Out of government, out of opposition? You better watch out, Labour

Some people think it will take it 10 years for the party to recover, which is plenty of time for a new progressive party to emerge

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The Conservative Party is the fixed point in British politics. The idea of leaving things as they are, or getting back to what they should be – for instance “balancing the books” or “leaving Europe” – will always exert a powerful attraction. Since 1886, a span of nearly 130 years, the party has been out of office for only five significant periods, totalling 40 years, the last one from 1997 to 2010.

What alters is the nature of the opponents with whom the Conservative Party tussles for power. Going back to the late 17th and early 18th centuries, when political parties first appeared, the Whigs, with their sympathy for the emerging business classes, were the main opposition, and scored their greatest triumph with the passing of the Great Reform Act of 1832.

The Duke of Wellington, who, after his military glories, became a Tory prime minister in the 1820s, was implacably opposed to all notions of political reform. But after 1832, the Tories quickly caught up with reality and moved on – and this is also a characteristic of the party – a generation later putting the far-reaching Reform Act of 1866 onto the statute book.

At roughly the same time, the Liberal Party, led by Gladstone, supplanted the Whigs. The Liberal Party believed in free trade, social reform and in reducing the power of the Church of England. It reached its apogee in 1906 with a landslide victory. The new government, during its early years, was able to begin the work of establishing a system of state welfare. But then came the First World War. The Liberal Party never recovered from the need to abandon many of its principles during the conflict.

In the 1922 and 1923 elections the relatively new Labour Party overtook the Liberals. The Liberals remained out of power until 2010 when a distant relative, the Liberal Democrat party, became a junior partner in the Coalition Government.

Now, in the aftermath of the 2015 election, it is natural to ask whether we have reached another great change, the sidelining of the Labour Party and its replacement by something else. There are some reasons for thinking so. The party’s defeat at the polls was brutal. Both its shadow Chancellor and shadow Foreign Secretary were felled. Its leader has resigned. And apart from Yvette Cooper, the quality of the candidates hoping to succeed Ed Milliband is poor.

Moreover, both in Britain and France, the historic parties of the left, the Labour Party and President Hollande’s Socialist Party, no longer appeal to those working class people who feel left behind by globalisation. The beneficiary in this country is Ukip and in France it is the Front National. Commenting on this phenomenon, Robert Ford, one of the co-authors of the book Revolt on the Right, told this newspaper that “it is not just a case of Ukip taking Labour votes in places like Hartlepool and Dagenham. It also has the capacity to take from Labour the votes of working-class, totally anti-Tory people who consider Ukip an acceptable option.” Indeed, Ukip cost Labour many seats.

But the most serious danger for the Labour Party is that its necessarily slow recovery – some senior members think 10 years will be required – provides the opportunity for a new progressive party to emerge. In Spain, for instance, two new political parties have come to the fore recently.

Podemos was founded only last year. It sprung from widespread protests against inequality and corruption. It has been described as far-left or left-wing populist. Recent opinion polls put it first. Then come the two historic parties of left and right, followed in fourth place by another new party, the Citizens Party, with an 18.4 per cent share. Citizens was formed in Catalonia in 2006 and offers a mix of liberalism and social democracy.

We can also focus on something much closer to home – the amazing success of the Scottish National Party. There are lots of lessons here. The SNP uses social media to enhance the inclusive nature of its campaigns. The party message is spread laterally, that is, peer-to-peer rather than top-down. During the referendum campaign, grassroots groups formed themselves spontaneously as individuals felt moved to try to convince friends and family. This in turn changed the way voters were getting their information. They appear to have listened with only half an ear to what “No”and “Yes” leaders were saying. Instead they seem to have been more influenced by conversations between themselves.

Even in the United States, it wasn’t just money that enabled the Obama campaigns to come from nowhere to a winning position. The Economist reported how a volunteer reeled in more recruits during the 2012 campaign. “First she mentions to friends in passing that she has been working for the campaign... Instead of inviting them to take part straight away, however, she makes a point of talking about all the fun she has as a volunteer... The next step, after a few weeks of such treatment, is to bring them along to a house party hosted by another campaign volunteer... Next might come a boisterous evening at the campaign office, where there is plenty of chit-chat and snacking on sandwiches between phone calls to potential supporters. Before they know it, her targets have a new social life built around Barack Obama’s re-election drive.” 

My colleague Mark Steel was right when he wrote following the election that “it’s almost impossible to win an election by opposing corporate greed, against a hostile media, unless you have a social movement behind you”. Now we can be fairly sure that the coming five years of Conservative rule will generate new social movements. But I doubt whether any of them would line up behind Labour. Instead, one or more may well make their own way into Parliament. If so Labour would become obsolescent.