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If the British economy is facing ‘arguably the worst downturn’ in 60 years, as Alastair Darling blurted out and now wishes he hadn’t, are things any better for Labour’s political situation? The feel-good factor that might have flowed from Team GB’s Olympic success was quickly negated by a grey August, rocketing fuel bills and plunging house prices. So how can Labour come back from so far behind in the polls and avoid Gordon Brown (or a successor) being pushed back into a 2010 general election that it is almost certain to lose?
The answer matters a lot, because economic forecasts are now tipping 2010 as a second year of slow growth or recession. And delaying an election for that long now raises scenarios with seriously grim long-term prospects for Labour. As Spectator columnists and thinking Tories now routinely gloat, genuinely catastrophic elections only come about when a prime minister runs completely out of time and has no room at all left for choosing an election date. Although John Major (backed by the Sun) survived in 1992, the other omens from British history are all negative for PMs who hang on and on.
The Scottish referendum on independence also now looks certain to come to a vote in 2010, with Labour’s long-lived political hegemony there already shattered by the SNP minority government. In Scotland the whole political spectrum is more left wing than in England, so the prospect of a decade or more of Conservative rule at Westminster creates strong contingent incentives for centre-left Scots to vote Yes to independence. And high energy prices in a world of shrinking oil and gas supplies mean that the economic feasibility of Scottish independence will probably never look better.
If Scotland leaves the UK, the Tories could rule what’s left for half a century. In the 2005 general election the Conservatives got 63,000 more votes in England and Wales than Labour, yet 93 fewer seats under our wonderful ‘makes-no-sense’ electoral system. That bias has now been reduced by a constituency reorganisation, and any electoral swing to the Tories, never mind one as large as the polls are currently predicting, will have a massively disproportionate impact in terms of seats in parliament.
Even if Scotland pulls back from full independence, the issue will return, and Labour’s historic winning coalition of 1997 will never be the same again.
Being more popular
So the run-up to Easter 2009 is key if Labour is to rescue a June 2009 election as an option and is to have a workable, feasible strategy for fighting back. That means attracting votes by being more popular. It’s strange to write such an obvious thing down in italics, but among ministers and Labour MPs, wrapped in a decade of Blairite macho politics and its legacies, this simple truth is still frequently denied in favour of esoteric ideological fetishes.
The biggest and most important piles of votes where Labour might pull back some support do not lie with the Tories’ voters, who are never going to come across to the government in current circumstance. Instead Labour needs to seek support from the Liberal Democrats, Greens, and centre-left nationalist voters in Scotland and Wales, many of whom will waste their vote at the next election in hundreds of constituencies that Labour can still win.
So what might get these people voting Labour if their first-preference party cannot win? How about … renewing Trident nuclear missiles at a cost of £30 billion? Cash for peerages and lots of dodgy donors? A massive new programme of nuclear power stations? Arresting people for 42 days without trial? A pointless national ID card, costing another £11 billion? A third runway at Heathrow? These last three are so right wing that even David Cameron and the Tories oppose them (for now).
Okay, so this looks tricky for the government. You could scrap a few of those albatrosses, but that would not be enough. Instead you need something positive and different for voters to talk about. When Gordon Brown came to power – and remember he was popular for his first 38 opinion polls – he had some ideas that might have developed in the right direction, including an effort at ‘big tent’ politics and constitutional reform (this last utterly trivialised by the irredeemably tribal Jack Straw). To get back centrists and centre-left or green voters, this is still the right terrain, but something much more radical will be needed now to get, and keep, some bounce-back momentum for Labour.
The elements for a radical renewal of UK democratic politics are all there and acting on them will never be easier or more helpful for Labour. At the next election, all three of the largest parties will promise an all-elected or an 80 per cent-elected senate to replace the House of Lords. Ministers should come out clearly now for a 100 per cent-elected body of around 250 members, elected by proportional representation (PR) in regional constituencies, using voting systems that let people choose who wins – there must be no place for the parties’ appointed apparatchiks and lickspittles. That means either open-list PR or the single transferable vote (long advocated by the Liberal Democrats). Senators need to serve for no longer than two general election terms – and certainly not the ludicrous 15 years proposed by Jack Straw.
This reform could be a big issue at the next election, as it would mean real changes to how the UK is governed, bringing more parties into having a real say for the long-term. Labour needs to agree a first-session bill in detail with the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, nationalists and other parties – seizing the moment while the Tories still hold aloof in expectation of enjoying unconstrained power on their own.
Meanwhile, the House of Commons badly needs its democratic legitimacy renewed. In 2005, two thirds of all MPs elected in Great Britain did not receive majority support in their local area – that’s 414 MPs whose electorates actually chose someone else to vote for. A massive 259 MPs had 45 per cent support or less, and you could be elected to the Commons with as little as 31 per cent of the votes.
A simple two- or three-clause bill could be introduced, before the next general election, to provide that renewed legitimacy using the supplementary vote (SV). This is the voting system already used to great effect in mayoral elections in London and 11 other English cities. At a stroke it gets rid of all the problems listed above. Voters get to mark an ‘X’ in their first preference column, and then another ‘X’ in their second preference column. If someone gets more than 50 per cent support they are elected straight away. If no one gets a majority, the third, fourth and subsequent candidates are all eliminated at one go and we look at their second preference votes. Any second votes cast for the top two candidates still in the race are added to their piles. The person who comes top on first votes plus second votes wins, guaranteeing them majority support.
What would be the consequences of such a change? Most of the same MPs who win under first past the post would also win under SV. But most would now have to reach out to people not in their party in order to survive – as Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson have both done in London politics. And all MPs would know that this was a permanent state of affairs. Suddenly a lot fewer of them would be blindly following party whips into lobbies to enact unpopular or unworkable laws, and far more would be forced to start thinking the issues through with an eye to the broad coalition needed for their own particular re-election. Every MP’s status and prestige in their community would immediately rise, too, because all could now claim genuine majority backing from their constituents.
In party terms, the supplementary vote method would be modestly useful for both Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the short term. In those areas that are basically right wing, Tory and Lib Dem voters may be able to push out a small number of vulnerable Labour MPs. But in perhaps 20 or 30 other centre-left constituencies, Labour, Lib Dem and Green voters could use SV to avoid splitting the progressive vote and so keep the Tory candidate from winning, even in the face of the current Tory ascendency. In the longer-term, SV could create the foundation for a useful Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition – something that would urgently need to be rebuilt in England and Wales if Scotland looks likely to go for independence.
Famously, this is what Tony Blair planned to do before the 1997 election, when he was ready to offer Paddy Ashdown a seat in Cabinet. Concerned to get a triple lock on winning, he arranged for Robin Cook to negotiate a pact with the Liberal Democrats in spring 1997, six weeks before voters went to the polls. The pact helped deliver millions of Liberal Democrat votes to Labour in Tory-Labour marginals where only Labour could win. It also switched hundreds of thousands of Labour votes to the Liberal Democrats in many seats where they were the only feasible alternative to the Tories. Both Labour’s landslide majority and the Lib Dems’ upward leap to 46 MPs in 1997 depended critically on this effect. But it worked this way only because Lib Dem voters split 70:30 in their second preferences for Labour.
In current polls, there is no pro-Labour majority among Lib Dem voters’ second preferences, and not even much of one among Greens. The government has so systematically battered centre-left hopes and aspirations that even Ken Livingstone in London could do no better than split the second preference votes of Lib Dems, Greens and others roughly 50:50 with Boris Johnson. Left unaddressed, it is this collapse of any progressive alliance that threatens disaster for perhaps 200 Labour MPs in 2009. And if the election date pushes back into 2010, the ‘get ’em out’ incentives for voters may even repeat the bad old days of 1992, when Lib Dem voters’ second preferences split 70:30 for the Tories and Neil Kinnock lurched to spectacular defeat. On current form, expect to see Labour’s 2010 election efforts win fewer seats than Michael Foot did in 1983.
Labour leaders and MPs need to grasp that their choices are thinning out radically in almost every area except the promise of renewing British politics on a new basis. The tribal impulse to let the pendulum swing against them without countenancing coalitions or progressive alliances is still strong among Labour MPs, and the party elite actively continues to court unpopularity with further bizarre policy choices. Yet soon there may be no pendulum left to swing. Either Scottish independence, or a Labour meltdown at the polls could threaten a new Tory hegemony to rival that of the 20th century, when the Conservatives were in government for 85 per cent of the time and polled an astonishing average of 44 per cent in successive general election votes.
By contrast, repeating Blair’s negotiation with the Liberal Democrats (and Ken Livingstone’s courting of the Greens) could open up genuinely exciting prospects for millions of centre-left voters. Ditching some unpopular major policies would signal renewed openness to doing what voters want – and ID cards, 42 days detention and any further Heathrow expansion are policies that will never work anyway. Labour now needs to offer the Liberal Democrats a real coalition government – with Cabinet posts for Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and Vince Cable, and an agreed programme of both constitutional change and other policies for government. Such a move, allied to Lords reform and an immediate change to the supplementary vote for the Commons, would transform the climate of British politics. The media love a horse race, and they are already bored with writing ‘Tories ahead/Labour dead’ stories. Hence new initiatives that show signs of coherent strategy could decisively take the sheen off David Cameron’s surge.
Change of mindset
The chief question for Labour is whether Gordon Brown can make the change of mindset that is neede – a change that he seemed to indicate was feasible in his first few months in office. Is he capable of moving on from the now-dead New Labour agendas of economic competence and yet more welfare-state institutional meddling to embrace genuine political renewal?
Brown’s big problem is not whether this strategy can work for Labour, but whether the Liberal Democrats would risk being tarnished with Labour’s current pall of gloom so long as he stays in power. His resources to get change going are also considerable, however – not least the ability to move quickly to real negotiations and then swiftly thereafter to a damage-limiting or upsurge-capitalising general election in June 2009. There will anyway have to be a European Parliament election at this time, and last time in 2004 parties to the right of the Tories took 23 per cent of the votes. It would not take too much good luck to help along a minor anti-EU UKIP surge that might also take a few per cent off the Tories at an accompanying general election, and switching a few votes to UKIP from the Tories could pay handsome dividends in terms of helping Labour MPs to survive. Formulating a Labour programme that could energise a progressive alliance in a multi-party system and sustain coalition governments stretching for the foreseeable future would be a huge step. Could it be done in time? At present it seems unlikely.
What is certain is that a leadership change made without such a change in programme would have little impact. Of course, many Labour MPs and media columnists fantasise about a Miliband succession that leads to a honeymoon bounce allowing an otherwise unchanged Labour party to call a snap June 2009 election. Yet there is no polling evidence to back such desperate hopes, which would evaporate like a morning mist within days of the start of a general election campaign proper. A Miliband government without a specific strategy for progressive alliances and radically new agendas such as set out here would still be hemmed into an April/May 2010 election, as the economic shadows lengthen, the prime minister’s tactical timing choices drip away and the voters’ resolve to ‘get ’em out’ strengthens by the week. Only a radical alternative, a new political and constitutional settlement for Britain, has the power to stem this tide – and it cannot be built by Labour alone.
Patrick Dunleavy is professor of political science at the LSE