The State of the Left: Labour's Priorities after Blair and Brown

By Gamble, Andrew | Soundings, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

The State of the Left: Labour's Priorities after Blair and Brown


Gamble, Andrew, Soundings


Labour lost office in 2010 after thirteen years in government - the longest stretch of Labour government the party has managed since it was founded a hundred years ago. It more than doubled the previous record, and was marked by three general election victories, the first two, in 1997 and 2001, by decisive margins, at least as measured by parliamentary seats. At long last it appeared that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had succeeded where Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson had failed, transforming Labour from a party of opposition into a party of government. One sign of this was that although the party lost in 2010 it did not suffer the kind of splits that had taken place after its defeats in 1951, 1970 and 1979. The party has remained remarkably united. The leadership election in 2010 did not offer stark choices between the main candidates, and, with some wobbles, the party united behind its new leader, who has gradually increased in confidence and effectiveness. The party no longer appears to be ideologically divided in the way that it was for most of its twentieth-century history.

The election defeat in 2010 was, however, serious. Labour saw its vote share fall below 30 per cent, for only the second time since 1945, and much of the ground captured by New Labour, particularly in the South of England, was ceded. The loss of seats was less marked, however, and the Conservatives narrowly failed to secure an overall majority. After a shaky post-election start Labour's fortunes began to improve, helped considerably by the lack of in-fighting: a party that can stay united after it has been defeated in a general election is in a strong position to renew its leadership and its policies, and to be a credible alternative at the next election. And the opinion polls during 2012 moved firmly in Labour's direction, giving the party steady if not overwhelming leads over the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrat vote crashed in the first year of the Coalition government, and by 2012 had still not recovered. But the Conservative vote held up remarkably well until the end of 2011, with Cameron's standing running far ahead of that of the Labour leader. However this all changed in 2012. The government suffered major losses in the local government elections, and the Conservatives now saw their support and their reputation for competence nose-dive. This was partly a result of the continuing recession; partly a result of a series of unforced errors, many of them connected to George Osborne's 2012 budget - one of the least politically astute budgets of recent times - and partly a result of Labour emerging as a more effective and credible opposition. By the summer of 2012, two years into the parliament, Labour appeared to be on course for an early return to government.

Yet despite the signs that support is returning to Labour, the mood in the party remains cautious and low-key. There seems to be little excitement around Labour, little positive enthusiasm outside Labour's ranks for an early return of the party to government, and little sense that the party is generating new ideas or approaches. This is leading some commentators to suggest that if Labour wins it will be by default, because of the growing unpopularity of the government rather than because it has found a new winning formula or a leadership that inspires positive support. The negative ratings of all three party leaders and the still modest poll leads of Labour do not suggest an irresistible surge of support towards Labour, and an outright Labour victory at the next election will be hard to achieve. Despite the travails of the government, the Conservatives still have time to rally their forces and win an outright majority at the next election.

All this has led to speculation that the left is facing a crisis of purpose and leadership, and has given rise to concern that even if Labour were to find itself back in government after the next election it would not have a clear programme for government. …

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