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Labour’s historic challenge

Labour will have to defy history to bounce back after one term in opposition.

The consensus is that Labour has adapted well to life in opposition, perhaps too well, some say. Despite the lack of a permanent leader, the party's poll ratings have improved and the leadership contest has not been the bloodbath that some predicted.

But it's worth remembering that in order to return to government at the next election, the party will have to defy history. On the previous occasions that Labour has been removed from government, the party has usually been out of power for well over a decade (the exception is Harold Wilson's victory in 1974).

Here are the numbers:

1931-45: 14 years

1951-64: 13 years

1979-97: 18 years

Labour has a good chance of improving on this lamentable record. The party is more united than at any time in its history, and with 258 seats it has significantly more than seats than in 1983 and 1987. But there remains a lingering fear that the coalition will use its time in power to destory Labour as an electorally viable force.

First, David Cameron's plan to reduce the number of MPs by 10 per cent will hit Labour hardest by scrapping seats in Wales and industrial areas that have suffered population flight. Of the 50 seats likely to be abolished, 40 are Labour-held. It is for this reason that you will not meet a Labour MP prepared to support the boundary changes included in the Electoral Reform Bill.

Second, the coalition's plan to revisit the vexed issue of party funding could lead to the introduction of a cap on trade union donations to Labour. With the unions responsible for 64 per cent (£9.8m) of all donations to the party in 2009, such reforms could leave Labour bereft of the funds the party will need to run a successful election campaign.

Finally, were Scotland ever to opt for independence, although that now seems only a distant possibility, 41 of the 59 Westminster seats that would be automatically lost are Labour-held. It's worth adding that, in many of the seats that Labour lost in 2005, the party is now in third, not second, place.

So the next leader will face great challenges, but also the opportunity to achieve what almost none of his or her predecessors has managed to do: return Labour to power after one term.