Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Realistic ambitions

It’s probably unwise to make predictions about the coming election, especially when you have form in this area. In 1992 I chose for the front cover splash of the election-week New Statesman, which I then edited, a story by Sarah Baxter headlined ‘Yesterday’s man’. ‘So long John, it was nice knowing you. With these words, the public is preparing to bid John Major farewell,’ her piece began. As we now know, it was five more years before we could finally say goodbye to him; the Tories won their fourth consecutive election victory with what is still the highest-ever election tally of 14.09 million votes.

I think I’m on safe ground, however, in saying that Labour will attract nothing like that level of support this time around, even if it does somehow contrive to pluck a fourth election win from the jaws of what has seemed for most of Gordon Brown’s premiership to be certain defeat. The party had already shed four million votes from its 1997 high water mark of 13.5 million by 2005, leaving it only 770,000 votes ahead of the Tories. Its 1992 losing tally of 11.56 million would be regarded as a stunning achievement in 2010.

All the talk, as I write this, is of a hung parliament. This is not just being wished for as a less-bad alternative to an outright Tory victory. It is seen as desirable in its own right by constitutional reformers who dream of a Lib-Lab pact ushering in a more proportional voting system, an elected second chamber and enhanced civil liberties.

Desirable though these reforms may be, we should beware the perils of such an outcome. The majority of the electorate, whatever its mistrust of the Tories, is none too keen on the continuance of this government. Nor does the Labour Party, on recent behaviour, deserve to remain in office. Divided and embittered, at war within its own ranks, its principal parliamentary actors have long since lost all sense of unity of purpose – or indeed much sense of any kind of purpose save that of power. To hold onto it with a minority of seats and in all probability the support of barely one in three voters and fewer than one in four of the electorate at large would be to invite disdain. It would diminish democracy, further undermine public faith in parliament and stoke up future support for a new populist politics of the far right – which is a much more frightening risk facing us over the coming decade than the Cameronite brand of Conservatism.

In the absence of an overall majority, the continuation of Labour in government – even, perhaps especially, a coalition government – would quite likely be merely the prelude to a more crushing defeat a little way down the line. For the left, it is hard to see how this election can be about anything but damage limitation. Backing the campaigns of good sitting MPs and individual candidates (most, though not all, of them Labour); working for the isolated breakthrough of left, Green or independent candidates in that handful of seats where they have a chance of better than derisory votes; preventing the far right from getting its first foothold at Westminster; trying to minimise the scale of the inevitable Tory advances; and above all preparing for the long, hard political slog ahead, both within and beyond the electoral arena – these should be the realistic limits of our ambitions, and the essential, rudimentary platform for any future recovery.

1 comment:

Jonny said...

Being 21, it's a a bit disheartening to have this as the first general election I'll have a chance to take part in. At the same time, I think it's possibly one of the most important one to actually vote in, in many ways. While it will be very hard to consider this a victory, whoever wins, it's vital to make a statement of involvement with politics, to actually commit yourself to being part of the process. That way, the difficult months and years ahead might not end up being as bleak as they may look in June.