europe per se but in most of the Conservative rhetoric on Europe, if you change replace London or the UK government with Edinburgh and the Scottish government and Brussels and the EU with the UK government, you get a ready made case for the SNP.

Add this to the lack, as I write, of any great swell of support for the Conservatives, there is a potential risk of the union coming undone over Europe.

Cicero said...

Newmania- it is pretty important to remember that, whatever you may think, the Lib Dems are not "Labour Lite". I think what could happen is that several parties emerge from the wreckage of Labour, and that the Lib Dems and the Greens also benefit. Under some circumstances, the Conservatives may be well down into the 30% levels, but still able to form a government. If this was as seems likly, a pretty right wing government I think we could see some serious problems if that government tried to govern as though they had the support of the majority, i.e. 50%+ rather than just the largest minority.
Politics could well be pretty fractious.
Richard T- I agree and I think that the anti European clique amongst the leading Conservatives could isolate and even break up the UK. At that point I would have to consider which passport I would wish to have...

Newmania said...

I have no idea why you would think a Conservative Government would be right wing especially .One of the first things that matters to any Conservative is stability.The task would be to navigate to a stable equilibrium in whatever circumstances presented themselves.


I hardly think lurching off right is the answer