Friday 3 September 2010

Labour can bounce back quicker than Blair thinks

New Labour often gave the impression that it thought the world began in 1997. Yet it was, in fact, profoundly influenced by a reading of the party's history.

Early New Labour was much influenced by David Marquand's persuasive thesis in "the progressive dilemma" of the limits of Labourism in the conservative century, in which cause Tony Blair suffered claret-induced hangovers after tutorials from Roy Jenkins.

So perhaps it is appropriate that it is LibDem blogger and historian Mark Pack who queries Tony Blair's account of Labour's electoral history.

Blair told Andrew Marr that:

And the question for the Labour Party is do you buck the historical trend, which has always been, you lose an election and then you go off and decide to lose a few more, before you come back".

This isn't true. It reflects the formative importance of the 1980s and the 1992 defeat in particular for Blair, but does not describe much of a trend, still less what "always" happens.

Labour has left office five times before 2010. (Five data-points don't offer strong grounds for iron historical laws anyway - as new MP Chi Onwurah's satirical LabourList post demonstrates). Twice it won the next election immediately following defeat; once it needed one more go, while it did suffer multiple defeats as an opposition on two occasions, in the 1950s and 1980s.

1924: won the next election (minority government)
1931*: lost once more (1935) and won the second election (1945)
1951: lost two more elections (1955, 1959) before winning the third (1964)
1970: won the next election (1974, minority government, then small majority).
1979: lost three more (1983, 1987, 1992) before winning in 1997.
2010: ....

(* 1931 election held two months after the Labour party left office, though former Labour PM and Chancellor had stayed on in National Government)

Pack makes the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that Labour has bounced back most quickly after 1924 and 1970 when it held on to its leader and policies.

David Miliband has made a similar argument to Blair's.

We need to buck the trend that when Labour lost in 1931, we were out for 14 years; that when we lost in 1951, we were out for 13 years; when we lost, as we know to our cost, in 1979 we were out for 18 years.

I am asking you to help make this time different from the rest.

But if 1931 and 1951 are in then why omit 1970?

And Labour was in government within nine years of 1931 election, in the wartime Coalition. It could hardly have won earlier when there was no election for the decade between 1935 and 1945. (It may be unfair to argue Labour was "exhausted" in opposition in the 1930s, since Labour's foreign policy shift under Dalton from pacifism in 1934 to rearmament in 1937, rather against and ahead of the public mood, were the most important decisions the party ever made, with Labour backing for Churchill proving absolutely crucial in a divided war cabinet in 1940)


Where are we now? Well, we learn from history, rather than being condemned to repeatit.

The fear of 1980s civil war run deep, but are perhaps the least apt analogy, not least because the party retains a very strong folk memory of the futility of that period.

In some ways, Labour's condition is similar to that in 1970, retaining the Parliamentary strength to have a decent chance next time, but requiring rather greater change to provide the foundations of a governing project.

In many ways, the party does face similar challenges to those it struggled to deal with in 1951, when it seemed unable to renew after a successful period in office. The problem was not then any lurch to the left. Attlee stayed on for four years, until after the 1955 defeat as the party relied too heavily on the experience of its former ministers.

Labour shifted its policy and political approach barely a millimetre, to steal Mr Blair's phrase and recommendation. It is good that this ossifying advice has been rejected by every 2010 leadership candidate, since it would be to repeat exactly the post-1951 mistake whch Crossman identified in new Fabian Essays:

[Labour had] "lost its way not only because it lacked maps of the new country it is crossing, but because it thinks maps unnecessary for experienced travellers".

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