In the first four parts (1,2,3,4) of this article I looked back at the last four years and asked how we got where we are. This final part is looking forward across theremaining months before the general election and asking the obvious question of whether anything is likely to divert proceedings from the Conservative victory that is the almost universal assumption amongst commentators (with the seemingly lone exception of James McIntyre. Perhaps there are others, but it’s certainly a lonely furrow he’s plowing!)
I reject the sort of argument that governments always recover towards an election. Firstly, public opinion moves for a reason, the government have to do something to make themselves more attractive (or the opposition something to drive support away). More importantly, it’s simply not supported by the facts. I looked at it in great detail here, but in short, while it’s always possible in hindsight to pick the worst point for a government and say they went on to recover from it, it doesn’t follow that they will automatically recover from their position now; in the last two Parliaments the government didn’t really recover at all compared to their polling lead the year before the election. For Labour to recover, they need to address their problems.
As you’ll have picked up from the article so far, my view is that these are:
(1) They no longer have the luxury of facing an unappetising opposition
(2) They have failed to put forward a coherent narrative or purpose
(3) They have been in power for 12 years, carry the accumulated blame of all that’s gone wrong and the public want a change
(4) They have an unpopular and unlikeable leader who doesn’t connect with the public
The first of these is largely out of Labour’s control. They have not so far managed to find a formula of negative campaigning that works against David Cameron. The main routes that seem to have been explored are, firstly, attacking Cameron as being rich and out of touch, which seems to have backfired in Crewe and Nantwich and just made Labour look negative and old fashioned, and a “two faces” attack that behind Cameron the Conservatives haven’t changed and are still nasty and right wing. The converse of this (“New Labour, new Danger”) failed for the Conservatives in 1997, and so far it seems to have backfired when tried against Cameron (on things like Dan Hannan’s NHS views) by just giving David Cameron the opportunity to differentiate himself even further from the old Tory brand.
There is always the chance of the Conservatives imploding themselves. They had a conspicious row over grammar schools and David Cameron’s reaction to the result of the second Irish referendum on Lisdon may yet be another point where there is no easy way to make all in his party happy (though a lot of people seem to be grossly overestimating its possible impact – the issue of Europe has extremely low salience with the public, with only 2% or so naming it as an important issue. It is only a threat to Cameron because it is an important issue to many in the Conservative party and it could provoke internal division which would damage their popularity.) To date, however, the party has been relatively united and it is normally when a party is doing badly in the polls that internal dissent breaks out. Cameron has also proved himself to be quite cautious especially when he is ahead in the polls. So, while it is possible, I wouldn’t expect the Conservatives to throw it all away by proposing something hideously unpopular.
Looking at the second problem, in theory there is nothing stopping Labour putting forward a wonderful, compelling new narrative tomorrow. It’s the sort of thing that people like Jon Cruddas have correctly identified as Labour’s key failing and who occassonly call for from the sidelines. Unfortunately, it is much easier to identify as a problem than it is to solve. Gordon Brown’s lack of personal charisma is an obstacle, so is the lack of goodwill towards the government. People would have been a lot more willing to listen to Gordon Brown laying out his new government’s great purpose when he first became Prime Minister, my impression is that now a sizeable proportion of the public has just stopped listening. On top of that, it’s a very difficult thing to do in the first place, especially in an era of unideological, catch-all parties – if there was some compelling narrative in the Labour cupboard, it would probably been deployed by now (for what it’s worth, the Conservatives don’t seem to have really cracked what their narrative is for the next election either – though they have the luxury of being the opposition and not really needing one, they just need the government to lose.)
Thirdly, there is the “cost of government” and the public’s desire for change. Again, Gordon Brown had a chance when he first became Prime Minister, he was never the ideal agent of change having been there for so long, but there could have been some obvious repudiation of what had gone before, some great symbolic reversal. He can obviously not present himself as a new candidate of change now, and given his waning authority, a massive change in policy or senior cabinet roles also seems unlikely.
Fourth is Gordon Brown himself.
When I write these long round ups I do my best not to sit on the fence. It’s easy to slam caveats on everything, never put your neck out and hence never be wrong. At the end of 2007 I said I didn’t think Labour could regain a lead in the polls under Gordon Brown. I still don’t. There are a couple of cards still in the deck: when the recession formally ends and the headlines announce “Recession Ends” that could yet give them a boost. Cameron’s response to the Lisbon referendum in Ireland also has potential to give him some internal party difficulties. The biggest possible game changer though is if Labour have one last go at getting rid of Gordon Brown before the election (or if Gordon Brown himself decides to stand down).
I’m not going to pontificate about the chances of it happening – I don’t pretend to understand the inner workings of the Parliamentary Labour party. My view is however that it is Labour’s only real chance of avoiding defeat. A new leader would almost certainly connect better with the public, they could grab the opportunities that Brown missed during summer 2007 and use whatever brief honeymoon they had to put forward a clear offering, and clearly differentiate themselves from the Blair/Brown government, portraying themselves to be the change the public desire.
Could it be enough for them to win? I really don’t know, it depends on too many imponderables, it could collapse into factional warfare and make things even worse, and it may be too late for anything to save them. That said, I think it is Labour’s last, best chance.