Parallels from the past can never be as neat as those proposing them might like to hope. For starters, any modern comparison for 2015 could never do justice to the SNP’s triumph, and what happens in Scotland over the next five years could dramatically change the Parliamentary arithmetic in 2020. Regardless, let’s see what we can come up with, focussing on the two main parties.
1992 is a very tempting parallel, and probably the one that offers Labour the most hope. The failure of polling (check!) led Labour to think that victory was within its grasp, yet doubts about their leader combined with an economy on the mend ended up delivering the Tories a thin majority. Within five years a New Labour dawn had broken. But to focus on the Tories’ narrow win as a comparator is to miss the significantly worse scale of Labour’s defeat.
So perhaps 1983 is better? A third party (for UKIP, read the Alliance) took chunks out of both major parties’ vote but the net beneficiary was the Conservatives. Once again, an unelectably left-wing leader meant the middle classes deserted Labour. If this is the right parallel then there are another 3 parliaments of Opposition to look forward to. 1979 is even a contender – a return to Conservative majority government forced the underlying left-right tensions within Labour out into the open with disastrous electoral effects. Neither parallel can be written off but the Tories’ position today is nowhere near as strong as it was then.
Less apocalyptically, there’s 1955. After a term of steady-as-she-goes government the Tories improved their position by 23 seats, though in that case it was enough to convert a slim majority into a comfortable one. Happily for the Tories they were able to survive a foreign policy adventure and a change of leader – both of which are definitely on the cards today – to do even better next time.
But all of these examples have assumed that the best parallel must be a Conservative victory. Yet a reverse of 2001 seems the neatest comparison – a first-term opposition retreating to its own comfort zone after years in government, willing the electorate to come to them rather than putting in the hard yards required to persuade them to return. The pro-Tory swing in their own marginal defences this year echoes that achieved by first-time Blairite incumbents 14 years ago.
Choosing 2001 also allows me to tentatively present these leadership parallels:
Thatcher : Blair
Major : Brown
Hague : Miliband
Duncan Smith : Burnham
Howard : Cooper or Balls
Cameron : Jarvis or Kendall
History is not destiny, and all the more so when it’s another party’s history interpreted with plenty of licence, but it might give those intending to install Andy Burnham as Labour leader some reason to pause for thought. “Ed Miliband with a Scouse accent,” according to one unnamed MP – well what was IDS but Hague with posher pronunciation?
If Burnham does win the leadership and subsequently turns into something akin to The Quiet Man mk II, then Labour will have to rethink their policy on regicide. As Nick Bent, defeated Labour candidate in marginal Warrington South, puts it:
Some in our party think that getting rid of a failing leader is a Tory thing to do, and typical of the ‘nasty party’. This sort of irrational hippy nonsense has no place in the Labour party – if we are serious about the values we represent, if we care about the people we represent and we if really think Britain is better off with a Labour government, then we have a moral duty to be a serious contender for victory at every general election. And that requires a winner as a leader.
There’s been much discussion regarding the possibility of establishing a 3 year “break clause” for Labour’s new leader – i.e. requiring them to submit themselves for revalidation in 2018. I think that this would be a mistake as it would inevitably weaken the new leader from the off and take the focus off the policy work required. But the very fact that it has been suggested indicates that many in Labour are worried that they’re about to elect the wrong person, again.