The talk is of a general election without precedent: the first to take place in a new era of six-party politics; the first to follow a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition; the first that even Britain’s most forensic psephologists are unwilling to call.
Yet it is familiarity, not novelty, that marks the attack lines deployed by Labour and the Tories. The Conservatives have charged Labour with planning to destroy the economy through tax rises and borrowing. Labour, in turn, has charged its opponents with planning to destroy the NHS through harsh cuts and privatisation. Much the same has been said at every election in the past 30 years. As Karl Marx observed in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, his essay on the 1851 French coup, “The beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue”.
The Tories are unashamed of such self-plagiarism. Their explicit template for 2015 is 1992: the last time that they won a majority and overcame a Labour opposition. As long ago as November 2013, David Cameron spoke of his plan to “dust down” the “tax bombshell” posters credited with delivering John Major victory over Neil Kinnock. The Prime Minister has reminded restive Conservative MPs that the party entered that campaign, the first in which he was involved as a young strategist, similarly trailing Labour in the polls. The hope is that voters’ doubts over Ed Miliband and Labour’s economic competence, combined with a press blitzkrieg against the party, will produce a comparable recovery.
For Labour, the great fear is that the Tories are right. Party veterans remember regretfully how a winnable election was lost under Kinnock. Many pessimists inside the party give Miliband credit for seeking to address long-standing vulnerabilities on leadership, the deficit and immigration in recent speeches but believe he has done so too late to neutralise them.
Yet if it is plausible for the Conservatives to hope that 2015 conforms to the script of 1992, it would be neglectful for them to assume as much. Their preoccupation with this previous triumph is a mark of weakness, not strength, indicative of a desire to fight past rather than present battles. It also elides the ways in which the 2015 election differs from that of 1992. The Conservatives entered that campaign with a leader who had been in place for just 16 months. The election of John Major and the associated move to greater pragmatism after the extremities of the late Thatcher period allowed the Tories to renew themselves in office, sufficiently, at least, to win an election. Although Cameron remains one of his party’s greatest electoral assets, he will not have a similarly transformative effect on its fortunes. Rather than embodying Major’s One Nation pragmatism, the Tories are presently fighting a rearguard action against the charge that they are intent on an ideological shrinking of the state.
The common belief is that Labour’s 1992 poll lead was squandered through a combination of self-inflicted wounds and Conservative bombardment. But the reality is that the opposition’s advantage never existed to begin with. Labour’s lead was an illusion produced by the phenomenon of “shy Tories”: voters unwilling to confess their private support for the unfashionable right. As a result of the methodological adjustments made since then, the Conservatives cannot assume a late wave of support in their favour.
Few who have studied the events of the 1992 election believe that it was the Sun “wot won it” (as the newspaper’s post-election headline proclaimed). But even if this were once true, it isn’t any longer. After peaking at 4,783,359 in 1996, the Sun’s daily circulation now stands at less than two million, the lowest level since 1971.
Labour’s belief that Miliband’s presentational weakness can be alchemised into a political strength is not necessarily mere wishful thinking. Some of the opposition leader’s best moments have come precisely when he has been most bold and has grappled with, rather than sought to appease, his press nemeses.
The final point from which the Tories draw strategic comfort is the belief that Miliband, in common with Kinnock, has vacated the centre ground. Few moments gave them greater pleasure during the Christmas recess than when “the master” – Tony Blair – warned that 2015 could be an election in which “a traditional left-wing party competes with a traditional right-wing party, with the traditional result”. Their political equivalents in the US and France advanced similar arguments against Barack Obama, Bill de Blasio, the New York mayor, and François Hollande. Yet all three of them won convincing victories on a programme of higher taxes and greater market intervention. Twenty-three years after the end of the cold war, the charge of “socialism” has lost much of its capacity to wound.
No senior figure in Labour is so rash as to dismiss the possibility of defeat. But if Miliband loses, it will not follow that he did so through an excess of radicalism. Indeed, it will be plausibly argued that it was an excess of caution that doomed Labour as the left-wing coalition of voters assembled after 2010 fractured. Blairite continuists believe that the apparent lack of demand for centrist moderation reflects the lack of supply. But few of those behind the Green and SNP surges look at Miliband and see a leader who is too left-wing for them to support.
Tory MPs hope to supplant Labour in a close contest, yet few believe the party will secure a majority, let alone match Major’s achievement of recording the highest number of votes ever cast for a winning party. As they deride Labour’s and Miliband’s “weaknesses”, they should ponder why the “natural party of government” has been left so limited in its ambitions. If the Tories persist in believing that the “bombshells” of the past represent the best armoury for the future, they will continue to stagnate. Triumphant or defeated, they need to relinquish the distorting prism of 1992.