Saturday, 8 December 2012

I'd be preparing for champagne in 2015, were it not for 1992

It was a strange old evening, 9 April 1992. 

Friends had gathered in our house, clutching bottles of champagne, one of them a magnum, though to be honest more in hope than expectation. It looked as though after thirteen years of Conservative rule, the first eleven under Margaret Thatcher, we might at last see Labour returned. Perhaps.

The fall of Thatcher, out of the blue nearly eighteen months earlier, had seemed to open the door a chink, giving us a glimpse of the myriad possibilities beyond. Of a gentler, fairer country, in which support for the underprivileged would not necessarily be viewed as a weakness.

The bellwether in the 1992 general election was Basildon. It would be the first of the marginal constituencies to declare a result. If the Conservatives held on to it, John Major’s Tories would be back in Downing Street; if not, Neil Kinnock might well form a Labour government.

It didn’t take long. Basildon made its announcement: David Amess had held it for the Tories, and the government clung on to office for another five years. Our friends trooped disconsolate into the night, the champagne uncorked.

The story even had a curious sequel. A year or so later we opened the magnum, and the wine was flat, the only time I
ve seen that with champagne. Perhaps I should have complained, but I didn’t: that the sparkle had gone from the wine seemed entirely appropriate to that joyless evening back in April 1992.

Now we have another dismal Tory government. It calls itself a coalition, because it includes some Liberal Democrats. The aim was that the Conservatives would get to pursue a ruthless policy of austerity to fix the country’s finances, while the Lib Dems would get constitutional reform – proportional representation and an elected House of Lords.

In the event, the Tories got their austerity and the economy has taken a severe turn for the worse, with debt climbing and an unprecedented triple-dip recession in the offing; meanwhile, both proportional representation and House of Lords reform were defeated.

Charmers all: Danny Alexander (Lib Dem), George Osborne (Con) and
David Cameron (Con) enjoy the moment they cut benefits still further

So this feels terribly like the run up to 1992 again. It’s a lousy government failing on everyone’s criteria, even its own. A little over half way to the next election, the desire for change is in the air. Labour is riding high in the polls and achieving good results in by-elections. It could be back in 2015.

On the other hand, 30 months before the 1992 election, in October 1990, Labour was averaging leads of around 10% in the opinion polls. Today, Labour’s lead is around 10%. Are we just looking at a mid-term lead that could be lost as quickly as it was gained?

As it happens, I remain hopeful. There were two great differences back then. The smaller parties represented far less. Labour and the Conservatives between them accounted for 85-90% of the total; today they’re in the mid-seventies. A 10% lead today is more significant than in 1990.

The other great difference is that in October 1990, Thatcher still had a few weeks to run as Prime Minister. After eleven years, most people had had enough of her. There’d been riots over her so-called poll tax and there was a general feeling that even her erstwhile supporters had just about had too much of a good thing. In November, she was unceremoniously ditched by the men whose careers she’d nurtured in the Conservative Party and government.

Lo and behold, the polls turned round. The Labour lead was slashed. Certain polls even showed the Conservatives in front. In the runup to the election, Labour was sitting on leads of 5% or less. By contrast, as it approached the 1997 election, which it won, Labour had leads of up to 20%.

Dumping Cameron after only two and a half years in office would feel much more like an act of desperation than the kind of renewal Thatcher's removal represented. But – who knows? The Tories are good at pulling rabbits out of hats. A 10% lead is good, but it isn’t impregnable.

To make things safe still needs a lot of work. Above all, Labour needs to realise that its lead is mostly down to the Conservatives. Their abject failure to hit their own targets, has cost them dear. The reaction against the government has taken Labour up into the low forties in the polls. But to be sure of victory, it needs to press on, up towards 50%, with leads in the high teens, as in 1997.

The Tories have done about as much as they can for Labour. 
It can’t just rely on the government continuing to shoot itself in the foot, however good it’s proved at doing that so far. Now Labour has to come up with something positive itself, convincing voters it’s ready for government. 

That has yet to happen, so I haven’t ordered the champagne, far less put it on ice. Even so – those opinion polls, those by-election results – they at least make me feel I can choose the bottles I want to purchase, plan the celebration I hope to hold. Whether I can move from plan to action depends on the two Eds, Miliband and Balls, at the head of the Labour Party today. Let’s hope two Eds are better than one and they can give us a 1997 rather than a 1992.

’s an outcome to which I'd be happy to raise a glass. 


MalcDow said...

It's not the politics that bother me, it's the politicians.

David Beeson said...

Sadly the politicians produce politics and then we all foot the bill.