In the second general election of 1974 Harold Wilson won an overall majority of three.
This was the last time a Labour leader who was not called Tony Blair won a majority in the House of Commons.
Forty years … it is a long time.
But it’s true that in the eight general elections that have taken place in that time, the Labour party has won only three – 1997, 2001 and 2005 and Tony Blair was leader on all three of those occasions.
A political party that was interested in shaping history by running the government of the country would try and learn why these three elections were won but the other five were not.
And the answer must be something along the lines of there were three elections where the Labour party got a lot of people to vote Labour that do not normally do so. And in the other five elections they did not.
A linked historical fact is that yesterday the Labour party did not win the seat of Clacton. Apparently that was because the electors of Clacton are not ‘traditional Labour voters’.
But then again the Labour party won the seat in 1997 and 2001 when it was apparently OK to win seats that did not have traditional Labour voters. It lost it in 2005 by 920 votes but there were still more than 20,000 traditional Labour voters in that third election.
The explanation of these national and local electoral facts comes from having a very different political strategy in those three elections and also having the courage to apply that strategy with determination.
That strategy can be exemplified by a quote from the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci who said that modern politics was moving from a war of position to a war of manoeuvre. He argued that we need to move on from the politics of slogging out a political battle from a set of political trenches that you have always fought from. Wars of position in this context is ‘the core vote strategy’.
Developing a politics of manoeuvre means being able to cultivate and stick to politics that would appeal to people who the other political parties had always thought were ‘theirs’.
In the late 1990s the electorate of Clacton were, among other things, worried about crime as well as their access to the NHS. Addressing both of these concerns needed a set of policies which were not ‘traditionally Labour’.
This electorate needed the Labour party to feel empathy with working people who did not feel safe in their own communities. (You would have thought that the safety of working people would be something that the Labour party had always fought for but because law and order was a ‘Tory issue’ Labour talking to working people about decreasing crime was new).
This meant that the Labour party had to talk about crime safety and policing a lot. Not a single speech which could be referred back to show you had covered it, but a; prolonged and consistent campaign for several years which continued for 10 years of power in government.
The same was true in guaranteeing maximum waiting times for access to treatment for NHS patients. Then as now people loved the NHS, but waiting two years for a heart operation stretched that love quite a bit.
In 1997 and in 2001 the public believed under New Labour the NHS would be reformed to deliver quicker access.
So two areas of policies that were not ‘traditionally’ Labour – improving safety in the community and reforming the NHS – were developed and sustained over years and in government.
With that political strategy in Clacton over 20,000 electors in Clacton became, for three elections, ‘traditional Labour voters’. General elections were won with large majorities.
Those 40 years of winning and losing elections could teach the Labour party something it could well spend the next few months putting into effect.
Paul Corrigan was a health adviser to the last Labour government. He tweets @Paul_Corrigan
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