Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 8 March 2010

What if Labour won?

A few months ago this might have seemed like a ridiculous idea but with the polls having narrowed quite significantly in the last few months with one recent poll putting the Tories just 2 points ahead it is possible that Labour may emerge after the election as the largest party. If things went very well for them it is even possible that they could just scrape a majority.

I just wanted to briefly consider how things might pan out if that was to happen.

I think firstly we would be stuck with Brown as PM for a while. Although many within his own party and outside it would want him to go, if he had just "won" an election then he would have a fresh mandate. I expect it would be a couple of years at least before there was any serious move to oust him (and we all know how well those attempt have gone in the last couple of years!). Having said that, the Lib Dems could play a crucial role here. If Labour were short of a majority then the Lib Dems could insist that Brown went before any sort of support could be offered. I can forsee problems with this approach but I think it would be the only way we see the back of Brown in the first couple of years of a new parliament under these circumstances.

Secondly, it would be a nightmare for Brown and his party to govern like this. They have known only either huge or pretty big majorities since 1997. To have to switch to governing either in minority or with a very small majority will be very difficult. Brown is not a consensual politician. He is a very tribal and divisive figure. The idea that he might have to reach out across party lines is anathema to him. He would also always be teetering on the brink of losing votes in the Commons, any one of which could precipitate a vote of no confidence. If you think Brown is paranoid and has a bunker mentality now, wait until he finds himself in this situation!

Thirdly Labour will find it very, very hard to make the eventual adjustments in public spending that are required in order to get the deficit under control. Indeed they have legislated to halve it within a few years and have hence effectively tied their own hands. If they don't do it they will be ridiculed. If they do it will likely entail some very painful measures. I do not think they will try right away but if we are to avoid a fiscal crisis they will have to get a grip on public spending within the first year or two. I fear that they just won't be able to do it. Especially if Brown is at the helm which brings me to my fourth point:

Ed Balls would replace Alistair Darling the day after the election as Chancellor of Exchequer. It is Westminster's worst kept secret that Brown wanted Balls in No 11 during his reshuffle last June but was blocked from doing so. Well after an election "victory" he would have the chance to follow through on this. This ties in with the third point because Balls is made in his master's image and it would effectively mean Brown was back in direct control of the Treasury again. With no robust control independent of No 10, the temptation to use the Treasury in the way Brown really wanted to in the last year, i.e. to promote dividing lines with the Tories will be a temptation too great to resist for Brown I fear which is why I think they will fail to control the deficit.

Another consequence would be that David Cameron would resign as Conservative leader. A bit like with Brown, there is actually no obvious successor to Cameron at the moment so I could not predict how a subsequent leadership election would go. There is a real risk though that the detoxification and centre ground positioning that Cameron spent so long pursuing gets thrown out of the window as the party concludes that its salvation lies in moving to the right again as it did in 2001 and 2005. Perhaps I am being unfair in thinking that could happen but with the recriminations flying around for the election just lost (Tories hate losing elections more than anyone else) it will be a febrile atmosphere and who knows what lessons they will draw. There is historical evidence to think they will be very tempted to move right.

I think Nick Clegg would stick with the idea of not forming a coalition even if there is a hung parliament. Instead I think my party would help the government pass legislation on a case-by-case basis but in this way they would wield significant influence as if we were very unhappy with a particular piece of legislation then we could elect not to vote for it or vote against it and this would have to be borne in mind when it was being drafted.

I think Labour being the largest party is still pretty unlikely but not as unlikely as it seemed when the Tories were 20 points ahead.

I am interested to hear what other people think the consequences of a Labour victory would be.


Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

Why is this true, or even likely - "Another consequence would be that David Cameron would resign as Conservative leader"?

With its present large majority, ousting New Labour is a difficult task. Granted, its abysmal record mired in deceit and failure ought to suggest a decent opposition should trounce it. Provided, however, Cameron is not blamed for poor election execution, with there not seeming to be any serious disagreements over policy and direction, then why would he resign, especially if circumstances suggested a fresh election were a reasonable prospect before long. There is the example from 1966 of Edward Heath of course.

Mark Thompson said...

Because the Tories are very unforgiving of leaders who lose elections. You cite the example of Heath but that was a very long time ago now.

They ousted Thatcher because they thought she was going to lose them the next election. They deposed Iain Duncan Smith when they realised he was an electoral liability.

If Cameron cannot win an election in the current circumstances with the country having been battered by recession and Brown as unpopular as he is then I would be willing to bet money that they will drop him soon afterwards. He might even save them the trouble and just go himself.

I am not saying that is the best thing for them. I actually think keeping him on to fight another election for them would be their best move. I just don't think they will do it.

Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

The examples you cite of Thatcher and Duncan Smith of course occurred without either losing an election so are a less good match to the circumstance you pose than Hague and Howard.

Hague went because electorally the party under him had made no headway at all, Howard because he was never supposed to be a long-term leader and, having lost the election despite making some impact, it was a natural break-point. Duncan Smith was a mistake (they chose him because they thought he would please the Americans, having been schooled on Pentagon visits whilst shadow Defence Secretary) and Thatcher was "spoken too" (by Peter Carrington last of all) yet decided to "go on and on" long after and in spite of the wishes of her party being made known to her.

So only the example of Hague is really parallel. I think what contributed to his swift exit went beyond not gaining electorally but because of doubts (maybe shared by him - who knows) that he had insufficient resonance with the electorate and was not really up to the job. (He has improved since.) Cameron, provided he leaves New Labour with only a bare majority, should not face the same situation as Hague, rather more akin to Heath in his first election as leader.

Mark Thompson said...

Well all I can say in response to that is we'll see. If Labour win. Which they probably won't...