Could this be the worst-ever UK election?
With both New Labour and the Conservatives pale shadows of their former selves, the danger is that politics will be the biggest loser. Unless…
Almost before Gordon Brown had stopped speaking yesterday, I received a PR email from a leading bookmaker announcing that ‘Brown’s speech makes little impact on election odds’. This was not exactly a turn-up for the book.
No doubt it would be possible, and perhaps even important, to do the usual blow-by-blow analysis of prime minister Gordon Brown’s big speech to the Labour Party conference. But the overwhelming feeling is that it does not much matter what he pledged or argued in his lacklustre presentation, because few outside the conference hall are still listening to a word he says. New Labour has become so detached from any constituency in society that it seems to have spent most of the conference trying to convince itself, from cabinet ministers downwards, that it has not – in the words of chancellor Alistair Darling – ‘lost the will to live’ quite yet.
During his own bravura pantomime-dame-on-drugs-style performance at the conference, business secretary Peter Mandelson talked about the depth of his guts rather than the depths to which New Labour has sunk in the opinion polls: ‘Let me tell you a secret. Deep down in my guts I always knew who was going to win. Even, sadly, in 1992. This time it is not cut and dried. This election is up for grabs.’
Well, yes and no, Mr Mandelson. spiked and its publishing antecedents also have a 100 per cent record in calling General Elections over the past 20 years. Back when I was the editor of Living Marxism magazine, we also ‘knew’ the Tories were going to confound the odds and the pundits and win in 1992 (except that, instead of keeping our forecast a secret, some of us backed them at the bookies at a good price).
And yes, Mandelson is right to say that the next election is ‘not cut and dried’. But no, it is not ‘up for grabs’ for New Labour. The arbitrary, shallow and fickle character of British politics in the post-left/right era means that elections have become less predictable and that almost anything can happen – from a BNP surge to the loss of a party’s safest seats. Almost anything, that is, except a victory for Gordon Brown. You surely do not need to be a Machiavellian genius with telepathic guts to know that.
The storming reception accorded to Mandelson on Monday was widely hailed as the moment when New Labour’s fortunes could start to turn. To me it signalled the opposite. The sight of Labour activists cheering their Blairite bête noir showed how bad things have got, and how desperate they have become. After all, Lord Mandelson is the unelected, widely reviled symbol of all that the old Labour left is supposed to despise about the Tony Blair years: a backroom fixer and backstabber for whom politics is about positioning and image more than principles and ideas. That he has been brought back into the centre of government owes less to his own self-styled status as a giant of politics than to the standing of the political pygmies around him.
It is not Mandelson who has changed. He remains the embodiment of the fact that New Labour believes in nothing beyond its own re-election. Yet there were the rank and file Labour Party delegates, cheering him to the rafters. It sounded like a death rattle, a case not so much of whistling past the graveyard as singing from the grave.
Despite their brave talk, even Brown and Mandelson have effectively acknowledged that their New Labour ‘project’ is finished – by trying to pretend that much of the past decade did not really happen. Hence Brown, having been close allies with top bankers such as Fred the Shred and having talked up financial services as the one real asset of British capitalism, would suddenly have us believe that he is all for bashing the bankers and their bonuses. There can be no return to the ‘bad old days’ that led to the financial crisis, he now says. Would those be the same bad old days that the prime minister hailed as ‘an era that history will record as the beginning of a new golden age for the City of London’ only two years ago?
Meanwhile, Mandelson summed up the new, new, new New Labour approach by claiming that the party that has been in government for 12 years is now the party of change, and anyway that elections are about the future not the past. In other words, forget what we have done, listen to what we say we will do. This breathtaking attempt to erase the history of the past decade is apparently based on advice from top US strategists. But for some of us veterans of the left it also conjures up the ghost of Stalinism, moving ever ‘onwards and upwards!’ to entirely new policies without ever feeling the need to account for the previous ones now abandoned.
Many observers have pointed to parallels between New Labour’s perilous position and that of the last Tory government under John Major in the run-up to the 1997 election. The comparisons between then and now do seem obvious – the permanent leadership crisis and internal divisions, the policies made up on the hoof in response to the latest headlines, the sense of an isolated, politically exhausted government going through the motions and drifting towards inevitable defeat at the polls, etc.
But the similarities between politics under Brown and the risible Major are not exact. Things are even worse now than they were back then – not only for the government, but for the opposition parties and for politics in general.
New Labour is even weaker than the old Tories were. Its opinion poll ratings now range between 23 and 28 per cent; the autumn before he was routed by Tony Blair, Major’s Tories were still polling between 28 and 32 per cent. The problem goes far deeper than the polls. The demise of Labour as a movement with roots in society means Brown no longer has a politically loyal core vote to rely upon. Internally, New Labour has no grand political cause or sense of purpose to hold it together. Major’s pathetic call for the Tories to go ‘back to basics’ and fight on traditional moral issues looks almost substantial compared to Brown’s appeal this week to a superficial, artificial New Labour notion of ‘community’ seemingly based on supervised shelters for teenage mums and some token banker-bashing. This is why Brown’s leadership is permanently in crisis, despite facing less coherent internal opposition than Major did from the Eurosceptic Tory ‘bastards’ of old.
Things are also worse for New Labour on the economic front. Major complained that voters never gave him credit for the recovery from the 1990s recession that was already underway when New Labour were elected. But Brown has no recovery to claim credit for, the credit-fuelled financial bubble which Thatcher and Major helped to inflate and on which Blair floated for a decade having long since deflated.
But it is not just Brown. Things are also worse for the opposition now than they were before the 1997 election. David Cameron’s Conservatives have also suffered the crumbling of the traditional core vote suffered by all major parties in the post-Cold war era. Yet they have failed to galvanise a new wave of public support the way that Blair and New Labour once did. Blair’s poll ratings before his 1997 election triumph were in the high forties, sometimes touching 50 per cent, while Cameron’s only just – and not always – make it over the 40 per cent mark.
The shallowness of support for the Conservatives, who are starting from a position of having fewer MPs than Labour had in its 1980s nadir, means that a triumph for Cameron still remains far from assured, despite his endorsement by the Sun. As usual, Britain’s top tabloid newspaper goes too far in its smugly patronising ‘it’s the Sun what won it’ suggestion that millions will vote the way it tells them to. But the paper’s knack of reflecting and reinforcing an existing public mood was on display today in two headlines: ‘Labour’s lost it’ and ‘We’re feeling blue’. The latter is hardly an enthusiastic endorsement of the Conservatives.
Most importantly, things look far worse today for politics in the UK – a problem for all of us who want to see action for change in society (rather than listening to conservative status quo politicians use the word ‘change’ almost 50 times in a speech, as Brown did yesterday).
There is little comparison between the reaction to New Labour now and the anti-Tory mood of the late 1990s. Despite its narrow focus on getting rid of the Tories rather than worrying about what might come next, that was at least a clear political response to what had happened during the Thatcher years, from the miners’ strike to the poll tax and the ERM debacle over the pound. By contrast there are no mass marches demanding ‘Gordon, Gordon, Gordon, out , out, out!’ On election night 1997, millions stayed up to celebrate the ‘Portillo moment’ when the former Thatcherite poster boy lost his seat. It is hard to imagine many people even recalling the names of New Labour ministers, never mind partying over their defeat.
Instead, the dominant mood today is more one of anti-politics, of being sick of the lot of them – as graphically illustrated in the expenses scandal. People want shot of Brown & co with a shrug of indifference rather than a scream of anger, a mood informed by cynicism and fatalism more than any political ‘ism’.
We are left with a contest between parties without politics, where debate can focus on gossipy questions about whether Brown is on anti-depressants (to which the obvious follow-up question was surely ‘why not?’), and where the political high point of a Labour conference can apparently arrive when Lord Mandelson says that ‘we cannot do everything – but that does not mean doing nothing’ and then announces, to wild cheers, an extension of the, err, car scrappage scheme.
It is a public debate where the past is denied, where visions of the future are entirely absent (apart from depressing squabbles about who will cut how much where from public spending) and where politics is locked in a sort of presentism, chasing the latest headline down a dead end. Thus it was of course entirely coincidental that the prime minister chose to make anti-social behaviour a central theme of his speech on the day when the news was dominated by the horrific tale of a mother who killed herself and her disabled daughter after being harassed by local yobs.
It remains to be seen exactly how the unappealing combination of people being sick and tired of New Labour yet unimpressed by the Conservatives will impact on the election results. But it is already clear that we can look forward to an election campaign that seems set to be the worst–ever in terms of meaningful political debate about the future of our crisis-bound society.
Remember, things can’t only get better – unless we try to do something about them…
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.
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