Will history repeat itself? In 1995, Labour enjoyed leads of more than 30 points over the Conservatives, just as it does today. Two years later Tony Blair led his party to a landslide victory. Are we heading for a repeat? Here are three reasons for Labour caution.
- Some of the current dislike of the Tories flows from Liz Truss’s personal unpopularity. But she’s going, whereas John Major fought off a challenge to his leadership and stayed to fight the 1997 election. This time a new prime minister might claw back some support, and outperform both Truss and Major.
- In any event, it is common for governments that are unpopular in mid-term to recover to some degree as the next general election approaches. This has happened in almost every parliament that has run for four or five years in modern times. It was even true in 1997. On the day, Labour’s enjoyed a 13-point lead in the popular vote, well below its mid-term lead.
- If Labour manages to win by 13 points next time, its majority will be well below the 179-seat gap that opened up 25 years ago. On a uniform swing its majority would be just 34 on current boundaries and around 20 on the new boundaries that will come into force next summer. (Labour’s collapse in Scotland is the main, but not the only, reason for the difference since 1997.) In reality, tactical voting might help Labour to do better than that. In 1997, tactical voting added around 40 seats to Labour’s majority. But to be absolutely confident of a secure majority that would last a full parliament, Labour needs to aim for a 15-point lead in the popular vote—which the party has regularly achieved in mid-term polls but never in a general election.
Those are some warnings from history. But there remain huge unknowns. Perhaps the biggest is what will happen to Conservative support over the next few months. One eminent pollster with three decades of experience says that they have never experienced such venom in focus groups, and that this is directed to the Conservative party as a whole, not just Truss. This suggests that her successor will find it tough going to revive Tory fortunes.
Part of the problem is that this will be the second time that the Conservatives have changed their leader in this parliament. Mid-term changes of PM are regularly accompanied by calls for an early elections—calls that are invariably ignored by both Labour and Conservative governments. But two changes is unheard of (unless you count the special circumstances of Winston Churchill taking over in 1940, after Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain had both served as PM since the 1935 general election). Will voters regard a new PM who refuses to call an election an illegitimate head of a discredited government?
That is not all. Living standards are certain to fall in the months ahead, with energy bills, food prices and mortgage rates rising sharply. Some taxes may also have to go up. Even if real take-home pay starts to recover in the final months before the next election, painful memories of personal austerity will be too recent for Tory comfort.
In this respect, the Conservatives are in a worse place than the mid-1990s. The source of their unpopularity then was the shock of Black Wednesday in 1992, when Britain dropped out ignominiously from Europe’s currency club. What is often forgotten is how well Britain’s economy performed in the run-up to the 1997 election. Inflation, unemployment and mortgage rates all fell; living standards rose steadily; income tax was cut twice. The Tories still crashed to their worst defeat since 1906. So only an extreme optimist would predict a Tory victory this time, following this year’s political melodramas and next year’s economic challenges.
All in all, the Tories seem certain to kicked out at the next election. Keir Starmer is as near certain as we can be, probably two years out, to become prime minister. But a huge unknown will persist for many months to come. Given the reasons for caution set out above, it is certainly possible, but far from certain, that Labour will win a big enough majority to last a full five-year parliament.
This matters more than usual, because it is clear from the state of public finances that a progressive government wanting to improve public services, reform social care, fund its planned investments to avert climate change, and increase welfare will have to raise taxes significantly to fund its programme. A minority government cannot guarantee lasting very long. It would tread carefully and avoid unpopular tax increases. But its very caution would risk public disenchantment. It’s possible to imagine a Tory return to office after a brief bout of internal bloodletting in opposition.
In contrast, a five-year Starmer government could make big, potentially unpopular, changes in the first year or two, and then spend three years showing (as they would hope) that their policies are successfully leading Britain towards a brighter future.
All in all, the Conservatives’ fate at the next election is pretty well sealed. But the destiny of Britain in the second half of the 2020s is still to play for.
This blog was first published by Prospect