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.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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She knew every trick to get a home visit – but this time I had come prepared

 Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone.

I first came across Verenice a couple of years ago when I was on duty at the out-of-hours service.

“I’m a diabetic,” she told me, “and I’m feeling really poorly.” She detailed a litany of symptoms. I said I’d be round straight away.

What sounded worrying on the phone proved very different in Verenice’s smoke-fugged sitting room. She was comfortable and chatty, she had no fever or sign of illness, and her blood sugar was well controlled. In fact, she looked remarkably well. As I tried to draw the visit to a close, she began to regale me with complaints about her own GP: how he neglected her needs, dismissed her symptoms, refused to take her calls.

It sounded unlikely, but I listened sympathetically and with an open mind. Bit by bit, other professionals were brought into the frame: persecutory social workers, vindictive housing officers, corrupt policemen, and a particularly odious psychiatrist who’d had her locked up in hospital for months and had recently discharged her to live in this new, hateful bungalow.

By the time she had told me about her sit-in at the local newspaper’s offices – to try to force reporters to cover her story – and described her attempts to get arrested so that she could go to court and tell a judge about the whole saga, it was clear Verenice wasn’t interacting with the world in quite the same way as the rest of us.

It’s a delicate path to tread, extricating oneself from such a situation. The mental health issues could safely be left to her usual daytime team to follow up, so my task was to get out of the door without further inflaming the perceptions of neglect and maltreatment. It didn’t go too well to start with. Her voice got louder and louder: was I, too, going to do nothing to help? Couldn’t I see she was really ill? I’d be sorry when she didn’t wake up the next morning.

What worked fantastically was asking her what she actually wanted me to do. Her first stab – to get her rehoused to her old area as an emergency that evening – was so beyond the plausible that even she seemed able to accept my protestations of impotence. When I asked her again, suddenly all the heat went out of her voice. She said she didn’t think she had any food; could I get her something to eat? A swift check revealed a fridge and cupboards stocked with the basics. I gave her some menu suggestions, but drew the line at preparing the meal myself. By then, she seemed meekly willing to allow me to go.

We’ve had many out-of-hours conversations since. For all her strangeness, she is wily, and knows the medical gambits to play in order to trigger a home visit. Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone. It usually revolves around food. Could I bring some bread and milk? She’s got no phone credit left; could I call the Chinese and order her a home delivery?

She came up on the screen again recently. I rang, and she spoke of excruciating ear pain, discharge and fever. I sighed, accepting defeat: with that story I’d no choice but to go round. Acting on an inkling, though, I popped to the drug cupboard first.

Predictably enough, when I arrived at Verenice’s I found her smiling away and puffing on a Benson, with a normal temperature, pristine ears and perfect blood glucose.

“Well,” I said, “whatever’s causing your ear to hurt is a medical mystery. Take some paracetamol and I’m sure it’ll be fine in the morning.”

There was a flash of triumph in her eyes. “Ah, but doctor, I haven’t got any. Could you –”

Before she could finish, I produced a pack of paracetamol from my pocket and dropped it on her lap. She looked at me with surprise and admiration. She may have suckered me round again, but I’d managed to second-guess her. I was back out of the door in under five minutes. A score-draw. 

Phil Whitaker is a GP and an award-winning author. His fifth novel, “Sister Sebastian’s Library”, will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain