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Echoes of 1991

The transformation in the Labour Party’s fortunes was staggering.  In the spring of 2021, a Tory Party which had been in office for 11 years stood a good chance of extending its lead in the once unassailable “red wall.”  By the autumn of 2022 – the year of two monarchs and three prime ministers – Labour had opened up a thirty-point lead over a seemingly imploding Tory administration.  All talk of a toxic coalition with the Scottish Nationals or the Liberals had evaporated… with a lead this great, Labour could expect to form a majority government without the support of other parties.

There was a problem though.  The apex of Labour support had come in the wake of Dagenham Liz’s short-lived Thatcher tribute act… the apparent success of which first time around owed more to Sir David Steel than to the Gospel of Milton Friedman, and which few in the red wall had any desire to see repeated.  And Truss herself had only arrived in 10 Downing Street as a result of her predecessor’s breach of trust with the British people – failing to adhere to stringent lockdown policies that the government had imposed upon everyone else.  Indeed, even the third prime minister of the year, Rishi Sunak had participated – albeit to a lesser extent – in the Downing Street parties (although apparently, just like a former US President, he didn’t inhale).  Nevertheless, with far greater support from the establishment media, Sunak began to establish the narrative that the adults were back in charge.

It might be working.  In spring 2023, coming off the back of a mild winter in which the energy crisis was nowhere near as bad as it might have been, and with the economy at least limping along, Labour’s poll lead has been cut in half.  In part, this appears to be due to Sunak exploiting one of the few areas where Tory and Labour Policies differ – immigration, and especially the large-scale and dangerous people trafficking across the English Channel.  “Stopping the Boats” appears to be winning back the support of disgruntled red wall voters.

Less obviously, although far more importantly though, it is the lack of difference between the Tories and Labour on the fundamental issues impacting ordinary people which might yet prove to be Labour’s undoing.  In particular, with former Bank of England economist Rachel Reeves as Shadow Chancellor, Labour remains wedded to neoliberal economic orthodoxy just as it is approaching its nemesis in the shape of a massive economic downturn.

The received wisdom is that economic crises kill governments.  Labour’s Jim Callaghan and Gordon Brown, along with the Tories’ John Major, were never able to restore their fortunes following their respective economic crises.  And so, with at least a recession, and maybe something much worse, waiting in the wings, we might expect Rishi Sunak’s government to face the same fate…  All Labour’s Keith Starmer – who, like Kinnock before him, was elected leader from the left but rapidly swung right – need do is to remain silent, and electoral victory will surely land in his lap.

Except that economic crises don’t always favour oppositions.  And there was an occasion – with many similarities to today – when an unexpected election victory followed what was then considered a big economic crisis.  Might it be that we are witnessing another of those periods in which history rhymes even if it doesn’t quite repeat?

Just six months after being re-elected on a surprisingly large majority, the Thatcher government faced its economic crisis – “Black Monday,” 19 October 1987.  Although – as is usually the case – the stock market crash was a global – or at least a western – event, its impact in the UK was greater because the London Stock Exchange had been closed in the aftermath of the hurricane force storms which hit southern England in the previous week.  When the London Market finally reopened, the crash in share prices was far steeper.  Nevertheless, while investors suffered, the crash failed to dent the popularity of the Thatcher government.

One reason for this is that, following electoral defeats in 1983 and 1987, Labour had adopted much of the neoliberal economic orthodoxy.  As a consequence, few believed that a Labour administration would have handled the crisis any differently.  Indeed, Labour’s greatest deficit in the years 1987 to 1992 was a lack of academic and intellectual weight behind an economic and political alternative to Thatcher’s free-market zealotry.  Labour’s approach in opposition was to mirror Tory economic policy as closely as possible, while promising minor tinkering on social issues.

Labour’s left wing did still have academic and intellectual support… albeit for an interventionist economic policy which had been resoundingly defeated for the third time in 1987.  Although, much to the annoyance of Labour leader Neil Kinnock, left wing MPs had fared far better than the party as a whole in the 1987 general election.  The result – another similarity with today – was a purging of the Labour left wing, which effectively deprived the country of an opposition to what proved to be some of Thatcher’s greatest excesses.  Most obviously, Kinnock refused to take a stand over the Poll Tax… the issue which finally opened the breach between the Thatcher Government and a large part of the British public.  More toxically though, it was the lack of opposition in those years which allowed the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory Party to assert itself, laying the foundations of the running sore which would ultimately lead to Britain leaving the European Union.

By November 1990, the Tories were falling so far behind in the polls that a leadership contest became inevitable.  The expectation was that Thatcher’s charismatic former Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine would replace her.  As it was, the grey figure of her Chancellor, John Major – the grown-up of the period – emerged as leader.  Nevertheless, the expectation was that with just 18 months before a general election, Major would be a kind of caretaker until Kinnock and Labour took over.

In 1992, Labour maintained its lead over the Tory Party right up until the official campaign began.  During the campaign though, Major appeared to claw back much of the poll lead.  Nevertheless, the establishment media continued to anticipate a Labour victory even after the polls had closed.

Election night 9 April 1992 was a dismal night for Labour supporters.  The exit poll seemed to confirm previous polling, suggesting a small but workable Labour majority.  By the early hours though, as more seats declared, pollsters revised their figures, saying that a minority Labour government was most likely.  A few hours on, and the pollsters revised their figures again, anticipating a minority Tory government.  And then, as dawn broke, it became clear that it was Major’s Tories which had secured the small but workable majority – a majority of 21 on the back of the record high of 14 million votes.

Then as now, the Labour vote had been “soft.”  When polled, voters expressed their antipathy to the Tories and, because Labour were the main opposition, this translated into a grudging support for Labour.  When it came to the crunch, many stuck with the Tories, while many more who might otherwise have voted Labour simply stayed at home.  Labour had piled up votes in seats where they didn’t need them, while failing to win people over in the marginal seats they needed in order to form a government.

It was to be another five years before a majority Labour government took over from a Tory administration – only the third time in British history that this has happened.  And it is worth noting that on those three occasions, Labour had won by offering a clear alternative social and economic vision – backed by a solid body of intellectual and academic work – to the Tory administration it defeated.  Attlee’s Labour Party – the first to win a majority – won the argument over Britain’s post-war future, setting in place the mixed economy which formed the post-war consensus.  Wilson won in 1964 on a promise to unleash the “white heat of technology” to, as it were, make Britain great again.  And most recently, Blair won on the promise of a “Third way” which was neither the uncaring economics of Thatcher nor a return to the failed politics of the 1970s.

Although theoretically, Sunak can wait until January 2025 for an election – five years plus a month for campaigning – more likely he is aiming for October or November 2024… just 18 months away.  And in the unlikely event that the economy is doing better next spring, a May 2024 election is entirely possible.  But with perhaps as little as 12 months to go, few people know who Kier Starmer is, still less the band of nonentities on the Labour front bench.  Only Angela Rayner – who plays the faux-leftie John Prescott role – has widespread public recognition.  But even Rayner has failed to articulate a Labour vision for the future.  And that’s the point, you cannot claim to be a conviction politician or party when your policies are made up on the hoof when an election is called. 

For this reason, Starmer seems a lot more like a Kinnock than an Attlee, a Wilson or a Blair… all of whom appeared to be men of conviction precisely because they had well thought-through and easily articulated visions of the future years before a general election came around.  If Boris Johnson’s lockdown parties were a gift to Starmer it is precisely because they were non-political.  It required no analysis of the (perilous as it happens) state of the UK economy and no heavyweight alternative economic policy program to berate Johnson and his ministers for hypocrisy.  Indeed, for millions of those confined to bedsits and denied access to basic healthcare, or the thousands deprived of the opportunity to say a last farewell to loved ones, had Mephistopheles offered himself up as an alternative prime minister in 2022, he would have been more popular than Johnson.

The Machiavellian solution to that particular problem was simple enough… ditch Johnson.  Except that the Tory Party membership failed to play its allotted role – voting for Truss instead of Sunak.  Nevertheless, a quiet technocratic coup rectified that mistake.  And with Sunak at the wheel, real politics are back on the agenda.  Starmer will need something a lot more profound than pantomime yah-boo feigned outrage at Johnson’s antics to secure that hoped-for Labour majority at the next election.

On the plus side, the Tories are unlikely to have restored Britain’s economic fortunes by next year.  Indeed, with a recession looming, their economic credibility may go the same way as Major’s after Black Wednesday or Brown’s after the 2008 crash.  Even so, Labour will have to at least pretend to understand the crisis and to offer a credible solution.  And on the negative side, Labour doesn’t have an alternative economic policy… still less a coherent vision for the future.  And having alienated much of its activist base, Labour may well struggle to win back the red wall seats it needs if it is to form a government.

The very real threat to Labour is that – as in 1991 – too many of its leaders and supporters take victory for granted even as they fail to present a credible alternative to the electorate.  Britain’s economic woes may be enough to get them over the line.  But it is hubris writ large to take this for granted.  Because at the same point in the 1992 to 1997 electoral cycle, Blair’s “New” Labour was widely recognised and supported as offering a genuine alternative after 18 years of Tory rule.  Starmer, in contrast, likely struggles to be visible even to his own mother.

As you made it to the end…

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