Labour’s Fighting Chance

Labour’s Fighting Chance

British voters are taking a hard look at the Conservative Party, and they don’t like what they see.


In a period of extreme economic volatility, 2010 was supposed to hold some electoral certainties. To the extent that elections in Western democracies are about choices–a debatable proposition–the decision had been made before a single ballot was cast. This was the conservatives’ year. Every mainstream pundit called it; every poll confirmed it. The vote would be a mere formality. The debate, such as it was, revolved not around the likelihood of a right-wing victory but the scale of the liberal defeat. As winter turned to spring, however, new possibilities sprouted, and the electoral landscape was drastically transformed. By Easter, center-left fortunes had risen from the dead. By the time Passover had come and gone, conventional wisdom had rarely seemed less wise.

I refer not to commentary about the Obama administration in the run-up to the midterms but Gordon Brown’s forthcoming election in Britain, announced on April 6. An election that was long assumed to be a foregone conclusion has turned into an extremely close contest. Six months ago Labour was seventeen points behind in the polls and heading for a rout; today it trails by as low as four points and is in serious contention.

Labour currently has a majority of fifty-six. No one expects it to maintain that. But it is now perfectly possible that it will emerge as the largest party in a hung Parliament, where no party has an overall majority. If the Conservatives do win–still the most likely scenario–polls suggest it will be with a wafer-thin majority.

With more than a quarter of voters still to make up their minds and a resurgent third party–Liberal Democrats–the result could turn on a handful of votes in a handful of places. One in eight seats needs just a 5 percent swing to change hands, and these are fairly evenly distributed among the parties. With the first-ever televised debates, the scope for dramatic blunders that could alter the course of events is significant.

But for now, this is not only a much better situation for Labour than most expected; it’s much better than the party deserves. Tony Blair left Downing Street with a Hail Mary pass. Languishing in the polls, riven with internal schisms, mired in sleaze, with interest rates rising and Iraq still in chaos, Labour had just been hammered in local elections.

Brown offered not a change in policies but in personnel. He supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and as chancellor was primarily responsible for the government’s economic course, which had lifted many out of poverty but widened the gap between rich and poor. After a brief honeymoon, the party continued its precipitous downward trajectory. Attempts by Blair supporters to oust Brown damaged him but could not dislodge him. The country sought a change in direction. But without Blair’s presentational skills, Brown could not even put a good face on it. The New Labour pig was headed for the slaughter without lipstick.

So what happened? Two developments are broadly responsible for the turnaround. First, voters took a harder look at the Conservatives and didn’t like what they saw. This was not for want of trying. With a new, young leader, David Cameron, and a less xenophobic agenda, the Tories have made a great effort to shed their reputation as the "nasty party." But they seemed to relish the prospect of slashing public spending, made a series of gaffes and have struggled to shake off the image of being the party of the rich (Cameron went to Eton and Oxford, where he was a member of the Bullingdon Club–an exclusive high-society fraternity whose members routinely drank themselves into a stupor, trashed the restaurants that hosted them, then paid for the damage in full, in cash).

Second, for the first time in two decades Labour took a look over its left shoulder and realized what could be gained. In the past two years it has raised taxes on the rich, and in March it raised the transfer tax on expensive houses to subsidize first-time buyers. In 2006 Brown had praised bankers for inventing "the most modern instruments of finance." A year later he thanked them for creating "an era that history will record as the beginning of a new Golden Age." Within a year the financial system was in collapse. Now he is the primary advocate for a global tax on banks that could reap billions a year. "The relationship between banks and society has to change," he told the Financial Times recently.

There are important lessons for the Democrats here. The right is far more adept at scaring swing voters than at convincing them–and the more likely you are to deliver for your base, the more likely it is to deliver for you.

But these comparisons can only go so far. The British middle class, like its American counterpart, is struggling, but it has less antipathy to state intervention. When asked whether the primary responsibility for solving social and economic problems lies with the individual or the government, 62 percent of the middle quintile of earners said the government, according to a 2009 Trade Union Congress poll. More than half said the government should redistribute money from the rich to the poor.

For all that, both main parties promise to slash public spending, continue occupying Afghanistan and pursue the most aggressive attacks on civil liberties in the Western world. The narrow margins in the polls reflect narrow margins in ideology. Whoever wins will do so with a depressed turnout and the backdrop of a sharp rise in votes for the extreme right. If the Liberal Democrats hold the balance of power, they will probably insist on a referendum on proportional representation, bringing to an end the winner-take-all system and hopefully paving the way for a viable left alternative. It matters who wins, but not that much, which is just as well because whoever wins will not win by much.

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