Ignore the pessimists, Labour is well-placed to win in 2015

With the return of Lib Dem defectors and the Tories haemorrhaging support to UKIP, Ed Miliband is looking increasingly like the Prime Minister-designate.

Although Eastleigh was dire for the Tories, most commentators were wrong in suggesting it was also bad for Labour's prospects at the next election. In fact, it confirmed why Labour can still win in 2015, despite its terrible defeat in 2010, because these are times that defy psephological orthodoxy.

First, the Tories took office on a historically low base for a governing party. Their vote had been stuck over nearly two decades, inching up painfully slowly from a dreadful low of 30.7 per cent in 1997, to 31.7 per cent in 2001, then to 32.4 per cent in 2005 and finally to just 36.1 per cent in 2010 – in government without having won. And that despite facing a Labour Party with an unpopular Prime Minister, which had lost trust, and which had carried the can for the worst global economic crisis for 80 years.  Not only did the Tories fail to win, they managed to gain a mere five per cent in the thirteen years after their landslide defeat in 1997.

Furthermore, just 23.5 per cent or 10.7 million of the electorate actually voted for them. David Cameron became Prime Minister on a pitifully low base. Apart from when Tony Blair led Labour and despite a significant population rise in the meantime, Cameron achieved the third lowest number of Tory votes since 1931 and the lowest Tory percentage of the electorate since 1918.

Second, Labour under Ed Miliband has quickly recovered its natural vote which had, stage by stage, defected, in the main to the Liberal Democrats, after the introduction of student fees and, above all, the Iraq War. That vote felt utterly betrayed by the Lib Dem leadership’s enthusiastic embrace of a right wing economic agenda which makes Margaret Thatcher look moderate; it will very likely stay with Labour and not easily go back to the Lib Dems except, perhaps, as in Eastleigh, where Labour cannot win.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the Tory-Labour duopoly of British politics seems broken. Since its high point in 1951, when 97 per cent voted Tory or Labour, it has collapsed to just 65 per cent – that nadir the culmination of a long trend in the rise of smaller parties, reflecting progressive disillusionment with British politics and declining turnout. UKIP's stunning performance at Eastleigh confirms that this will not easily be reversed. 

Furthermore, in the past, people might only vote every four years in a general election and for their local council, often on the same day. Now there are five-yearly European elections, annual elections for multiple layers of local government in many parts of England, and elections every four or five years for devolved institutions in Wales, Scotland, London and Northern Ireland.  

The more opportunities people have to vote for different bodies or posts, the more politically promiscuous they become. The Lib Dems have been the main beneficiaries but also UKIP, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party. Once people break the habit of a lifetime by not voting either Labour or Tory, they were more likely to do so again and it has become much harder to win them back, even at a general election.

In addition, some people have started to vote for different parties at different elections. In Wales, for example, significant numbers have voted Labour in a general election, Plaid for the Welsh Assembly and Lib Dem or independent for their local councillor. People have started to mix and match, enjoying greater choice and liking the idea of politicians having to work together in power.

As the political scientist John Curtice has persuasively argued, "the hung parliament brought about by the 2010 election was no accident. It was a consequence of long-term changes in the pattern of party support that mean it is now persistently more difficult for either Labour or the Conservatives to win an overall majority."

Coalition politics may become a semi-permanent fixture at Westminster, just as it has in local government.  In which case, coalition needs to be done a lot better than under the Cameron-Clegg government, where it has become a byword for broken promises, betrayals and sheer incompetence.  

By joining with the Conservatives on an agenda that repudiated all their long claims to progressive credentials, the Liberal Democrats lost, if not forever, then for at least a generation, their niche as the ‘anti-politics’ party – the reservoir for the growing group of disaffected British voters.      

But, the recovery by Labour of its natural supporters apart, there is no reason to suppose that the two main parties will bounce back to their previous hegemony. Some of the anti-politics vote the Lib Dems attracted has gone elsewhere, especially to UKIP and the Greens. Given the crisis in Europe and the fault line in the Tories, UKIP are likely to poll well at the next general election, mainly at the Tories' expense.

All of this means – and Eastleigh confirmed –  that David Cameron won't win the next election.  Even on a bad day, and doubtless after a relentlessly negative and well-resourced Conservative assault, Labour is well-placed. On a good day, the party could well defy the odds and win outright in 2015.  But it is at the very least realistic for Labour to be the largest single party, able to form a government. The question then is: with whom?  And the major answer would come if, as also seems likely, the Orange Book Lib Dem leadership – which hijacked the party and took it into bed with the Tories – is repudiated by a membership desperate to restore the tradition embodied by Asquith, Lloyd George, Keynes, Beveridge, Jo Grimond, David Steel, Paddy Ashdown, Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell.

That assumes, of course, that there are sufficient Lib Dem MPs remaining after a probable battering in 2015. In constituencies where they are well dug-in against the Tories, such as Eastleigh, the Lib Dems will hold their own, although they will certainly lose seats to Labour.

On the same night as Eastleigh, most pundits missed Labour's spectacular victory in a council by-election in a ward where a Tory councillor resigned. It was in the Tory-held seat of Wirral West, a key marginal which Labour lost last time. 

Although he still has ground to make up, the new context for British politics means Ed Miliband is looking increasingly like the Prime Minister-designate. 

Peter Hain is MP for Neath and a former Labour cabinet minister. His memoirs Outside In are published by Biteback

Ed Miliband walks through Hyde Park after addressing TUC members at the end of a march in protest against the government's austerity measures on October 20, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Peter Hain is MP for Neath and a former Labour cabinet minister

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.