Can Labour lose?
2005: General election year - Don't trust the conventional wisdom: that Blair is heading for a thir
Everyone agrees that it won't be worth staying up for the election results of May 2005. You can get a decent night's sleep, secure in the knowledge that when you wake up nothing will have changed. The average of the various polls published in the run-up to Christmas put Labour on 37 per cent, the Conservatives on 31.3 and the Liberal Democrats on 21.6. Judging by the standard means of translating votes into seats, these figures give Labour a landslide majority of 132. The Tories make only four gains - indeed, Labour loses more MPs to boundary changes, which cut the number of Scottish seats, than to the opposition. With 57 MPs, the Liberal Democrats stay much as they are.
The Iraq war, the Blair-Brown war, rising taxes, the falling housing market, the spin, the sin, the million-strong marches, the furious fox-hunters, the mumbling conspiracy theorists and the settled, unappeasable loathing of the Prime Minister from right and left count for nothing. Everything will be as it was.
Or maybe not. Alert readers will have noticed something strange about those figures and be asking how Labour can be heading for another thumping majority with just over one-third of the vote. The conventional answer is that the first-past-the-post system now suits the party very well. It needs fewer votes than the Tories to take a seat, and far fewer votes than the luckless Liberal Democrats, because Labour's core constituencies are in cities whose population is declining.
This has been true for years. Much more important, the argument continues, are the marginal seats where elections are decided. Labour has pushed into Tory territory and taken control of the floating voters. It has, in political jargon, "triangulated" the opposition, following Bill Clinton's unprincipled but effective tactic of moving the centre-left party to the right so that the centre-right party is pushed out to the extreme.
If, to take a recent example, the Conservatives are winning a sympathetic audience with their proposals to make it easier for householders who kill burglars to escape prosecution, the thing not to do under any circumstances, triangular thinking holds, is explain that the existing law is fine and that Tony Martin shot a boy in the back while he was running away and shouting for his mummy. And that no jury, not even a jury of Daily Mail readers with Michael Winner as the foreman, was going to acquit him.
To do so would be to make the foolish mistakes of overestimating the public's intelligence and taking on the media. The thing to do is a U-turn. If Michael Howard complains about Labour "stealing my clothes", as he did the other day, then the silly man should wise up, realise that Labour has been stealing his clothes for a decade, and be grateful that Blair has been enough of a gentleman to leave a change of shirt in the wardrobe.
Every historian of the Blair years hails triangulation as the key to the party's domination of politics. And there's a lot of truth in what they say, but as a description of the government's record and the British electorate, triangulation theory has two flaws. If you wake up and find that a wild election night has left Labour with the hangover of a small, unstable majority or the delirium tremens of a hung parliament, those flaws will have done for the party.
The first is that this government has been far more radical than it likes to admit or the left likes to notice. But potential Tory voters have noticed that their taxes have gone up to pay for the relief of poverty and are ready to vote to get them down again. The second is that the conventional wisdom ignores the importance of tactical voting. Labour supporters may not like everything he does, but they've got nowhere else to go. Blair's priority has always been to protect his right flank. Implicit in his thinking is the two-party system. Yet Britain no longer has a two-party politics: it has a three-party politics and in some places a four-or-more party politics. In the past, people whose first choice would be Liberal Democrat or nationalist or Green have voted Labour to keep the Tories out. It is anyone's guess how many Labour MPs depend for their survival on tactical voting.
The modern elector with his vague preferences and passions may not even remember he was a Lib Dem in 2001, who nevertheless opted not to vote for his first choice. But the importance of tactical voting can be shown by comparing John Major's fortunes to Tony Blair's. Major's Tories won 41.9 per cent of the vote in 1992, but in the marginal seats Labour supporters voted Lib Dem and Lib Dem supporters voted Labour and his majority was just 21. In 2001, Blair actually had a smaller share of the vote - 40.7 per cent - but tactical voting was by then keeping the Tories in their box even more effectively and his majority was 167.
What happens if tactical voting declines or collapses as a result of Iraq? Even assuming the polls are accurate, they may not be presenting an accurate picture, because the conventional model of translating poll results into seats assumes that the old post-1992 voting pattern will prevail: that Iraq and the rest will still not stop Lib Dem or Green or nationalist supporters in Labour/Conservative marginals voting Labour to keep the Tory out.
If, however, the anti-Tory coalition has collapsed, then the Tories will benefit, as you would expect them to. There are many marginals, particularly in the south, where the Tories don't need more votes. What they need is for people who vote Labour only because they hate the idea of a Conservative victory more than anything else to stop voting Labour. In this scenario, the Labour vote falls, Lib Dem or Green or whatever votes pile up uselessly and the Tories come through the middle.
This isn't to say that the Liberal Democrats will get nowhere. The conventional prediction - outlined at the top of this piece - that the party will make no gains feels all wrong. No one should be surprised if the Lib Dems come from nowhere to take, say, university constituencies with a Muslim minority, large numbers of students and Guardian-reading professionals.
Labour does recognise the danger. According to Rachel Sylvester of the Daily Telegraph, its private polling shows there are three million voters, most of them middle-class professionals, who have turned against the party because of the war in Iraq. Blair is planning to appeal to them by playing up his concerns about Africa and global warming. I'm sure these are genuine, just as this government's achievements in relieving poverty are genuine. The problem is that the Prime Minister's triangulation strategy has been too successful by half. He has so defined himself by taking on the left, that when he launches admirable initiatives, few listen to what he is saying and fewer believe him.
I'm told that Labour is planning a "go to bed with Kennedy, wake up with Howard" campaign. In effect, it will be saying to the voters that they should support Labour as "the lesser of two evils". It is a powerful argument. The Democrats lost the 2000 US election when a section of the American left voted for Ralph Nader because they had been convinced by Michael Moore and other clowns that there was no difference between Gore and Bush. They know better now.
But 2000 contains a warning for Blair. The Clinton administration had so thoroughly triangulated the Republicans in America that Gore no longer had the arguments to appeal to a key minority of voters in marginal states. All he was left with was the cry: "Vote for me - I'm evil, but not quite as evil as the other guy." It wasn't the most inspiring of slogans.
To write as if this government will wake up one May morning with a slashed majority or worse feels preposterous. The civil service and virtually all political commentators agree that Blair is cruising towards a third whopping majority. Maybe they're right; maybe the sceptics are wrong and are allowing their dislike of the PM to cloud their judgement. But Andy McSmith, the wise political editor of the Independent on Sunday, points out that the consensus has blundered before. In the run-up to the 1997 election, reports were coming in from across the country that Labour was about to take safe Tory seats. No one put them together and said that if Labour was going to win Much Chutney in the Marsh for the first time since the relief of Mafeking, it was heading for a landslide. The received wisdom was that Blair would just scrape home.
Today the same process may be happening in reverse. All across the country, there are reports of confident Conservative Associations brandishing canvass returns and looking forward to election day, and gloomy Labour MPs such as Nick Palmer, from the apparently safe seat of Broxtowe, talking of a "solid and in some cases quite militant and aggressive Tory vote and a hesitant former Labour vote".
The editor has asked me to offer my advice to readers. I won't, because I wouldn't expect you to take it if I did. To those of you who are considering renouncing Labour, I will just make three points that are not often heard.
1 The Liberal Democrats, although admirable in many respects, constitute a middle-class party, one that has opposed increases in the minimum wage and wants to scrap the New Deal. Middle-class readers who vote Lib Dem for good reasons are also voting against the interests of their poorer neighbours.
2 As I have argued before in these pages, Respect is a party of the right, not the left.
3 If you wake up in May and are appalled by the result, be a grown-up. Don't behave like Michael Moore and start screaming about stolen elections. If you don't vote Labour, you've no right to complain if there isn't a Labour government.