John Major’s victory in the general election of 1992 was both convincing and precarious. The Conservatives won the endorsement of over 14m people, the largest popular vote ever, but ended up with a majority of only 21 in the House of Commons. So concentrated was Tory support in safe seats that if just 1,284 voters in 11 marginal constituencies had switched allegiance, the result would have been a hung parliament. A slightly increased swing to Labour and it would have been Neil Kinnock moving into Downing Street.
What if that had been the case? What if Kinnock had won with the kind of wafer-thin majority that Harold Wilson had achieved in 1964 and 1974?
Some of the legislative programme would merely have pre-empted what actually happened later in the decade. A Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly would have been created; Britain would have signed up to European social and employment rights and introduced a minimum wage (set some 12 per cent higher than it turned out to be); and private finance would have been used for reviving public services, particularly for the still-nationalised railways.
All this was spelled out in the Labour manifesto, as was a commitment to “maintain the value of the pound within the European Exchange Rate Mechanism” (ERM). And that, of course, was precisely the issue that did for the Major government on Black Wednesday, when the markets moved against sterling and forced the currency out of the ERM. That was in September 1992; under a Labour government the crisis would simply have come sooner, as speculators sought to exploit an untried administration.
Economically, the result would have been the same: the pound forced out of the ERM, the economy in recovery.
Politically, though, it would have been very different. The inexperience of Kinnock, and of Chancellor John Smith and Foreign Secretary Gerald Kaufman, would have told against Labour, and provided some compensation for satirists deprived of Tory sleaze. But it wouldn’t have needed a great deal of spin to lay the blame for the debacle on Major, the man who took Britain into the ERM as Chancellor. A short period of panic early in the parliament would soon have been forgotten as wages rose, interest rates and unemployment fell, and inflation remained under control. By the time of the next election—probably in 1996—Labour would be able to point to its track record of four years of…