Back to the Future: But how far back?

Dr. Paul McVeigh is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of PoPaul McVeighrtsmouth. Start a conversation with him on GovFaces!

Growing up in the 1980’s my political education involved the rapid destruction of one set of supposed political certainties within a matter of years. In the first half of that decade, the Cold War between the US and USSR was seen as a permanent feature of world politics. The mountain was more likely to move to Mohammed than the gap be bridged between East and West. At the same time there seemed no possibility of the ‘Troubles’ ever being resolved in Northern Ireland. And to even conceive of Nelson Mandela leading an African National Congress government of South Africa whilst dismantling Apartheid was for many a symptom of borderline insanity. As it happened by the end of the decade the Berlin Wall had fallen, Mandela’s release was on the cards and both the UK government and the IRA were seeking ways out of their unwinnable war. If a week is a long time in politics and if politics remains the art of the possible, we should not be surprised if the 2015 General Election will come to have similarly earth-shattering consequences.

The election will go down as memorable for many reasons: a Conservative triumph defying the odds, the making or saving of the political reputation of David Cameron, the total collapse of the Liberal Democrats, the wipe-out of Labour in its Scottish heartland, the relative failure of the UKIP dog to bite and the gap between the predictions of pollsters and actual voter behaviour.

But its lasting legacy will be much greater than the ‘result’. In retrospect, it may well be dramatic beyond even the ‘watershed’ elections of 1945 and 1979. 2015 may well be the moment of a radical and permanent reordering of Britain as we know it. The small state economic radicalism of the Conservative Party, first given expression through Mrs Thatcher’s leadership in the 1980’s will surely now see an accelerated resumption under the assumed necessities of austerity. What is left of the UK’s public services and state provision in education, health and welfare will be reduced, subcontracted out, sold off and otherwise trimmed leaving the UK as a more private, marketised, ‘liberal’ economy and society than at any time since before the Second World War.

Add to that the now certainty of a referendum on Britain’s future in the European Union. A decision to leave the EU – by no means certain of course – would be utterly momentous turning back the clock even farther to a time where Britannia ruled the waves and ‘Empires’ – never mind the nation state – were the key players in world affairs.

And if the continued rejection by Scotland of the mainstream political parties of the Union – or is that England? –  should bring about Tom Nairn’s 1970’s prophecy of the ‘Break-Up of Britain’ then the relevant historical parallel is pushed back further still, to an era some three centuries ago!

And yet there is a more recent and less dramatic precedent. This election always looked to me like a possible 1992 scenario in which a campaign predicting a possible hung parliament was based on inaccurate polling driven by the ‘shy Tory’ effect. The final result was a Conservative win in times of economic uncertainty against an unloved and untrusted Labour. That Conservative Party was like its 2015 successor emphatically supported in much of the Press. Its leader had a similarly ambivalent place in the Party’s affections but found a way to impress in the campaign. In 1992, Conservatives encouraged voters not to throw away the hard won economic gains of the 1980’s and warned against the threat of devaluation under Labour. The Conservative government of 1992 enjoyed a small majority in Parliament without relying on other parties but this majority would be whittled away in by-election defeats and in any case it only encouraged backbench indiscipline and rebellions by the ‘swivel-eyed’ brigade. This was after all, a party divided about Britain’s role in Europe. Maybe 23 years is not that long a time in politics after all!

Within sixth months of the election, on Black Wednesday, September 1992, the Conservatives themselves presided over the very devaluation crisis they were supposed to be uniquely able to avoid. John Major’s government spent the rest of their period in office attempting, and failing, to resuscitate their reputation for economic competence whilst engaging in an internal civil war over Britain’s place in the European Union. New Labour emerged under Tony Blair and developed a massive lead in the polls whose foundation was a clear supremacy on issues of trust and economy. This turned into the Blair landslide of 1997.

The temptation within Labour now is to see the same pattern repeating after this election. The small Tory majority could be impaled on the same twin forks of ‘Europe’ and ‘economy’ and a moderate Labour Party shifting to the ‘centre’ ground could be there to pick up the pieces in 2020. Possibly.

Possibly not. The reality is that the Labour Party are still struggling to shake off the blame for the financial crisis that propelled the UK into debt under Gordon Brown. It cannot win until even larger economic disaster engulfs the Tories. This is possible, even inevitable at some stage of course, but it would take something truly apocalyptic to outdo 2007-8 and it seems distant right now.  And even an outright economic crisis won’t be enough on its own given that Scotland – a mainstay of the Blairite Labour victories – has deserted the party. Finally, the reforms likely under the pressure of austerity are likely to remove many of the key levers a Labour government would need to significantly change Britain to their liking anyway.

For the unspoken reality of the 2015 election was that it was actually won in May 2010. The incapacity of the Labour Party to coherently oppose the austerity policy of the coalition government from the very first days of the coalition onwards, to properly use multiple examples of coalition policies which raised the debt rather than reduce it; the failure to provide an immediate, consistent and clear alternative narrative on the debt; the failure to find a leader who could make that case; the failure to cast off a generation of party leaders associated with the mistakes of the Blair/Brown period and to make an honest explanation and apology for those mistakes; these were the reasons why Labour could never have won a majority even if it had not been obliterated in Scotland. Indeed: these were amongst the reasons Labour lost Scotland in the first place as it was no longer recognised as the most viable vehicles for the changes Scottish people want. These failings can all be traced back to the way in which Labour concentrated on its own internal leadership struggles after the 2010 defeat and lost the valuable time and political capital required to develop that alternative economic narrative.

And, as of June 2015, it’s a mistake Labour may well be repeating.

Voices of Portsmouth is a series of articles coming from various stakeholders within the Portsmouth community, from members of political parties to academics, students, or members of NGOs. The series highlights some of the most important challenges the city faces today.