Labour and the Tories both think they'll lose 2015 and they can't both be right

The mood in each camp is downbeat and introspective, but “Sorry we blew it last time" isn't the kind of slogan that wins elections

Share

The deep pessimism in the Conservative Party takes some getting used to. Not so long ago Conservatives won elections with their eyes closed. They knew how to win and how electorally formidable they were. In marked contrast, when I spoke to some of those who attended the much-reported ConservativeHome conference at the weekend, I was struck above all by their pessimism. They assumed the next election was lost.

Between sessions, some asked me for my prediction, too. I suggested that, like the 1970s, we were probably in hung parliament territory, with Labour the biggest party. During each conversation, I assumed I would be admonished for predicting a small Labour win rather than a Conservative victory. Each time, the various Conservative activists responded by saying something along these lines: “A hung parliament? No way. Labour will win a big majority.” One put it to me more emphatically: “Labour are in for 10 years.” Admittedly, they were speaking after Lord Ashcroft had given an authoritative presentation on his latest polling of marginal seats, which pointed to a substantial Labour victory. Still, I did not speak to a single person at the conference who thought the Conservatives would win an overall majority, although from the platform some ministers tried to be more upbeat.

This is the context in which Theresa May and others are suddenly seen as future leaders. In the darkness, a party clings to a hope that someone might find a route away from what they fear might be another long period of opposition. They chose two leaders, David Cameron and George Osborne, who were too young, inexperienced and ideologically outdated to rise to the current, epic challenges of leadership, and they now wonder what to do next. May delivered a solid, wide-ranging address at the conference. It was reported as if it were a route map to the Promised Land, largely because she is not Cameron or Osborne. She would be another throw of the dice, although no one I spoke to at the conference thought it likely that any dice would be thrown before the election.

This febrile mood, in a Conservative Party finally conducting an internal debate on the future of a centre right party, is a gift to Labour, not least because the pessimism is not irrational. The Conservative Party faces the nightmare of strong Ukip showing at the election with the Liberal Democrats performing well in target seats in the South.

Yet parts of the Labour Party are still quite pessimistic, too. This is partly because they, too, cannot quite get used to the idea of the Conservatives ceasing to be the natural party of government.

As Owen Jones argued in yesterday’s Independent, much of the debate in England – less so in Scotland and Wales – is still rooted on the right. More specifically, some of those brought up on the cautious defensiveness of Tony Blair are not at all convinced that Labour can win next time with a leader who openly admits to being left of the centre. The doubts extend beyond such backward-looking pessimism. After Labour came fourth in the Eastleigh by-election, a former minister, loyal to Ed Miliband, told me not to underestimate the degree of nervy introspection the outcome would trigger.

Right on cue, shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy made some vaguely downbeat comments in the New Statesman about “lazy Labour... those who have a sense of entitlement to win”. I detect nowhere such a sense of entitlement and much more a fear that victory is by no means inevitable. Murphy is thought to have been one of those who argued that the leadership should apologise more profusely about its past economic record, not least in relation to public spending. I still hear the argument advanced by some Labour MPs, worried that their past in government could lose them the next election as well as the last.

In my view, they are wholly wrong in their strategic calculation. The slogan “Sorry we blew it last time. Vote Labour” does not sound like a winner to me, but at least no one can accuse them of taking victory for granted.

When I have conversations with some Labour MPs about the next election, they are almost precisely the reverse of those I held at the ConservativeHome conference. I suggest that Labour will be the biggest party in a hung parliament and some respond along these lines: “What if the economy improves? What will happen when we announce our spending cuts? Voters still don’t trust us to do any better.”

Of course, most Labour MPs are daring to be more optimistic now. They read Lord Ashcroft’s polls, too. Ed Miliband has consistently believed that the causes of the global economic crisis were bound to challenge the right, just as the collapse of corporatism almost destroyed Labour in the 1970s. But I sense still a wariness in Labour’s ranks and, from some, a much deeper pessimism about its chances of winning outright next time.

In contrast, at their spring conference the Liberal Democrats exuded a fresh exuberance after the Eastleigh by-election. Their winning candidate was paraded as if he were the World Cup. The party certain to come third and doomed to lose seats at the next election is feeling almost buoyant, thrilled to still be breathing. Meanwhile, the two potential winners agonise about how precisely to secure victory in deeply troubled times.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

British economy: Government hails the latest GDP figures, but there is still room for skepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little