Labour’s defeat: the future is rarely as bleak as it seems

One of the advantages of reaching middle age is that, provided one has a good memory, one can see lots of things happening again.

I have never been interested in betting: partly a good Calvinist upbringing but also the fact that aged 9 or 10 on a Sunday School outing I put money into gaming machines in Barry’s in Portrush and noted (unsurprising with hindsight) that I got less out than I put in.

I have just once since been seriously tempted to place a bet. In 1992 after Neil Kinnock lost to John Major I remember people saying that never again could Labour form a majority government. I was a student and had little money but I remember thinking I would get great odds on Labour winning the next two general elections consecutively. In the event I was wrong and they won three in a row.

Labour is now in full sack cloth and ashes mode with John Cruddas suggesting this is their worst crisis ever.

It is clearly reasonable for Labour to look long and hard at why the lost and at their policies. However, they had had only a single election out of power following their longest ever consecutive period in government: a rebound with tem being out of power for more than one term was always the most historically likely.

Their leader may not have been as good as they might have liked (and he was mercilessly attacked in the press); their policies and views on aspiration, immigration etc. may not have resonated adequately with the pubic; they may have run a poor campaign but more than anything the weight of historical precedent suggested they would lose two elections in a row.

Something very similar occurred after the 1997 election to the Tories. Their best leader William Hague made the politically unforgivable error of thinking the Tories would return after a single Labour term and was duly demolished; ending his aspirations for the Premiership. Although nothing is certain in politics: Had he waited it is quite likely he would be about to embark on his second term in office as First Lord of Her Majesty’s Treasury.

Labour also need to be wary of the siren voices claiming that only ultra radical change will regain them power. Conventional political wisdom often suggests that it took New Labour under Tony Blair to make Labour electable again. Again what ifs are not real politics but remember there was a pretty conventional Labour leader well ahead of John Major in the opinion polls: John Smith. Although biased Smith’s biographer Mark Stuart has suggested that under John Smith the Labour landslide of 1997 would have smaller but still massive.

UK politics has a mechanism of autocorretcion. That may not be the case this time: certainly the SNP victory is unprecedented and the appearance of UKIP is significant in votes if not in seats.. However, in their grief Labour must be careful not to forget historical precedent nor throw the policy baby out with the bath water.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.