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It's not like the old days – elections are no fun when you're in office

By George Sumner - posted Thursday, 15 February 2001

Elections are less fun when you’re an incumbent. You’ve already got the office you want. It’s like having to go through a job application and interview process for a position you already hold. It may be all right when you do it the first time, as you have something to gain. After that, you have to fight for the status quo. So the Labour Party in Britain must be finding this election quite a different experience from recent elections – the first time in over twenty years they are seeking re-election. Last time, they came to power on a manifesto of change and sweeping reform in all areas. ‘Things can only get better’, the campaign slogan, summed the message up. All the signs indicate that the election will take place on May 3rd. Between then and now Labour has to show that it has delivered past promises without seeming complacent, and offer new policies that are realistic and not controversial.

Re-elections are a difficult business. Telling the voters that you have done a wonderful job and that they have never had it so good will not win you any friends. However, you can’t trash the current state of the country and promise a completely new agenda. From a strategic point of view, the ideal election campaign for an incumbent is short and low-key. A strong economy along with a positive public image is often the best combination for an incumbent party. In such a case, where there is little concern about the country’s direction, voters are less concerned about new policies. For example, when Reagan came to office in 1980 it was with some ideological zeal in rolling back the frontiers of the state and lowering taxes. But in his 1984 campaign, the strategy was to drain away the ideology, and promote Reagan’s popular image and the economy.

One option for Labour would be to simply put out a message that the Government is on the right track and to promise more of the same. In 1997, Labour made a number of pledges with education, healthcare and crime. Labour could point to those promises that have been fulfilled and explain how close they are to achieving the rest. Such an approach was shown when Labour recently announced its education policies. Evidence has shown that the Government’s policy to improve literacy and maths skills in primary schools have been a success, and so have proposed increased targets in these areas for 11-year-olds. All sensible stuff, but it’s not going to set the world on fire. The ‘right track’ message may be safe, but it is also boring. It does not give any sense of inspiration or direction for the future. It also relies too heavily on an ineffective opponent, one that cannot pick holes in the current policies or offer a better vision. The message becomes, don’t let the opponent undo all the good work the Government has done – but I’ll come to that later.


A variant of the ‘right track’ message is that the first term in office was just the groundwork for a second term. You can sum this up in Reagan’s phrase, ‘You ain’t seen nothin’ yet’. To some extent, Blair is using this approach. His message at times seems to be that in the first term of office he proved Labour to be fiscally responsible, but in a second term Labour will be truly radical. When Reagan coined his phrase it was a statement of optimism, hollow rhetoric claiming that things will get better. It becomes harder when you back up the rhetoric with substance. In the education proposal unveiled in the last week, the Government added substance by promising to make nearly half of all secondary schools in Britain specialist schools in areas such as music, engineering, science and business. The Prime Minister’s spokesman elegantly described the proposal as ending the days of the ‘bog standard’ state school. The argument behind such a proposal is that by developing more specialist schools, all schools will be distinct and will acquire a sense of mission that drives it to be successful. Such a major shake-up of the present system aims to please those supporting a universal free education, while also pleasing those who feel the present system holds pupils back.

However, some on the left fear that the change will introduce a two-tier system of schools, make state schools selective, and neglect the 50% of schools that are non-specialist. As The Guardian put it, the plan ‘smacks of a wish to please everyone’, but ‘is in danger of pleasing no one’. The example of the education proposal highlights the difficulties faced by an incumbent in walking the tightrope between complacency and controversy. Offering just the old policies seems lacklustre, but anything genuinely new throws out new material for scrutiny that could potentially alienate targeted groups.

Another problem facing an incumbent is that the sense of unity within the political party is harder to maintain in office. Four years ago Labour had been out of power for 18 years. Such a long stint in the political wilderness meant the different factions within the party and the collection of fragile egos could put their differences aside for the common cause of getting back in power. Having been in power for a few years tensions now emerge, over who should get credit, who makes what decision, who should be consulted – the list goes on. Much has been made of a potential rivalry between Tony Blair and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown. The inside gossip, while loved by the newspapers, undermines a government’s credibility and distracts attention from the central campaign message.

The media smelt blood and had a field day when stories emerged a month ago that the Northern Ireland Minister, Peter Mandelson, had unduly stepped in to help two Indian millionaires in their applications for a British passport. The issue became whether or not Mandelson had made a personal representation to the Home Office to push through the application. If the facts had been brought out in the open and immediately followed with a swift apology, the matter would probably be over. However, Mandelson resigned after he apparently gave a different version of events to Prime Minister than to the public. Since his resignation, Mandelson has been attempting to show that he was harshly treated and that he has done nothing wrong, much to the Prime Minister’s annoyance. While the merits of this are unknown, Mandelson’s appeals give more oxygen to the story and each day the newspapers have a different slant on events.

Mandelson’s fall is exactly what the British media loves; he was an architect of New Labour and Tony Blair’s principal political ally. When he resigned, one newspaper editor gleefully told the TV cameras "the teacher’s pet has been caned by the headmaster" – demonstrating the legendary maturity with which the British press handle such events. What it all amounts to is great deal of hype surrounding an indiscretion, but not a scandal. However, it has brought some of the tensions within the Labour Party further to surface and resulted in potentially damaging publicity.

A further headache faced by incumbents is voter turnout. Last time Labour was able to generate a sense of excitement in getting rid of the old guys and breathing new life into the country. This time it is much harder to get people out to vote when there is nothing new to vote in. I also hear the same kind of complaints that I heard in America, that there is no real difference between the two parties and that both are targeting the centre. Not only that, but with the huge majority Labour received in the last election, there seems to be little doubt that Labour will be re-elected. If people don’t think there will be anything at stake then why will they bother to vote. The apathy could be a sign that Labour is doing well in Government, after all the people show no enthusiasm to vote them out of office. But this is a small comfort. Those less likely to turn out to vote are also likely to be Labour’s core voters, those on low-to-middle incomes. So, the lack of energy the incumbent faces may well cost a few seats in Parliament.


One factor always makes re-election easier for incumbents – an extreme or ineffective opponent. In 1988 Bush lacked the charm of Reagan, but managed to win the election with an intense negative campaign against Michael Dukakis. In 1964, the prospect of Barry Goldwater helped Lyndon Johnson secure re-election. In Britain, William Hague and the Conservatives provide a very good reason to vote Labour. The Conservatives don’t have a clear sense of direction. Sometimes Hague wants to be a populist, promising to cut petrol prices and crack down on asylum seekers. On other occasions he takes on a ‘me too’ approach by promising to match Labour’s spending on social policies. Yet he also takes a leaf from the George Bush book of maths, promising an additional £8 billion in tax cuts without explaining where the extra money will come from. Hague has come out in support of the USA’s Star Wars program, even though it is still not clear what form the program will take, whether it will work, or how other countries will react to it. Labour should take comfort in their opponent’s failure to offer credible or persuasive alternative.

With the majority Labour enjoys at present it is inevitable that the Government will lose some seats in Parliament, the question is how many. In the meantime, we will see whether the New Labour of 2001 is the same as the old New Labour of 1997, or a newer than New Labour that offers radical vision of the future. The signs so far suggest that it will be, in true New Labour style, somewhere between the two.

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About the Author

George Sumner is a Lawyer based in London.

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