The Sense of an Ending

Ross McKibbin

The pollsters will no doubt eventually discover why voting Conservative is regarded by so many as a solitary vice to be disclosed (and then anonymously) to none but the returning officer; in the meantime we can only speculate about the election result on the basis of not very good evidence. Nevertheless, despite that, and what was recorded in those genuinely puzzling polls (particularly the exit polls), it seems reasonable to argue that a Labour victory was always unlikely, because 13 years of unremitting effort had gone into making it unlikely.

The Thatcher Government was never really about what Mrs Thatcher said (and probably thought) it was about. In its nominal purpose – the economic ‘revolution’, the national ‘renaissance’ – it was an almost risible failure. Indeed, it is hard to see how it could ever have been anything else. Its actual purpose, however, was the conscious reconstruction of the electorate so that ‘socialism’ (i.e. the Labour Party) would be ideologically and structurally marginalised. National wealth and public assets were systematically redistributed in order to create a huge clientele which was defined not by what it did or made but by its relationships to the state, and to the favours it could expect from the state. Furthermore, the circumstances of this clientele (or more accurately, its debts) attached it to the Conservative Party even more tightly in bad times than in good. That the Conservatives were primarily responsible for the bad times became irrelevant once the opposition parties proposed policies which threatened to disturb the immediate interests of this clientele, even though many of its members acknowledged (and I think honestly) the wisdom of these policies. Yet there were boundaries to what even the clientele would accept: the Poll Tax clearly crossed them, as did Mrs Thatcher’s behaviour generally in the last days of her ministry. That was why she was removed. It was hard luck for her that the only way the Conservative Party could preserve Mrs Thatcher’s system was by jettisoning Mrs Thatcher. But preserve it they did, and it was that system which defeated Labour.

Even so, many of the favours her former clientele expect are largely illusory, something well understood by those (including the leadership of the Conservative Party) who have built that colossal apparatus of persuasion now in its service. In his resignation statement, Mr Kinnock probably exaggerated the role of the press in his defeat: people are pretty sceptical about what they read in it. Nonetheless, his argument is broadly correct. No other press in Europe is so partisan or so selective in what it prints. And it is only one part of this apparatus: other institutions like the BBC and ITV have been bullied into compliance. Furthermore, the politicisation of most appointments to state or semi-state organisations tends to drown out dissenting voices in the general noise. The Labour Party itself made this easier: its behaviour in the early Eighties confirmed so many stereotypes that the electorate needed little persuasion by the press – all that was required was a jogging of the collective memory. And that was done with a vengeance. The success of all this is measured by one index whose significance was consistently overlooked throughout the election campaign. Ever since polling began, the majority of the electorate has said that it ‘trusts’ the Conservative Party more than the Labour Party in the management of the economy: that is to say, it believes the Conservatives are more fitted to govern. That there is no historical evidence to support this belief, that in the light of the last four years such a belief is almost wholly irrational, simply demonstrates how successfully the apparatus of persuasion works. Indeed, what is perhaps surprising is that the Conservatives have not been electorally more successful. They have made no net gains: on the contrary, their vote has drifted down somewhat. Their achievement has been to avoid the kind of electoral fragmentation which has undermined the social democratic and traditional conservative parties on the Continent and the Labour Party here.

What exists now is a system stripped of the ill-directed energy and half-mad rhetoric which characterised its establishment, but it will be further entrenched, if with more circumspection. Asset sales will continue, and the struggle to eliminate ‘socialism’ by dismantling the collective notion of education and of common social goals will not cease. Everything will be done (so far as lies in the Government’s power) to protect its clientele, and those not its members should fear the worst. Government policies will be enveloped in the same kind of rhetoric which was deployed to justify Mrs Thatcher’s policies – ‘opportunity’, ‘choice’, ‘freedom’, the ‘classless society’ – and in the same way half-believed by its practitioners until it must be dropped, as the rhetoric of ‘transformation’ was dropped. The more modest and prudent Thatcherism which Mr Major seems ideal to lead is Thatcherism nonetheless.

The result of the election, if probably inevitable, is nonetheless alarming. It means the return of a government which has set its face against any constitutional, institutional or social modernisation: under it, Britain will become even more a museum of antique practices. Furthermore, since the vested interests which prop up the Government are by their nature inert – they exist only to receive – there will be stagnation at all levels of our public and cultural life. Our relative economic decline will continue, not dramatically but steadily. And, if we are very unlucky, we will have something like American social decay and all that accompanies it.

The result also suggests that the conventional constraints upon government folly or self-deception no longer operate. Although I think there are certain things that even the present over-respectful electorate finds unacceptable – the Poll Tax is an obvious example – it is clear that the limits upon a Conservative government are now extremely wide. And in a country with hardly any statutory prohibitions on what a government might get up to this makes our already shaken democracy even more fragile.

What can the Labour Party, facing another long and fruitless stretch in opposition, now do? In many ways, not much. If the electorate, or its largest part, chooses to live in a political dream or to ignore home truths (as people usually ignore home truths), there is little the Labour Party can do about it. Nor must it accept the view that it somehow is to blame for the result, or that its defeat represents failures which can easily be corrected. The events of the Seventies and Eighties, which partly conditioned the popular idea of the Labour Party, cannot be undone and the Party has already been too anxious to distance itself from these events. Nor should its leaders recriminate. The Party fought a good campaign on respectable policies – unlike the Conservatives, whose campaign was inept and who made no serious pretence of having policies – and if home truths did not gain Labour victory they are truths nevertheless. The election result was a consequence of the Thatcherite political system; it did not legitimate it, nor are Labour’s criticisms of it invalidated, as the next generation will discover. Above all, the Party should not apologise for itself; there has been too much of that. Rewriting its history is something any political party should be willing to do: but abandoning its history is not recommended. Since the Party is obliged to sit it out, it must be in a position to remind the electorate from time to time, when disasters strike, that it did actually warn them. Furthermore, the Conservative clientele is not as stable as it appears. It is questionable whether the Government can indefinitely protect it and there is a point at which redistributing national wealth from the poor to the not-poor becomes self-defeating. Democratic electorates are always surprising governments by their ingratitude and the present government is not exempt.

The resignation of Mr Kinnock might help Labour. Mr Smith, his likely successor, is obviously more acceptable to the electorate than Mr Kinnock, although I think the effect of the change can be exaggerated. Mr Kinnock has been rather unlucky. It is clear that his ‘Welshness’ in some way does not fit into the English political culture, nor does he have the terseness and quickness on his feet that Mr Smith has. Yet he, more than anyone else, put the Labour Party back on the rails, and this was a formidable achievement, as anyone who can remember back to 1983 will agree. To that extent, he was probably a better leader for the Labour Party than he was leader of the Labour Party. He has also met with extraordinary patience the endlessly abusive and sneering attacks on him; whatever his failings he deserved better of British politics than that.

The first thing the new leader might do is to help abolish the system which elected him. That there should be some recrimination and disappointment after the election is inevitable: but to devise a system which takes three months to produce a new leader and invites the candidates to blame each other for defeat is absurd and demoralising. The present electoral college is arbitrary and the consequence of an unsatisfactory compromise patched up in the early Eighties. It would be best to restore the right of election to the Parliamentary Party. It is a clearly-defined constituency which (except in the peculiar circumstances of Michael Foot’s election) has an interest in choosing someone the electorate might like, and it can do so quickly. The present system is not only cumbersome: it is inflexible. It makes it more or less impossible to replace a Parliamentary leader no matter how deficient he or she might be, and it advertises nearly all the defects of the Labour Party’s relations with the trade unions, but none of their virtues.

The issue of the Unions and their relationship to the Labour Party is one for the long term – a delicate and complicated question to which there is no obvious answer. More immediately, the new leader will be under pressure to consider some sort of agreement with the opposition parties. Even if he wants to, Mr Smith, if it is Mr Smith, will have trouble avoiding it since there are several powerful arguments for proposing such an agreement. There is another argument of more personal interest to Labour politicians: without some such pact they will never know the joys of office. And there is the argument of principle (always relegated to third place): that the present electoral system is simply undemocratic.

As with the issue of the Unions, Labour’s relationship to the Liberal Democrats is enormously problematic. For one thing, the Labour Party’s recovery is more substantial than it appears. Labour won many more seats than the overall swing suggests it should have – the psephologists’ predictions were almost as wrong as the opinion polls. Presumably these predictions were based on certain assumptions about the ‘national’ character of the electorate. But in England (the position is obviously more complicated in Scotland and Wales – though not that much more complicated) there are now two fairly distinct electorates. The first, and the larger, is primarily a two-party contest. Conservative and Labour, with weak third-party (Liberal-Alliance) intervention. The second, located largely, though not wholly, in Southern England, is primarily a two-party contest, Conservative and Liberal, with weak third-party (Labour) intervention. These two electorates, which first made their appearance in the Twenties, re-emerged in the Sixties and developed rapidly in the Seventies, from then on showing all the signs of being a permanent feature of our electoral landscape. What disrupted it, however, was the secession of the SDP from the Labour Party and Labour’s subsequent fragmentation in the first of these electorates. In 1983 and 1987 third-party intervention was anything but weak: though not powerful enough to net the old Alliance many seats, it was enough for Labour to lose them by the handful. What happened on 9 April was that Labour made a strong (though patchy) recovery in the first electorate, and the spectacular fall in the Liberal Democrat vote in many of its constituencies was responsible for most Labour gains. Indeed, in urban and big-town Britain, Labour is now as strong as it has ever been (1945 and London excepted). In several of the larger cities Labour won all the seats, frequently with huge majorities. Many of those seats which were marginal Conservative ones in 1979 but which seemed lost to Labour for ever in the Eighties are again marginal or have actually been recaptured. The party structure is thus now very like the Seventies, though with the Conservatives significantly stronger and Labour significantly weaker – but not hopelessly weaker. The proposed redistribution will further strengthen the Conservatives but it still means that Labour can economise on votes. As long as it maintains itself in the first electorate, it will need fewer votes than the Conservatives to elects an MP. It even means that with a further swing it could win an outright majority.

As everyone knows, however, this electorate is diminishing. The future appears to belong to the other England, where Labour’s intervention is weak. Furthermore, the chances of Labour making significant gains here seem to be against nature. Only some sort of agreement with the Liberal Democrats would allow Labour access to it. This is where the complications emerge. Not only would Labour be the preponderant party in such negotiations, whereas a few years ago Labour and Liberals would have negotiated more as equals: the decline of the Liberal Democrat vote makes the Liberals less attractive partners. Given that such arrangements normally involve the withdrawal of the weaker party, the Liberal Democrats now have less to offer and possibly less to gain. In 1992 they were the weaker party in many more seats than in 1987 – often much weaker. At first sight, and if the Liberal Democrat vote remained absolutely intact and every Labour vote was transferred to the Liberals – the equivalent of the alternative vote – the Liberal Democrats would gain 21 seats from the Conservatives. In practice, it would be more like 16. This, though it immediately obliterates the Conservative majority, still leaves them effectively the governing party. If an electoral pact is to succeed, the Labour Party must accept that it needs to hand the Liberals a number of seats where its own candidates came second. That will require a great feat of leadership from Mr Smith.

There is another complication. The Labour vote will almost certainly go where the Labour Party tells it. If it is instructed to vote Liberal Democrat, that is what it will do – many Labour voters, after all, have been doing that tactically for years. The Liberal Democrat vote is, however, much more flighty. If it were instructed to support a Labour candidate, many Liberals would probably not vote at all and as many would vote Conservative as Labour. That is why an electoral agreement like that of 1983 between the Liberal and Labour Parties can probably not be negotiated: it is only possible when Labour is subordinate, puny enough not to alarm Liberal voters but big enough to be worth negotiating with. There is, therefore, little to be gained by Liberal Democrat withdrawals. Nor would formal negotiations between the two parties before an election be productive, either for an electoral pact or a common programme: Liberal voters are all too likely to take fright and vote Conservative anyway. The only possible electoral agreement (and it is one I favour) is a unilateral Labour withdrawal, without negotiations and with no reciprocity demanded, from enough seats to matter, and that might be forty or fifty. This would be painful for Labour to do since it would represent a final, public admission that its claims to a unique status as a progressive party are unreal. But it already knows that the only result of a Labour candidate in the Isle of Wight, Weston-super-Mare or Taunton is a Conservative MP. Another Labour government is by no means impossible: but without such a withdrawal it is much less likely.