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British Labour's second landslide?

By George Sumner - posted Friday, 15 June 2001

In the past week an unprecedented event has taken place in UK politics, a Labour government has been re-elected for a full second term. So much has changed in the last 9 years when, after Labour lost to John Major’s government in 1992, commentators spoke of the left being wiped out forever and the Conservatives being the natural party of government. To turn around Labour’s fortunes in such a short space of time and to do so with unprecedented success you would expect people on the left to be filled with a renewed sense of enthusiasm. That is not how it feels. The election campaign has been regarded by many as the most dull and lacklustre ever. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott’s left jab to an egg-throwing protester has been regarded as the highlight of the campaign. Entertaining stuff, but hardly inspirational. The election itself has been and gone, and it would be easy not to have noticed. Even the government showed little signs of celebration and was back to business the day after.

Despite the talk of the importance of this election, little has changed. The government has been re-elected with almost the same number of seats in Parliament as before. Rather than redefining the political landscape, the electorate has rubber-stamped an extension of what went before. Though how this will work in practice is not clear. Labour may claim an overwhelming mandate, but what is it a mandate for? The Economist, in endorsing Labour for the first time, described Blair as ‘the only credible conservative currently available’. To the people following their advice Labour’s mandate is to extend the supposedly Thatcherite element of the government’s policies, like greater private sector involvement in public services and tight limits on government spending. Under this theory the claims in 1992 of the left being buried have come true, and the realignment to the right has remained in place with only the party in power changing.

An alternative claim for a mandate comes from Labour’s traditional supporters, the socialists and social democrats. Their argument is that in the first term Labour had to sort out the mess left by their predecessors. Any truly progressive policies were constrained by the context of following 18 years of the Conservatives. Not only that, but Labour had to prove they were the party of the economic competence and prove the dire predictions wrong. Now Labour have established themselves and swept away the cobwebs of the past, it is time to move on to what the Labour Party is supposed to be about. This theory claims that Labour now has to deliver in its second term with an emphasis on public services and social policies. Yet throughout the campaign the path to be taken remained unclear – no surprise given that Labour has no interest in alienating either their base vote or the traditional Tory media, though the third-wayers would claim there is no conflict between the two paths. In a recent article in the New Statesman, Anthony Giddens argued that the Labour Party is closer to mainstream social democracy than ever before, and calls on the government to reconcile competitiveness with social justice.


While the government’s mandate is open to interpretation, it would be wrong to assume a level of contentment surrounding the government’s performance. No feelings were expressed that people had never had it so good and the vote for Labour was a resounding statement of approval. Many supporting Labour have done so with qualification. The Economist told people to ‘vote Labour, reluctantly’. The danger with such ‘big tent’ coalition building is that in trying to please everyone a little, you please no one a lot.

Labour’s success can be partially explained by the performance of the Conservatives. The Conservatives came out of the election with only 31.8% of the vote and 166 seats in Parliament. Even in Labour’s darkest days in 1983, at the time of Thatcher’s biggest landslide, the party returned 209 MPs. Yet despite such signs of a massive meltdown of Conservative support, they were said to have run a ‘populist’ campaign. This is clearly a use of the word popular with which I am not familiar. Though it is easy to be harsh on the Tories, in some ways they ran a competent campaign in which they set the media agenda to focus on their core issues. The problem lay in the fact that their strongest issues did not resonate with the public. Their message was to be tough on crime and asylum seekers, cut taxes, and say no to a European currency for the foreseeable future. The public, however, were most interested in the state of public services.

The problem that they faced was similar to the one Bush faced in the USA, where core right-wing issues could not be relied upon to secure a victory. Back in the days when he was a compassionate conservative, Bush responded to this pressure by staking out the traditional Democrat issues, like Medicare and Social Security but with traditional Republican answers. The Tories failed to do this with any success. On issues like healthcare they merely co-opted Labour’s position by promising to match the government’s spending. They should have provided their own approach to healthcare that responded to voters’ concerns. Towards the end of the campaign the Conservatives began to employ what has been dubbed the ‘Queensland effect’ in which they warned of the dangers of a Labour landslide and urged people to vote Conservative in the name of a healthier democracy. As a testament to their desperation, the success of their opponents became their principal selling point.

One of the most important developments in this election was the low turnout. It has always been a source of confidence in British democracy that more people would turn out to vote here than in the USA, which holds itself up as a model constitution. This time only 59% of the electorate voted, the lowest turnout since 1918. In the aftermath of this apathy a move to the Australian system of compulsory voting will no doubt be considered, but it is unlikely to be adopted. The strange thing about the turnout issue is that we could all see it coming in advance. It was expected to be low. One reason is that as the outcome of the election was a foregone conclusion, many people did not feel the need to vote. But the outcome was also certain in 1983 when Mrs. Thatcher gained her second term, and 73% of the electorate voted. The decline in participation has been steady over a number of years, rather than responsive to the closeness of the race. When a party is certain to win, it could be an incentive for people to register protest votes, yet knowing it will not damage the party in power. Certainty shouldn’t automatically convert into apathy.

‘Cynicism’ was a buzzword used throughout the campaign. The word is used to bundle a number of complaints about politics together. Some blame the media. Rather than presenting the issues, the media merely review the performance of politicians. Such coverage is of no relevance to the majority of people and confirms the electorate’s disinterest in politics. Others complain that in the age of globalisation, voters have realised that governments are powerless to make real changes. Instead real power is thought to rest with the multinationals. Though, apart from a hard-core minority, there is little evidence that the spirit of the Seattle protesters has been adopted into mainstream opinion. Finally there is the complaint that all the major political parties are the same, a complaint I would frequently hear in the US. In a bid to appeal to the largest pool of voters, political parties couch their policies in the language of administration rather than ideology. The election pledges are delivered in terms of outcomes rather than methods. But how can voters assess these differences without having an in-depth knowledge of the issues? Take issues of crime. Labour promised to increase the police force by 5,000, whereas the Conservatives have promised ‘more’ police. What kind of choice is that, other than specificity versus generality? And how can voters know how many more officers are required to have an impact on crime and in which communities the police will be deployed. It is not surprising that voters don’t get so excited about it. While Blair talks of being unburdened by dogma and ideology, it gives us little to go on. With a sense of ideology, voters can at least assess a politician’s approach and priorities. That way we can know how a politician would act in a crisis or if a shortage of funds arose. Instead we get a series of bottom line promises from either side, none of which we can be certain will be fulfilled.

If a second Labour term does mark a revolution in British politics, it has been a very passive coup. Already the talk has turned to the next leader of the Conservative Party, as William Hague quickly jumped last Friday before he was pushed. On the Labour side, the new questions surround the timing for a referendum on the Euro and speculation about the power struggle between Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown. But the politicos time in the spotlight should soon fade, and the country can now get back to serious issues that grip the country, like who to evict next on Big Brother.

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About the Author

George Sumner is a Lawyer based in London.

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