While the commentators continue to mull over the meaning of the general election, the results clearly offer Labour both an opportunity as well as sounding a very definite warning. The election demonstrated once again that while Britain is neither wholeheartedly a Conservative or a Labour country, it is very much a progressive one.
In 1997 and 2001, Labour exploited this fact, finally managing to rally the anti-Tory majority, which had continued to exist even during the Thatcher years. On 5 May, however, we saw a dangerous rupturing of the progressive coalition.
It is Labour’s now tenuous hold on the progressive vote that represents the real threat for the future. Once again, the country decisively rejected the Conservatives. For the first time in nearly a century, the Tories suffered their third successive defeat. The party still holds fewer seats in the House of Commons than Labour did at its nadir in 1983. More critically, the Tories managed to raise their share of the popular vote by only 0.5 per cent to just over 33 per cent. This is the now the third consecutive election at which the Conservative party has managed to persuade only around one in three voters to support it. Very shortly, the Tories will have been out of power for a longer time than at any point since the 18th century.
Perhaps most importantly for the long term, Britain shunned the politics of fear and personal destruction that the Tories attempted to import via their Antipodean strategist. The search for scapegoats rather than solutions and the unfailingly negative, pessimistic tone of their campaign probably succeeded in repelling more voters than it attracted. The race card was played and trumped. The British people displayed instincts with which Labour too often fails to credit them.
But what of Labour? To a degree, the landslides of 1997 and 2001 created a psychological threshold that was always going to be difficult for it to clear. It is important, therefore, not to underestimate the party’s achievement in winning an historic third term. However, Labour’s 36 per cent share of the popular vote – the lowest achieved by any party forming a government since the Great Reform Act of 1832 – accounts for the sense of disappointment that many of the party’s supporters felt as the results came in.
The principal beneficiaries of Labour’s decline were the Liberal Democrats, whose share of the vote rose from 17.2 per cent in 1997 to 22 per cent. Unlike the previous two elections, Liberal Democrat gains this time came mostly at the expense of Labour rather than the Conservatives. Indeed, the Liberals not only gained over a dozen seats from Labour (some on huge swings), they also managed to move into second place behind Labour in more than 100 seats.
With the Conservatives achieving only a minimal advance, and the centre-left vote splitting, Labour’s task ahead is clear. As Douglas Alexander suggested at Progress’ post-election seminar, the party needs to work harder to show that it is the natural home of the non-Conservative progressive vote.
This challenge is hardly a new one. Professor David Marquand suggested 20 years ago that the Tories were able to dominate the last century thanks to what he termed ‘the progressive dilemma’: the failure of Britain’s non-Conservative forces to find a vehicle to realise their ambitions. From the moment Labour supplanted the Liberals after the first world war, the party proved sufficiently strong – except perhaps for a short period in the early 1980s – to prevent another party from emerging to challenge the Conservatives, yet too weak itself to mount an effective challenge to them.
ince he became leader of the Labour party in 1994, Tony Blair has wrestled with the progressive dilemma – attempting to make Labour attractive to all non-Tory voters – while consigning the Conservatives to the role of spectator when it comes to governing. The 2005 general election suggests that he has, thus far, been rather more successful at the former than the latter.
While Labour must remain vigilant to the danger of a revived Conservative party, it needs to recognise that the political landscape is now very different to when it came to power. In 2005, Labour’s appeal to progressive voters rested largely on the threat that a vote for the Liberal Democrats risked electing Conservative MPs and a Tory government. But this tactic will have less resonance at the next election, for although the Tory party may well recover, the nature of the challenge could be very different from in the past.
It is, for instance, difficult to imagine a Tory revival until the party reaches out to younger voters, those living in urban areas, and black and ethnic minority voters. A number of potential Tory leadership candidates have already sketched out a vision much along these lines. A more socially liberal Conservative party – combined with the fact that by the next election in 2009 or 2010, nobody under 35 will be able to recall voting for a Conservative government – will make this essentially negative appeal to progressive voters considerably less potent.
Labour also needs to think about how it responds to the Liberal Democrats. Unlike the benign neglect it showed towards the Liberal challenge in 1997 and 2001, at this election Labour responded from a somewhat socially conservative perspective, accusing the Lib Dems of being soft on drugs, crime and antisocial behaviour. This may have appealed to some Labour supporters who were toying with voting Liberal Democrat, but it probably did little to appeal to many other progressive voters. Labour may therefore wish to consider questioning the Liberal Democrats’ claim to the progressive vote. Were not the abolition of tuition fees and the promise of free nursing care for the elderly, for instance, not primarily about the redistribution of income to middle-class voters?
But Labour also needs to concentrate first and foremost on offering a more positive appeal, recalling the kind of politics and policies that, under Tony Blair’s leadership in the mid to late 1990s, helped make Labour so attractive to a broad spectrum of centre-left voters. This effort, we should not forget, complemented New Labour’s attempts to pick up the votes of disillusioned former Tories.
Labour would do well, therefore, to recall that its promise to foster a new politics and style of government – more pluralistic, open and democratic – had tremendous appeal in 1997. Much has been achieved but too many elements of this agenda – from the creation of a democratically elected House of Lords to a referendum on electoral reform to the devolution of power to local communities – remain unfulfilled. And, unlike in the years leading up to our first victory, Labour is nowhere near the forefront of the debate about the next stages of an agenda for democratic renewal.
Similarly, the government – in word if not always in deed – betrays an attitude towards civil liberties that many voters find offensive. Rhetorically, at least, it at times appears unpersuaded of the merits of the great reforming liberal legislation of the 1960s. This is a far cry from the party that promised – and delivered – the Human Rights Act and freedom of information legislation in its early years in power.
Much of the government’s record does indeed conform to Tony Blair’s principle of being tough on both crime and its causes. However, its rhetoric continues to display a greater concern with demonstrating fidelity to the former and an apparent unwillingness to challenge popular misconceptions about the true levels of crime in Britain and the most effective ways to tackle it.
The Tory campaign’s relentless focus on immigration arose because of Labour’s tendency to see this as an issue tobe managed solely by the annual appearance of ever more draconian legislation in the Queen’s speech. The social and economic case for immigration, finally made by the prime minister in his speech on the subject during the campaign, has too often been absent.
As with immigration, the positive case for Europe has not been made sufficiently strongly and consistently by the government since it came to power. This has allowed the Europhobes to dominate the debate; not simply on issues such as the European constitution or the single currency, but more broadly about Britain’s membership of the European Union.
It does not have to be this way. Labour has already demonstrated that by the manner in which – on issues as diverse as investment in the public services, international development and rights for gay and lesbian citizens – it has taken on the arguments of its opponents, made its case clearly and consistently and built a popular, progressive consensus. Labour can, and must, do better. In the pages of this magazine, and through our events, Progress intends to be part of the crucial debate about just how it does so.
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