One of the more eyebrow-raising claims emerging from the flood of revelations seeping out of heavily trailed and serialised memoirs is Cherie Blair’s assertion that Tony Blair is advising Gordon Brown on how to win elections. It is not just that it is near impossible to imagine Blair helping Brown with anything; it is also that I would demur from the self-image of the former prime minister as some kind of electoral wizard. It might sound odd to say this about someone who won three consecutive general elections, but, if you stop conjecturing and actually look at the figures, British elections are not always as they seem.
In 1997, Blair had an open goal. He didn’t tap the ball in the net; he hammered it. Victory was delivered through a coalition of natural Labour supporters, anti-Conservative sentiment and tactical voting. New Labour had been invented but its main voter base consisted of a contradictory mix of those who voted for them because they were New Labour and those who did so in spite of it. As Labour tacked to the right in power, this voter coalition became like a dysfunctional family. The favoured children were given new bikes and computers; Old Labour types were thrown the odd cheap plastic toy and given a regular clip round the ear - and boy did they resent it.
That contradiction began to show in election results. After two years, it was clear something was happening. Labour fell to 28% of the vote in the European elections of 1999 – back to 1983 levels. Then in the 2001 General Election, though their share of the vote only dropped three points and they gained another landslide in seats, turnout crashed to an unprecedented low and Labour lost around 3 million votes. The next victory in 2005 was even stranger. Their 35% share showed the loss of another 1 million votes, their second lowest total since the war, only the catastrophe of 1983 produced fewer. Labour’s share of the vote was their third lowest after the defeats of 1983 and 1987. In any other year it would have produced a drubbing. It is just that the opposition did even worse and the electoral system worked in Labour’s favour.
Labour’s high point was in 1951. They gained the biggest share of the vote any party has achieved since the war, 48.8%, and lost. This time the electoral system perversely delivered a comfortable victory for the Tories on a smaller vote and, crucially, they went on to gain the political benefits of the post-war boom. In 2005 Labour won with 3½ million fewer votes than they polled in 1951, despite the electorate being larger by nearly 11 million people. Astonishing.
The recent local election results were terrible, yet they are not exceptional. They fit coherently within a pattern of declining Labour support. Nor is this the lowest Labour has sunk when in power. The 2004 European elections saw Labour gain only 22% of the votes and they went on to win the General Election the year after. However, there is a crucial change this time. The Tories have revived. New Labour’s fabled electoral success was mainly the product of a spectacular Conservative collapse.
One of the depressing features of much of the current commentary has been the insistent focus on personalities, especially the incredibly bad press that Gordon Brown is generating. Granted that, to say the least, he has not convinced in the role of Prime Minister and it matters, we should, instead, be talking more about ideologies and models of political economy. However inchoately expressed, these are what affect how people experience their real lives. The key to Cameron’s success in reviving Tory fortunes is that he is inferring that they have abandoned a rigid Thatcherism and are in the process of returning to a patrician and paternalistic tradition of ‘one nation’ Conservatism. On the other hand, as Larry Elliott describes clearly, Labour are clinging doggedly to the neo-liberal post-Thatcher settlement.
A disproportionate and arbitrary electoral system hangs over the debate, inhibiting political realignment and giving extravagant rewards to those who gather a minority of the votes cast. The only encouraging aspect of the whole farrago is that Thatcherism is dying. The natural beneficiaries should be Labour. It remains to be seen whether they will claim their inheritance.