07 May 2011

Thanks Nick Clegg - you've united the left for the first time in 30 years

More left bloggers have been drinking the Kool Aid overnight over Labour's performance in the local elections - for example, Adam Lent at the RSA, and Polly Toynbee at the Guardian. It's weird how these memes take hold. Most of what we've been told for the last year from the left commentariat consists of repeated insistence that Dave Cameron is on probation within his own party after failing to secure an overall majority against Brown in 2010, how the government was in a weak position, and so on. Now - after the referendum and local elections - the same people are going around saying that Cameron is some sort of genius, the Tories will be in power forevermore, and the situation is hopeless.

Well I'm sorry people, but I'm just not buying it. Have a look at the voting patterns and a very different story emerges.

The Fib Dem vote collapse was quite amazing... a fall of about 10% from last year's elections, not quite as bad as the 13% fall which recent YouGov polling would suggest, but bad enough. (I'm using figures from Jeremy Vine's election commentary on the BBC yesterday, not the weird figures that came out of Tory central office and have been picked up by most of the press and run as neutral commentary(!?)) Meanwhile the Labour vote went up by about the same - 10%. The Tory share of the vote was more or less unchanged from last year.

So the gainers - in terms of vote share - are Labour. Not the Tories.

I'd argue that what's really happening here is that the Lib Dems have completely changed their electoral strategy and Labour is reaping the rewards. Ever since the formation of the SDP in 1981 (and possibly as far back as the Liberal upsurge of the early 1970s), the Left vote in the UK has been split, with a significant proportion going to a third party - the Alliance (and more recently, the Lib Dems). For sure, the third party took some votes from the Right as well. But not as many, which gives a very good explanation for why the Tories won majority governments in 1983, 1987 and 1992, despite declining vote shares each time - the Left vote was split, and that's fatal under First Past the Post. (I'll admit that if there had been a hung parliament in 1983 a Tory/Alliance coalition was probably more likely than a Labour/Alliance coalition due to Labour '83 being perceived as off-planet Marxists, but in later elections, this wasn't the case). In the 1980s and early 1990s political commentators spent much of their time lamenting the split in the British left.

It wasn't until Tony Blair came along in the mid-1990s that Tony Blair hit on an alternative strategy for victory, despite the split on the left; he made incursions into the Right's vote share by shifting policy so far to the right that by 2005, the Lib Dems were in many ways more left-wing than the Tories. This reaped electoral dividends in 1997 and 2001 (though less so in 2005), but at the expense of creating a political environment where it would be much easier for a future extreme right govt to come along and destroy much of our social fabric (which is what's happening right now). Thus, it wasn't a long-term sustainable strategy.

But following the election of Nick Clegg and the ConDem government deal of 2010, the "Fib Dems" have helpfully reunified the British Left - or started to, at any rate - by exiting stage Right. The Lib Dems, based on their official policy position, are now a right wing libertarian party, to the right of the Tories in some respects. Clegg has made it clear he's not interested in attracting left wing voters from Labour. Thus, he's thrown away a crucial part of the Lib Dem voter base and handed it on a plate to Labour.

And THAT, more than anything, explains yesterday's local election results. And it's good news for Labour. Because for the first time since 1966, there is the potential for a left-wing government in the UK with a substantial majority which doesn't have to pretend to be a Conservative government to get elected.

There is only the POTENTIAL for such a government, mind you, and no guarantees that Labour will actually get elected. That depends on a number of factors, e.g.:

  • the economy getting stuck in a 'lost decade' as Osborne's growth projections fall apart completely (highly likely);
  • Labour's policy review actually providing policy solutions relevant to people's lives in the post-crash world (I really don't know enough about who's involved in the policy review or what options are being considered to know if this is a realistic hope or not);
  • the Labour Party getting behind Ed Miliband as a strong choice for Prime Minister (again, seems a no-brainer to me, but unfortunately a lot of people in the Labour party seem to have less than no brain);
  • the Lib Dems not drastically reversing position - and this is a real worry because it's completely out of Labour's hands. In one way it would be fantastic to see someone like Tim Farron (or even Chris Huhne) wallop Clegg for the party leadership, dissolve the coalition, and go to the country as "the man who beat the Tories"; but that of course puts the Lib Dems squarely back on the Left and could leave the way open for a repeat of the election results of the 1980s, due to our daft electoral system.
  • no alternative Left force emerging to drain votes from Labour. The Green Party could start to emerge in some areas as a serious drain on Labour's FPTP vote share in the same way that UKIP has for the Tories. More serious in the short run for Labour is the huge shift to the SNP in Scotland - it's not clear whether this would be repeated at a general election but if it is, it would make a majority Labour government very difficult.
So, big challenges here for Labour to be sure - but commentators who are arguing that we are looking at a rerun of the 1980s, or even the 1930s, need to cease and desist. The current situation isn't really that much like either of those eras - although it could become so. But only if Labour is especially unlucky, or makes big mistakes. For now, the 2011 local election results represent a real comeback for Labour, and, combined with Nick Clegg's big favour in reunifying the Left, should be a cause for modest celebration rather than despondency.

1 comment:

Hal Berstram said...

Something I forgot to add here is that, as Van Patten has rightly pointed out, if Scotland votes for independence then the future for Labour in England DOES look much more bleak. Will come back to that in a separate post next week.