Monday, June 08, 2009

Is the UK facing another 1922?

It is far too early to say, and the issue had been raised in 1983 following that general election. Is the Labour Party facing being sent to the political wilderness to come third place at the next general election?

In 1922, the Liberal Party was in disarray, having previously been the party of Opposition in the UK, and as it had split into two, it lost enough votes to Labour that it rose from only 57 seats to 142, becoming the official Opposition. It was a blow to the Liberal Party that it never recovered from, but which it nearly broke through in 1983. With the help of a breakaway faction from Labour, the Liberal/SDP Alliance gained 25.4% of the vote, narrowly beaten by Labour on 27.6%, although the Tories won handsomely on 42.3%.

This time the local and European elections show Labour doing far worse, coming third in both. With the Liberal Democrats ahead in the local elections, and UKIP in the European elections (and Lib Dems close in fourth), it looks like many core Labour voters are going elsewhere, although it is clear that local and European elections are different from a general election - and a general election could be nearly a year away.

However, there is a sense that maybe things have changed. The Labour spin is that it has lost support purely because of the Parliamentary expenses row, but it goes beyond that. It has been polling poorly for many months, and Gordon Brown has looked indecisive on such a regular basis, expenses being the most recent example - but it started with him teasing for a general election and then deciding not to have one.

The Conservatives have done well rebranding themselves as a party of middle England - which is what was needed to recapture the South and centre, and even make inroads in the North, Wales and Scotland. The Liberal Democrats have moved to the left, and have captured some of the traditional Labour vote, by promoting more government, and opposing some of the intrusions on freedom that Labour have promoted, whilst embracing a statist vision with more tax. Labour now presents nothing.

The Conservatives have inherited the gentle reformist agenda of Blair, with a somewhat different philosophical direction, seen in supporting education vouchers and being more sceptical about the EU and bureaucracy. The Liberal Democrats are partly old Labour, so what is Labour now? The tired spent force, which has lost the will to reform the economy, which ran deficits during the good years and has poured money into state services to see little real gain - except for unionised labour. Many of its traditional supporters are sceptical about Europe, partly due to the net loss that the UK endures from funding it, but also a more malignant xenophobia against continental European labour.

You see Labour's supporters have been an odd coalition. Up till recently, it included middle class aspirational families, and some small to medium sized businesspeople. It included most of those dependent on the state - welfare beneficiaries and bureaurats. Pensioners, who have long been bribed by Labour with other people's money, and of course the working class envy pack - the ones who despise businesspeople, and happily voted Labour in 1983 to shift Britain towards a Warsaw Pact style way of running the economy. Labour has also courted ethnic minorities, spreading bile that the Tories are racist - although the war in Iraq and war on terrorism has cost the Islamic vote somewhat.

Who is left? The middle classes have gone Tory or Lib Dem. The working classes are bitter at so many Labour MPs ripping off expenses, and don't like the EU (and foreigners). So it is bureaurats and welfare beneficiaries - the ones Labour pillages taxpayers to pay for. It isn't enough.

So without a change in leader, Labour seriously faces a groundbreaking defeat in the next UK general election. Could it put Labour third? Well it would be a huge hurdle to cross. It would require the Conservatives to win a decisive majority, a swing of around 15%, but also for the Liberal Democrats to do well- without losing to the Conservatives much. That also requires a relative gain of over 12%, which would be an enormous effort, but not inconceivable.

My money is that this wouldn't happen. Nick Clegg isn't enough of a figure to attract that amount of a swing, but if it makes itself the place where a protest vote can be safely made, it may make enough gains that put Labour in Opposition for many years as it needs to fight on two fronts.

Whatever happens, it is becoming increasingly clear that the only British Labour leader to win an election in the last 35 years will have been Tony Blair (or 50 years if you consider the 1974 win to be half hearted given Labour didn't get a clear majority).

What does that say about how British politics has changed over a generation?

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