What Blair Threw Away

Ross McKibbin

Labour has won its historic third term, by the majority (about 65) predicted by the much abused exit poll, and it has done so while receiving the lowest percentage of the vote ever won by a victorious party. The parliamentary majority is much reduced, as everyone has pointed out, but it is ‘much reduced’ only in comparison with Labour’s existing majority: previous Labour leaders would have regarded it as providential.

It is clear that were it not for the adventure in Iraq the majority would have been significantly higher. Yet Labour’s victory has, in fact, largely been secured by the continuing weakness of the Conservative Party. While most Conservatives think they had a good night, they actually had a bad one. The Tories gained a little over 33 per cent of the vote, the same as in 2001, and since 1997 their vote has risen by only about 3 per cent: an alarmingly low figure for the country’s historic ruling party. They are now mired as Labour was in the 1930s, and it took the Second World War to get Labour out of the mire. In some senses the Labour vote is also alarmingly low: but it is remarkably efficient. Not many votes are needed to elect a Labour MP. The Conservative performance was not uniformly bad: they did well, for instance, in London, but Labour was there defending a number of seats which it is astonishing it ever won at all – and it still has twice as many London seats as the Tories. In the rest of urban Britain the Tories’ performance was feeble.

The problem for the Conservative leadership is that at the moment there are not enough Tories. The old Tory coalition of working-class deferentials and a business and professional middle class which was Conservative by birth – if you were not in the Conservative Association you were not in the swim – has been destroyed, partly by social and demographic change, partly by the (unintended) consequences of Mrs Thatcher’s policies. The Tory working class has gone the way of the whole industrial working class, while the huge middle class is now amorphous and its political loyalties highly fractured. If you are in the Conservative Association today you are not in the swim – just an OAP. This is not to say that the old coalition cannot be reassembled: just that it is no longer the Conservatives’ by right. For the great majority in a now very democratic country the Conservative Party has no special competence or virtue, as to many it once did. Indeed, this great majority is positively anti-Conservative: in the 1950s the second preference of most Liberal voters was Conservative. Today it is Labour. It is not clear what the Tories should or can do about this: the obvious policy, and probably the best policy, is simply to wait on events and assume that Labour will sooner or later come a cropper.

The Australian strategies adopted by Michael Howard and his advisers at this election were, on the other hand, very risky and, in the end, mistaken, exaggerating as they did the significance of immigration and crime within British politics. Many people ‘care’ about immigration and crime, but they do not care about them very strongly: rarely strongly enough to change their vote. As a policy it is tough and appeals to men, but it doesn’t appeal to women; and significantly fewer women voted Conservative in this election than in 2001. If anything, this strategy represented a net loss to the Tories. It didn’t even have much effect in the port towns (see Dover). Furthermore, a party that rides these issues hard is one that fundamentally despises the electorate. If such issues are pushed too hard, the electorate is in danger of grasping that fact. And such policies damage the moral standing of the Conservative Party, and that matters – particularly in the long term. My guess is that most voters regard the Conservative Party as unscrupulously opportunist. Michael Howard’s immediate and (to me) surprising announcement that he will resign ‘sooner rather than later’ might be a recognition of that fact. If, however, his resignation is simply to make way for David Davis, then nothing has been learned. The Conservatives would do well to think harder next time: the old xenophobic parochialism which once did so well for them has weakened as the Conservative working class has disappeared. This culture’s disarray can be measured by the behaviour of the press: with the exception of the Mail, the Express and the Telegraph, all the major broadsheets and redtops implicitly or explicitly supported Labour or, in the case of the Independent, the Liberal Democrats. When Labour is next tempted to follow Conservative practices it should remember this.

The Liberal Democrats had a good election. If they express disappointment, that is only because their final total fell below some of their more optimistic predictions. But it does not fall much below their predictions and it is their best performance since 1923. The Lib Dem vote, however, is, as it has always been, unstable and volatile, and that is because it has no real class base. The Lib Dems will usually get about 20 per cent of the vote; but it is rarely the same 20 per cent. As a result they have few, if any, safe seats. What they have is safer seats. Unlike the Conservatives or Labour, they do not have a swag of constituencies which it is almost inconceivable for any other party to win; and they have no guarantee that the impressive gains they made from Labour will be long-lasting. But they are fortunate in not holding the balance in the House of Commons. That much increases their freedom of manoeuvre without putting at risk this shaky coalition, as having to support either a Conservative or Labour government would certainly do. Nor is a volatile electorate necessarily a problem. The more volatile it becomes the more an unanchored party is likely to benefit. It is just that the benefits are short-term ones.

Labour also had a good night – holding Dorset South was a triumph – even if it was procured thanks in part to the demographic weakness of the Conservative Party. Yet at the next election its majority will disappear if it loses only 35 seats; and it could scarcely survive another term like the last one. I suspect that the prime minister will not be under all that much pressure to go; and I doubt that he intends to go soon. Yet the case against him is a formidable one. His leadership, particularly since the 2001 election, has been feckless and irresponsible. And it has also been selfish. Many things can be said against his Iraq policy; that it is a moral disaster is one. From a political point of view the worst thing is that it was undertaken without any regard for the electoral position of the Labour Party. And that is a cardinal failing in a party leader. In reply to the argument that in 1931 Ramsay MacDonald had to think of the nation, A.J.P. Taylor once said that he shouldn’t have been thinking of the country, he should have been thinking of the Labour Party. Blair, too, should have been thinking of the Labour Party. What on earth did he imagine was going to happen in those seats where the Muslim vote is almost crucial to Labour? Or in those seats with a high-minded middle class? Perhaps Oona King, Barbara Roche and Anne Campbell could ask him. (Indeed Oona King could ask herself what she thought was going to happen.) The prime minister’s self-indulgence should not be rewarded by another long spell in Downing Street.

That is not the only thing to be said against his leadership. He has had opportunities unavailable to any other Labour leader, and he has thrown nearly all of them away. The greatest of these opportunities would have been the democratic reform of the constitution. That, after all, was what New Labour was founded to do. We could have had, for instance, a reformed electoral system and a representative upper house. Largely thanks to the prime minister’s inertia and obstruction we have neither. The argument for such reform has always been a New Labourish one: that the country’s institutions are now out of kilter with Britain’s economic and social development. And it is this development which has made possible the electoral success of New Labour. Britain is democratic, but its institutions aren’t. These institutions represented (on the whole well) a set of social and political relationships which have almost vanished over the last thirty years. Our constitutional and political arrangements no longer facilitate our social and economic development: they obstruct it. Such a dysfunctional arrangement is, as any Marxist knows, historically familiar. But that this arrangement is dysfunctional was perfectly well known to the promoters of New Labour – including the prime minister. The problem is that all his instincts are Tory. Like so many of the country’s elite he cannot actively contemplate a reform of something which is associated with Britain’s past grandeur – just as he cannot contemplate Britain without a nuclear ‘deterrent’. Thus he commissioned Roy Jenkins to propose electoral reforms and then ignored the proposals. He set about reforming the Lords, but only mutilated it, and left its membership to the whims of the prime minister of the day. If Blair is worried about his reputation, a reform of the electoral system and a democratic reform of the Lords could save it. If he is to stay on for any length of time he might make a start on these. Does he really want to be remembered only for Iraq and a deceitful way with words?

The Labour Party’s difficulties over the last parliament were not simply the prime minister’s doing. The structure and internal dynamics of the Labour Party allowed all this to happen. A reconstruction of the party is inescapable, and that must involve a strengthening of the parliamentary party as against the executive – so that the party leader is no longer in a position to appoint whoever he wants to whatever post he wants to do whatever he wants. The present system of the electoral college is, furthermore, designed to encourage irresponsibility in a party leader. He or she should be elected by the parliamentary party, as used to be the case, and be subjected to regular re-election. The cabinet should be elected by the PLP and legislation approved by the PLP.

I doubt whether any of this will happen. The demands for electoral reform will almost certainly be fobbed off, because the interests of the two main parties are against it. The most conceivable reforms – the alternative vote and a form of PR – are of limited attraction to either. Under PR, the Tories would have had pretty much the same number of seats (a few more) as they won at this election, but they would do worse under the alternative vote. Labour at the moment has no interest in PR, though it should gain, since most Lib Dems would give their second vote to Labour, by the alternative vote. But it would not gain enough. The Lib Dems would double their seats under PR, and would also gain under the alternative vote. They alone, therefore, have a real interest in reform. The alternative vote would be better than nothing and is in Labour’s interests, but not enough in its interests to overcome its habitual sloth. As for the Labour Party itself, even a strengthened PLP might not make much difference. The fact is that much of the party has supported Blair throughout: Iraq, city academies, ID cards, the almost insane quest for ‘choice’. An effective reform of the parliamentary party would also require a reform of its membership. The NEC could begin by requiring short lists which excluded political consultants and student politicians.

More problematic, and something difficult to predict, is what effect Gordon Brown will have as prime minister. When Blair will decide to go is anyway unknowable and Brown himself is not an ideal successor: see the London Underground. Furthermore, unlike Robin Cook, he is even less likely to finish New Labour’s unfinished constitutional business than Blair. But he will not continually undermine Labour’s real achievements, as Blair has done in his will-o’-the-wisp pursuit of ‘choice’. Nor will he be as ready as Blair to destroy a democratic educational system, and his Treasury caution might also do for the more indefensible Blairite extravagances, like ID cards and the even more absurd nuclear deterrent. On the other hand, the American alliance will, alas, be safe in his hands and David Blunkett will, alas, almost certainly be a member of his cabinet. It says much about the social composition of the parliamentary party and the attenuation of its esprit and self-confidence, that Gordon Brown should be the only plausible candidate to succeed Tony Blair.

6 May