UK Labour’s 13-year reign is the party’s longest ever. Here, the ALP can show some similar results — 13 years for the reforming Hawke-Keating government; 15 and counting for the far less impressive government of New South Wales — but the road usually ends in a deep ditch. Keating was thrown out of office in a landslide. NSW Labor has long been on course for a similar fate. Is that what awaits the New Labour Government of Gordon Brown as it goes to the polls on Thursday?
It has been a torrid premiership for Brown, the unelected leader who almost called a snap election in 2007 but instead decided to hang on until the last possible moment. For most of the time since the cancelled early election of late 2007 Labour has looked set for a crushing defeat at the hands of the revitalised Conservatives.
But with the campaign in its final week the outlook has become less clear. A rout is no longer certain. Bidding for a fourth term and with the early, effortless years of Tony Blair a distant memory, the question for Labour is: How did it come to this? How was Labour plunged into despair and why is it that, days before the election, the Government can still hope for survival in office?
First, the despair. For all the savage personal criticism directed at Gordon Brown, Labour’s troubles actually began long before he took the leadership. Tony Blair won the 2005 election with a record low share of 22 per cent of the eligible electorate and saw Labour’s parliamentary majority slashed by over 100 seats. The Tories, who polled the most votes in England, ran a campaign focused on asylum seekers and immigration and had not yet overcome the public hostility they earned during their 18-year reign under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Labour won despite widespread disgruntlement, most notably over Blair’s decision to join the American invasion of Iraq.
When Brown took over, the media-savvy David Cameron had been opposition leader for two years and was already popular. Cameron, who presented as socially inclusive and environmentally concerned, clearly broke the mould of the "nasty party" stereotype which had grown around Thatcher and her heirs. When the global financial crisis struck and Britain was plunged into bleak recession, Brown, as chancellor during the boom years, attracted most of the blame for Britain’s economic woes. Although Brown has attracted praise for his handling of the crisis, most of that praise has come from international luminaries who do not have a vote on Thursday.
Next, news of widespread misuse of parliamentary expense allowances was broken by the Daily Telegraph, a Conservative-supporting broadsheet. "Greedy MP wants bigger trough for his fat family" was how one MP parodied the scathing media coverage. Despite widespread outrage at the expense claims of Tory MPs for a moat, a "duck island" and the like — items which tend to be beyond the social and financial reach of Labour members — Cameron’s response to the scandal was more vehement and Brown, as head of the government, was the obvious target for criticism.
Labour’s cause was not aided by the role of Michael Martin, the speaker of the House. Previously, the public was only dimly aware of him as a bluff, Dickensian figure, presiding over the fractious Commons. Now the unfortunate Martin was roundly portrayed as a Labour machine politician, a shop steward for parliamentary privileges and a Scottish crony of Brown. He ended up becoming the first speaker hounded from office in more than 300 years.
The expenses scandal is where the Liberal Democrat election subplot in this saga begins. If the Lib Dems do finish ahead of Labour in the popular vote it will not be because the British people have rediscovered their inner Gladstone. Instead, the third party has found itself well placed to capitalise on widespread disillusionment with Labour and the Tories. The Lib Dems had stayed under the radar, tracking between 15 and 20 per cent in the polls, until Nick Clegg’s creditable performance in the first election debate. They escaped the fury directed at the two main parties because, prior to Clegg’s prime-time breakthrough, they were simply not much thought of.
As the scandal rumbled on, voters expressed their dismay at the Government in European elections. Nationwide, Labour came third behind the Tories and the anti-European UK Independence Party, and two seats went to the far-right British National Party. Labour lost first place in a Welsh election for the first time since 1918. In concurrent local elections, Labour came third behind the Tories and the Lib Dems.
It was during these disastrous elections that the most serious internal coup against Brown was attempted, with a series of ministers resigning and calling on the Prime Minister to stand down. And here, oddly enough, began hopes for a Labour revival. Business Secretary Peter Mandelson rallied support for Brown in cabinet, the resignations ended and the crisis passed. A longstanding Blair lieutenant and an architect of the New Labour project, Mandelson has been instrumental in unifying Labour behind Brown.
The subsequent and final Labour coup against Brown misfired. "If you were Brutus, Caesar would have been fine, wouldn’t he?", the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman asked Geoff Hoon, the hapless plotter later suspended from the party for influence peddling.
With the leadership issue resolved and the economy recovering, Labour began campaigning hard on its economic record. The architects of Labour’s landslides went back on the road for one last roll of the dice. Mandelson is managing campaign strategy, long-serving press secretary Alastair Campbell is back in the spin room and even Tony Blair — tanned, famously prosperous but still a natural — is back visiting hospitals. Doubts over the Conservatives’ response to the financial crisis and their approach to Britain’s economic problems have lingered.
And the Lib Dem surge has made a Tory majority harder to achieve. Nevertheless, a breakthrough result for the Lib Dems could also force major changes to progressive politics in Britain.
The New Labour project has drawn on the "Third Way" centrism articulated by Anthony Giddens, a former Director of the London School of Economics. In his 2007 book, Over To You, Mr Brown, Giddens canvassed possibilities for building a "Progressive Consensus". (He also wrote chapters titled "Shedding the Island Identity" and "No Giving up on Multiculturalism!" which, evidently, have not been read by Mrs Gillian Duffy of Rochdale, who Brown infamously referred to as "bigoted" in a recent gaffe.)
A post-election arrangement between Labour and the Lib Dems may be the start of such a consensus. The "progressive alliance" now touted by New Labour in extremis was on the cards once before, when Blair was in a position of strength. Blair entered negotiations with the Liberal Democrats prior to his first landslide. That moment passed, but the alliance may, of necessity, be revisited. Unavoidably, each potential election outcome, ranging from a working Tory majority to survival in office with Lib Dem support, will require the reassessment of the New Labour project.
But these are considerations for Friday, after the people give their verdict. Don Watson, Paul Keating’s speechwriter, wrote of Australian Labor’s unexpected 1993 win: "The hand of the hangman had been stayed, but it felt more like the rope had snapped." After two and a half miserable years and a troubled campaign, a Tory majority denied would constitute an improbable reprieve for Labour.
Improbable but not impossible. In January, the Tory statesman Chris Patten observed that "the most important attribute in politics is benefit of the doubt. The Government have lost it, the Tories haven’t yet got it." After 13 years of New Labour rule, this may be the most that Labour’s hierarchy can reasonably expect. They must hope it remains the case on election day.
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