One of the odd things about the last election is that, as soon as it was over, nearly everyone agreed that it was the right result. Gordon Brown had done a reasonable job of dealing with the financial crash, but Labour hadn’t earned the right to be entrusted with the next stage of the clear-up. David Cameron was smart and looked the part, but he hadn’t done enough to counter the Conservatives’ image as “the nasty party”. And the Liberal Democrats deserved a chance to prove themselves after so many false hopes.
Tony Blair described the result as “a Tory version of a centrist government”. The Coalition was led by a partly reformed Conservative Party, checked and balanced by Nick Clegg. Even now, long after the rose-garden glow has faded, there is a surprisingly wide acceptance that the outcome was somehow the correct one.
Indeed, it can be argued that the voters never get elections wrong. This is known as Daniel Finkelstein’s Friend’s Law. It was proposed by an anonymous friend of the Tory peer and Times columnist, who wrote about it in 2008. The law is formulated thus: “In every contest since universal suffrage in 1928 the party that was more fit to govern has been victorious.”
In many cases this proposition is, “if hardly uncontroversial, still clearly correct”, as Finkelstein wrote. In 1929, complacent Stanley Baldwin deserved to lose and Labour deserved the chance to form a minority government with Liberal support. In 1931, when the National Government won a huge majority under National Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, the rest of the Labour Party was in no state to govern. Nor was it in 1935, when Baldwin had just succeeded MacDonald.
No doubt there are contrarians who take issue with Labour’s landslide in 1945, and I look forward to reading that case one day, but the rightness of St Clement is one of the fixed points of 20th-century British history. The Myth of the Sainted Attlee makes it harder to assert that the tiny Labour majority in 1950 and Tory win in 1951 were justified in the court of history. The second has long rankled with me because Labour won more votes but the Tories won a majority of seats, but even I have to accept that Attlee’s government had blown itself out.
In 1955 and 1959 there was no good reason for change, whereas 1964 and 1966 were a two-step change from a tired, patrician Tory government. I could mount a case against Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979: James Callaghan and Denis Healey might have managed necessary economic change at lower social cost. But Labour had had five years and had barely started. Reluctantly, that has to go in the “correct” column too. In 1983 and 1987 Labour was on a long journey back from the wilder shores of unreality. Blair admitted that even though he was elected as a Labour MP in 1983 he didn’t think that Michael Foot should have been prime minister. Then there were the three Blair victories, about which argument cannot be brooked.
That leaves the elections of 1970, 1974 (two) and 1992. I accept the people’s verdicts in each case. Edward Heath deserved to try to break with corporatism, and Harold Wilson deserved to try to put it back together with the unions after Heath failed.
The hardest, for me, is 1992. Obviously Labour wasn’t ready to govern then – the main mistaken policies on Europe, nuclear defence and nationalisation had gone, but an awful lot of foolishness remained. Although I admire him, Neil Kinnock was distrusted by the British people. But John Major, despite his recent renaissance as a jolly nice man, was a useless prime minister and the Tory Party was exhausted and divided, quickly confirming that it was unfit for office.
I come back to Daniel Finkelstein’s Friend’s Law now because I wonder if it might bring us to a higher level of understanding of the great mystery of our time, namely, “Who is going to win this year’s election?” Iain Dale has one approach, going through every seat in the country and deciding who is likely to win in each case. Thorough, but a bit bloodless. The other approach is to take the historical overview and try to see the election as the next in a series that has generally conformed to The Law.
This Government’s record has been mixed, but do we think that in 2020 it will be agreed that Cameron deserved a chance to finish the job? I think the answer would probably be “yes”. Or will people say that Labour proved it was worthy of the people’s trust to get it more right than the coalition? For me, you only have to ask this question to know the answer.
As Finkelstein himself pointed out, there is a problem of confirmation bias with his friend’s law. After the event, election winners look like winners and the losers look like failures. But, like him, I think there is more to it than that. The Law of Lord Finkelstein’s Friend is a warning to Labour.Reuse content