Wednesday 14 July 2010

So just who would use a crystal ball like this?

Political predictions can be a dangerous thing. But here's one piece of long-term crystal ball-gazing which - given that it was written as long ago as March 2004 - would seem to have had a very good first half. Which makes its broader prediction - that The Tories will briefly return to power in 2010, but after that it will be Labour's century one which could cheer Labour as it gets used to opposition.

Our crystal ball-gazer wrote:

Labour cannot become the natural party of government until its leadership passes to a generation unscarred by opposition. This seems unlikely to happen in the near future. Labour will comfortably win the next election, albeit with a significantly reduced majority. Gordon Brown will get his moment in the sun, but it will be a short one: the Conservatives, led by a younger, wetter leader, will win in 2010. Labour will then be back in opposition - and the true test will begin. A Conservative government is likely to be fairly hopeless, given that the cabinet will comprise a mixture of has-beens and overrated ingenus. For all their recent presentational successes, the Tories have no strength in depth.

By contrast, the Labour front bench of 2010-2015 will pack some serious punch. Labour has a cadre of thirtysomething MPs who will be able to use the rest-cure of opposition to develop a robust political philosophy that can guide them, in power, for a generation. And so, I predict, the years 2015-2030 will be Labour ones again.

Long-term success depends on this generation ...

Not bad, in that this seems to get mostly right (i) the 2005 election, (ii) the new Tory response, (iii) the Blair-Brown transition, (iv) Gordon Brown's failure to be re-elected, (v) the broad contours of the 2010 election, and even (vi) the somewhat shaky nature of Cameronism, and (vii) perhaps the personnel and arguments of the post-2010 Miliband et al generation Labour leadership.

So which sagacious scribe was this? Step forward and take the plaudits, Richard Reeves, writing in the New Statesman, before going on to be director of Demos.

And, now, chief political advisor to LibDem leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg.

Which makes Reeves' advocacy that "To become the natural party of government, Labour needs liberalism but not the Liberals" particularly interesting. (A strangely Brownite lapse there, in not giving the Liberal Democrats their proper name).

The third challenge likely to re-emerge for Labour in opposition (and perhaps even in the smaller-majority term of 2005-2010) will be the familiar one of whether to work more closely with the Liberal Democrats. Blair was keen to play up the prospects of reuniting the liberal and socialist strands of British political history in a unified anti-Conservative movement. Such a realignment, he suggested, was necessary to ensure a "progressive century". He even blew hot about proportional representation. But that was in 1995. One Labour landslide later and Lib-Labbery was quickly defenestrated.

The death of the Lib-Lab dalliance brought distress to many thoughtful progressives in both parties - but there were plenty more who were relieved. They recalled the 1903 pact, in which the Liberals agreed that some Labour candidates could run unopposed in the 1906 election, and so allowed Labour to become a serious electoral movement. Jeremy Thorpe's view, that this allowed the "socialist cuckoo in the nest", was echoed by many senior Labour figures who opposed offering similar assistance to the Lib Dems.

The temptation to reopen the flirtation will be especially strong, given the liberal instincts of many of Labour's rising stars, the Lib Dems' shift towards social democratic positions and the renewed fears of Conservative hegemony. But the temptation should be resisted. The drive towards any kind of alliance has always been defensive, which is why it reappears only when Labour is in opposition or has a small majority. It is based on a shared desire to beat the Conservatives - honourable, sure enough, but a lousy basis for an alliance. A realignment in opposition will reek of opportunism and desperation, to the electorate.

Yet Blair, Roy Jenkins and others are right to say that the breach between liberalism and socialism needs to be healed. The solution, however, is not a marriage of parties but a reinvention of Labour from within. To become the natural party of government, Labour needs liberalism but not the Liberals. For a start, there are growing numbers in the Labour ranks who have adopted a liberal mantle, and who in some cases possess a genuinely liberal instinct. Peter Hain, David Miliband, Tony Wright and others describe themselves as "liberal socialists". Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats' claim to the inheritance of pure liberalism has become pretty shaky: they advocate such policies as making people take out compulsory second pensions to supplement their basic state pensions.

Well, that's crystal ball-gazing for you. You can't get everything right.

With the Coalition of 2010, its all different now. Of course, Richard Reeves' grandchildren will long ask to hear just one more time about the Guardianista intervention of 2010 which, amidst those Cleggmania days, managed to contain LibDem losses to just six seats, so paving the way for a historic Coalition.

Just one small doubt remains. When it was written in the stars, can even Richard Reeves and Nick Clegg really change the course of history?

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