One of the worst things about running this website is that eventually it causes you to doubt the existence of reason. Things happen that – even putting all partisanship to one side, in so far as is humanly possible – it’s impossible to believe any remotely rational being or organisation would ever think, say or do.
A recent obvious case in point was the election of Jim Murphy as Scottish Labour leader. SNP supporters rubbed their eyes in disbelief as Labour and the media rushed, with apparent sincerity, to proclaim one of Labour’s most right-wing and divisive MPs the party’s saviour.
So unable was the nationalist side to contain its glee and amusement at what was a plainly suicidal move to anyone sane, the Unionist establishment persuaded itself a bluff was afoot and that the laughter masked fear. We all know how that turned out.
But what we want to talk about in this article is how, no matter how often that same tragi-comic farce is played out – in 2007, 2011 and now 2015 – the astonishing fact is that it never seems to make any difference. In defiance of the most famous quote attributed (apocryphally or otherwise) to Albert Einstein, Labour and its cheerleaders keep right on repeating the same actions over and over, expecting different results.
For those of us who cling to reason as the hope of mankind, increasingly despite all the evidence, it can cause outbreaks of incredulous despair. “They just CAN’T be this stupid!”, we exclaim, only for Labour to prove us wrong by offering their long-suffering Scottish members a prospective dream team of Kezia Dugdale and Gordon Matheson.
But we may have had a modest epiphany.
Mindbogglingly, the UK Labour leadership contest has been characterised by a quite extraordinary public assault from within the party on left candidate Jeremy Corbyn. Seemingly untroubled by Tories and the right-wing press joining in the attacks with great mocking enthusiasm, the other three candidates and their supporters have rubbished Corbyn relentlessly, culminating in a pressure group urging Labour members to vote tactically to ensure he doesn’t win.
Nor is anyone seemingly too perturbed by the fact that Corbyn appears to have very significant grassroots support, currently running a strong second place in nominations from constituency parties and being enthusiastically received at hustings events while the others are booed. (Almost as if the public don’t care what pundits think.)
Instead, demented lunatics among the commentariat are urging Labour to pick the arch-Blairite Liz Kendall, in the seeming belief that faced with a choice between actual bona-fide Tories hardened by ten years of experience in government and ersatz ones making up what amounts to an end-of-the-pier tribute act in a decaying seaside town (“All the way from Clackerthorpe, ladies and gentlemen, it’s the Simply Red Tories!”), voters will plump for the version that looks like a roomful of half-melted waxworks.
Now, it’s one thing to just dismiss that view as the screaming Stockholm-Syndrome madness that it so obviously is, but it’s quite another to try to explain it. Fortunately, though, its proponents almost always give us a hint.
You’ll rarely get far into a defence of Liz Kendall without someone pulling out the Tony Blair trump card. “He’s Labour’s most successful leader ever!”, they’ll trumpet, as if they’d just ended the argument with all the conclusive, unstoppable certainty of Roger Federer steamrollering a helpless Andy Murray at Wimbledon yesterday.
And statistically, of course, in one sense it’s absolutely true. Blair won three elections in a row, something no Labour leader had ever achieved before, and he did it with thumping majorities. But to treat that as proof that triangulating until millions of voters can no longer tell the Tories and Labour apart is the only way to win is to to blunder head-first into a Sideshow Bob-esque series of lethal fallacies.
We’ve already pointed out the practical failings of the argument, whereby Labour ignores 12 million voters largely sympathetic to traditional Labour values in order to try to out-bribe a million or so Tory supporters in marginal seats into temporarily switching sides. But today we’re going to try to explore why the fundamental premise of the strategy is disastrously flawed too.
The first thing that needs pointing out is that the Chuckle Brothers could have beaten the Conservatives in 1997. After 18 years in power the party was exhausted, despised and torn apart by in-fighting over Europe (plus ca change). Only a surprise last-minute miracle had saved them in 1992, and it wasn’t going to happen twice.
Nevertheless, while he’s sneeringly derided by Blairite loyalists now as an unelectable joke figure, the defeated Labour leader Neil Kinnock still secured over two million more votes in that election than Blair did in his final victory in 2005, and 800,000 more than Blair got in the 416-seat 2001 landslide.
(Even Kinnock’s first loss in 1987 saw nearly half a million more people vote Labour than Blair’s 2005 win, and more than in Harold Wilson’s victory in October 1974.)
In fact, Kinnock’s 1992 vote remains the second-highest Labour has recorded in any general election of the last 41 years. Blair only beat it once, after Kinnock had done all the spadework in winning back more than three million votes after the 1983 Michael Foot fiasco, and by 2005 Blair was half a million below Kinnock’s 1987 figure again.
LABOUR VOTE IN UK GENERAL ELECTIONS
1974 (Harold Wilson): 11,457,079
1979 (Jim Callaghan): 11,532,218
1983 (Michael Foot): 8,456,934*
1987 (Neil Kinnock): 10,029,270
1992 (Neil Kinnock): 11,560,484
1997 (Tony Blair): 13,518,167
2001 (Tony Blair): 10,724,953
2005 (Tony Blair): 9,552,436
2010 (Gordon Brown): 8,606,517
2015 (Ed Miliband): 9,347,304
*1983 was the only UK general election contested by the SDP, a breakaway party from Labour which felt it had become too left-wing. By 1987 it was part of the alliance that would shortly become the Liberal Democrats. The combined Liberal/SDP vote in 1983 was 7.8 million, but the Labour/SDP vote combined still wouldn’t have been enough to defeat the Conservatives.
(Fun trivia fact: in election terms Neil Kinnock left Labour 3.1m votes better off than he found it. Blair left the party 2.01m votes WORSE off than the position he inherited from Kinnock. And in reality even those figures flatter Blair because of the respective directions of travel.)
All that Blair really had to do to win in 1997 was to turn up and not disembowel a baby live on national TV. 2001 and 2005 were barely any different, with the Tories being led by first William Hague and then – yes, this really happened – by Michael Howard.
But even then, the manifesto New Labour won the 1997 landslide with wasn’t anything like as right-wing as the policies his governments ended up implementing. There was no mention of introducing tuition fees, no promise to invade Iraq, no hint of the bonfire of civil liberties that was to come.
The 1997 manifesto promised (and partly delivered) a 10p rate of income tax for the low-paid, lower class sizes, a windfall tax on privatised utilities, a national minimum wage, a programme of social house-building, investment in renewable energy not nuclear power, a not-for-profit “people’s lottery”, the abolition of hereditary peers, a Freedom Of Information Act, an end to the internal market in the NHS, electoral reform to bring in proportional representation, a referendum on the Euro, and widespread devolution.
There were genuine shifts to the right too, of course – retention of Tory spending plans and anti-union legislation, a commitment to keep Trident and so on – and things which would become clear as such only later on (like welfare “reform”) but the first New Labour manifesto was still a much more left-wing document than people care to recall.
By contrast, Ed Miliband’s supposedly near-Marxist offering was too timid and terrified of the corporate lobby even to dare to propose the sort of policies which have now been actually implemented by the Tories.
Blair’s victories, then, weren’t some miraculous achievement against the odds, and nor were they done on a conspicuously right-wing policy programme. New Labour also enjoyed the huge advantage of competing against a Conservative party that was still a broken shambles for almost all of Blair’s reign. When David Cameron took over the leadership in December 2005, armed as he was with only the most modest sprinkling of competence and charisma, the writing was on the wall.
It’s perhaps worth noting, though, that the New Labour honeymoon was much shorter than that. Blair managed to lose almost 3m votes even by 2001, two years BEFORE the Iraq misadventure. It seems reasonable to speculate that at least a good many of them were left-wing voters disillusioned that the Labour government they thought they’d voted for was a little less left than advertised – they certainly didn’t go to the Tories or Lib Dems, whose votes in 2001 were both even lower than 1997.
(The NME, still a politically-focused and influential paper at the time, had by March 1998 already run a famous “EVER GET THE FEELING YOU’VE BEEN CHEATED?” front cover in protest at welfare and education policies, and the “Cool Britannia” coterie of Britpop bands who’d supported Blair were queueing up to castigate him.)
Tony Blair inherited a party in 1994 whose vote had been steadily on the up for a decade under Kinnock and John Smith. Within a single term he’d squandered that legacy and reversed the trajectory, driving millions of voters away, seemingly never to return. (Michael Foot’s 1983 slump was at least only a one-term blip. Labour now haven’t broken through the key 10-million-vote barrier, win or lose, for 14 years.)
But there’s one more thing. A line in the 1997 Labour manifesto reads:
Those attacking Jeremy Corbyn seem not to have noticed that in the same way, 2015 wasn’t (and 2020 won’t be) 1997 either. For almost all of its time in office New Labour governed in the sunshine of an economic boom, and the electorate is far more inclined to indulge in redistributive politics when there’s lots of money swimming around.
When times get tight, though, voters have an inbuilt (sometimes irrational) distrust of high-spending parties, and no matter how much it protests otherwise, Labour will never win in a contest with the Tories about who’s going to impose the most brutal cuts.
The public recognises that austerity is a natural Tory instinct – not just a capability but an ideologically-driven preference that only reluctantly releases the purse strings even at the best of times.
Labour can scream “we’re fiscally responsible now!” at the top of its lungs, but the double-edged sword of the Labour brand is that no matter how badly it sells out its principles it’s still seen as Labour, with all of the historical baggage, both good and bad, that that label entails.
For the avoidance of doubt, it’s this site’s view that none of the candidates for the Labour leadership has the remotest chance of winning the 2020 election, and that’s an opinion widely shared by the public in both Scotland and the rest of the UK. Our latest Panelbase poll produced sobering results on that score:
(The left column is voters in Scotland, the right column those in the rUK. The discrepancy in the latter between numbers and percentages is related to sample weighting – the percentage figures are correct.)
So hardly anyone believes any of the current contenders can save Labour in the short term. But the conviction that Tony Blair leads the way to a recovery is a faith-based position that crumbles under the light of scrutiny. There’s no going back to 1997.
The fact that the Tory media is hysterically demonising Jeremy Corbyn, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re scared of him. We learned that lesson from the Jim Murphy months. But even the most basic study of history suggests that Labour tend to have the best chance of being elected if they stand for something different to the Tories, not a slavish imitation of them with a dab of red paint around the edges.
Neil Kinnock’s losing vote in 1992 would have defeated the Tories this year (11.6m to 11.3m). It’s triangulation, not socialism, that’s left the party in the mess it’s in today.
In choosing Kinnock – who was never going to be elected PM – to replace Michael Foot and giving him more than one election to do the job, 1983 Labour recognised that it needed serious rebuilding and that it wouldn’t happen overnight. But if it chooses Burnham, Cooper or Kendall this time it’ll be voting instead for “more of the same”.
If the party grabs madly at Tony Blair – a man who lost four million Labour votes from 1997 to 2005, even before the global financial crash – as a totem of better times, a man whose creed will deliver Labour to Downing Street again if only it can rid itself of all those pesky founding values, all it will achieve will be its own final destruction.