Rob Marchant writes a cautionary article for Labour List regarding the Labour Party’s political prospects. Marchant belongs firmly to the Labour Right (or the Centre Left as he would doubtless put it and for which he names his blog). This is important to bear in mind because his article is illustrative of a number of analytic tendencies that are very common but of which people ought properly to be suspicious.
The first of these is the tendency to reduce 60-70 years of political and social upheaval and, often momentous, events to a series of iron political laws. To quote Marchant:
“This is exactly what we would expect, it is doing what pretty much every mid-term lead has ever done – evaporating.”
Now this contains a kernel of truth. Governments usually don’t perform as poorly, come election time, as their mid-term polling nadirs would suggest (nor, by the same token, do oppositions perform as well). Partially this is due to reversion to the mean; partially, perhaps to the ability of the sitting government (now abolished by the coalition) to set an election date at a relatively favourable time; but largely, I suspect, the reason for this tendency, can be summed up by the famous quote from Harold Macmillan:
“Events, dear boy”
Politics is rarely static. Something will quite often come up over the course of a Parliament to swing a Government’s fortunes, one way or another. Examples of this include the SDP split off, in the 1979-83 Parliament, that fatally split the Left vote for a generation, followed by the Falklands War, and the ouster of Margaret Thatcher in the 1987-92 parliament. But, by failing to acknowledge that electoral politics is fundamentally events driven, the commentator can read the entrails of post-war political history consisting of a sample of 18 parliaments, for any underlying trend that will support whatever agenda they want to advance, without having to pay attention to current events or political trends.
This leads to the second, and more recent, political analytical tendency implicit within the article: the willful ignoring of the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote since the formation of the coalition, and the electoral implications of this. For the past decade, or so, since the second term of Blairite New Labour, the Lib Dems have consistently outflanked Labour on the left, and hoovered up its disaffected voters, who over that time period have formed the bulk of Liberal Democrat voters. That is until it comprehensively alienated those same voters by its position within the coalition. Since 2010, polls have consistently shown that the Lib Dems’ support has halved, and those voters have been instrumental in giving Labour a consistent polling lead over that time. This trend: the effective reversal of the post SDP division of the left-wing vote poses great long term dangers to the Conservative party (even Patrick Mercer, in his conversation with an undercover journalist admitted that there wouldn’t be a Conservative Government in 2015), and opportunities for the Labour party. With the possible exception of some potential tactical voters in Lib-Con marginal, all the signs point towards this collapse being permanent and those voters have to go somewhere. Labour stands a good chance of picking up those voters by default and design. Of course it’s also possible that they may fail to win over these- politically choosy- voters, with the Greens, the nationalist parties, in Scotland and Wales, and abstention being real rivals. But of course Marchant doesn’t address this, as it doesn’t help his overarching case.
Then there’s Marchant’s treatment of the even more recent apparent rise of UKIP. He soberly warns, that UKIP are poaching on Labour territory as well as Conservative, but expresses mystification at what appeal UKIP could hold for true Labour voters:
“Second, it does not make a great deal of sense to tack towards a party whose policies are diametrically opposed to our own. There is no Labour-UKIP porous border.”
Actually, there may well be, and the reasons are not that hard to understand. UKIP are a soft nationalist party of the type that hold a strong appeal to a large section of the white working class that itself forms a significant part of Labour’s historic core vote. This nationalism consists of two core strands: Euroscepticism- something that has always had a broad appeal across socioeconomic groups in the UK, and increasingly so since the Eurozone crisis- and anti-immigration. The white working class is the constituency that has felt most threatened by large scale immigration- both economically and culturally- and is also the constituency that forms the largest part of Labour’s core vote and a significant part of the vote it needs to attract in marginal seats, particularly in the Thames Estuary and South Coast. Marchant, of course, makes no attempt to understand the reasons people might be stating an intention to vote UKIP, or indeed any party beyond the main two. He prefers to characterize any minor party support, and even much of Labour’s current support, as being a sort of electoral tantrum: fundamentally irrational and unworthy of any serious scrutiny; a distraction from the mythical Blairite centrists who are the only political constituency of any importance.
And therein lies the crux of this kind of argument. In my experience Blairites rarely make an honest argument for the philosophical or political rightness of their policies, they tend to rely on arguments of electoral necessity and implicit or explicit threats of a worse alternative. Hence the repeated shroud waving over the past few years about Labour’s electoral prospects, if they don’t tackle their credibility, seemingly without reference to their current pollng position, and the constantly moving goalpost of how well they “should” be doing at this stage.