If it suffers a catastrophic defeat, a new progressive project could rise from the ashesby Peter Kellner / April 18, 2017 / Leave a comment
Labour’s victory in the general election campaign should not have come as such a surprise. Indeed, the turn-round was possible precisely because the party had been doing so badly and its leader was hated by so many of its MPs. The defeat in a crucial by-election confirmed the message of the opinion polls. Just five weeks before election day, the leader was forced to stand down. Under new management, the party’s support rose sharply. Labour not only won the election. It stayed in power for 13 years—eight of them under the party’s brand new leader.
No, that is not a prediction designed to induce excessive optimism or despair. My crystal ball is not that clear. Rather, it is an accurate piece of political history. The ousted Labour leader, however, was not Jeremy Corbyn but Bill Hayden; his replacement not Chuka Umunna but Bob Hawke; the date not 2017 but 1983; the by-election not Copeland but Flinders; the country not Britain but Australia.
Were I advising Labour MPs, I would urge them to copy that Australian precedent, for it is the only way I can see of Labour avoiding a catastrophe on 8th June. If the two recent opinion polls showing a 21-point Conservative lead were translated into votes, Theresa May’s party would gain 60 seats from Labour.
Perhaps the gap will narrow to some degree; perhaps the Tories will lose some of the seats they gained from the Liberal Democrats two years ago. There would still then be a significantly larger Conservative majority; and Labour is in danger of dipping below 200 seats for the first time since 1935. If I were a Labour MP, especially if I were defending a majority of less than 10,000, that is fate I would try to avoid, by acting before the election rather than waiting until afterwards.
Enough fantasising. The chances are that we are in for an extended period of Conservative rule. This has huge consequences, most obviously for Brexit and the UK’s future relations with Europe, with the futures of Labour’s leadership, public services, and the constitutional outlook for Scotland and Northern Ireland not far behind.
However, I wonder whether, in decades to come, this year’s election will prove to be a different kind of turning point for progressive politics at Westminster.
Throughout the twentieth century, Labour combined in a single party two sets of impulses. One was—for want of a better word—protectional: not so much in terms of trade, but serving the day-to-day demands of Labour’s core supporters for better and more secure living standards—decent jobs, homes, schools, hospitals, pensions and welfare benefits. The other set of impulses was liberal: anti-colonial and anti-fascist in the ‘30s, and subsequently concerned with such issues as the death penalty, abortion, civil liberties, racism, sexism and, more recently, gay marriage and climate change.
Majority Labour governments in the 1940s, 1960s and after 1997 made huge progress on both the protectional and liberal agendas. They were seen as complementary, not rival, ways to make Britain a better, fairer country.
Have those days come to an end? Last year’s referendum might have been designed to drive the two impulses apart, for traditional Labour voters animated mostly by protectional concerns, especially in the north and Midlands, voted in their millions for Brexit; while liberal-minded progressives, especially in London and other metropolitan and university towns and cities, voted Remain. Immigration, of course, was the touchstone issue, with protectional voters regarding the EU and mass immigration as a threat to their jobs, culture and communities, while liberals welcomed the economic dynamism and greater social and cultural diversity that people settling in Britain have always contributed.
So, the really big long-term question facing the Left is whether the present configuration of parties is able either to reconnect these impulses into a single, viable party, as Labour used to be, or whether we need some kind of realignment that recognises the differences between protectional and liberal politics and allows them to coalesce around different parties—competing for votes but, maybe, combining in coalition to provide a broadly-based progressive government.
Yes, I know we have an enduring liberal party—the Lib Dems—and also the Greens. But until now they have never been able to emerge from Labour’s shadow in terms of seats in the House of Commons. And those of us who remember the 1980s and the SDP (or have seen the excellent play, Limehouse, at the Donmar Warehouse) know how difficult realignment can be in a first-past-the-post system. But, just maybe, this year’s election, like last year’s referendum, will show that the times, they are a-changing.
If I were Theresa May, I would be hoping that Labour does not do too badly in June—better a feeble opposition with just about enough strength to carry on, than one that emerges on 8th June so weak that the result forces a new, progressive project to emerge that is able to challenge the Tories effectively in 2022.