The Labour Party could be largely gone within the next generation.
I realise this is quite a provocative statement and I am fully aware that with the current state of the opinion polls there will be plenty who would contend that my own party, the Lib Dems are more likely to disappear before Labour.
I should also point out before I start that I do not want the Labour Party to die. I was brought up in a family that had great respect for the party and its socialist foundings and tradition. If I had joined a political party before about 2000 it would almost certainly have been Labour. I was delighted and genuinely excited in 1997 when Tony Blair won a huge landslide and I think that the Labour government did some very good things in its early years. The minimum wage amongst others for example was a great change and the fact that all the major parties are now signed up to it has ultimately vindicated it.
Also, if the economy tanks in the next two or three years then Labour will very likely get in by default. I accept that is the case and what follows is predicated on the assumption that the economy does improve and the coalition's policies are ultimately seen as successful. What then for Labour?
If that happens then I think that within the next couple of decades we could see the demise as a serious political force of the party of Keir Hardie and Nye Bevan.
There are a number of reasons why I think this could be the case.
Firstly, despite some recent signs that they are moving in the right direction the party leadership still has too much sway over policy making. This may seem like an arcane point but policy making is the lifeblood of political activists. Without it participation in political parties is reduced to trying to sell policies largely imposed from on high. Of course some of these policies, perhaps many will accord with the views of the membership. But there will always be some that just do not. A good example would be the 10p tax rate being abolished by Gordon Brown in 2007. Eventually that move was mitigated by a number of measures to appease Labour back-benchers but it was immensely damaging and I can imagine how difficult it was for Labour activists trying to convince people to vote for the party when it was an active issue knowing there was no way in hell the party at large would have allowed the leadership to adopt such a policy had they had a veto on it. I know from discussions that many Labour activists are unhappy with how little chance they have to influence policy within the party and some look with some envy upon how the Lib Dems and other smaller parties are more internally democratic. The longer this goes on, the more in the long term I am convinced that the party membership will atrophy and wane. After all, I am sure there will be some who will decide it is not worth their time volunteering if their views will make little difference to the policies. A quick aside here - I know that some of the policies being pursued by the current government were not endorsed by the Lib Dem party membership but there are a good number that were and that is the compromise of coalition. If the Lib Dems had had a majority like Labour did between 1997 and 2010 then the government programme would have been essentially created and decided by the party.
Secondly, the Labour party does not seem to know what it stands for any more. I think it has been very instructive to observe the manoeuvrings of various senior Labour politicians since the general election. It is clear that there are deep divisions on questions such as how to tackle the deficit (Ed Balls and Alistair Darling were at loggerheads over this) or tuition fees with Alan Johnson being set against a graduate tax only to come round at the last minute to Ed Miliband's way of thinking but with no real enthusiasm. When this is coupled with the two year review that is going on at the moment which is scheduled to fill in Ed M's "blank sheet of paper" it does feel like the party has somewhat lost its way. Don't get me wrong, it is a good idea for political parties when rejected by the electorate to take stock but to see a party that once held such a clear vision for the future and founded the modern welfare state to be so directionless is quite sad and does not bode well for its future.
The third reason I think Labour could well find themselves waning as a political force is down to their innate tribalism. Now I have been misunderstood when I have used this word before so I will try to be precise here. I am referring to the tendency for Labour politicians and activists to push their own party line to the exclusion of everything else and to rubbish those of their opponents, even to the point where had their own party introduced a measure they would be supporting it but because it comes from somewhere else they are suddenly apparently viscerally opposed to it. I know all political parties do this but from what I have observed Labour are the worst at this. And it matters. A recent report by the IPPR reinforces other things I have read that even if First Past the Post is retained for Commons elections, hung parliaments are going to become more and more likely. But the way Labour acted in the coalition negotiations back in May 2010 (which I have gleaned from multiple sources) reflected this more tribal attitude and made it clear that they would have been very difficult to work with, even if you put the mathematics to one side. If coalitions are going to become more and more frequent then a party that seems unwilling to compromise is going to find it difficult to get back into power. I am basing this also on my observations of how they have gone about attacking the coalition. There is no recognition of the compromises necessary, just blindly attacking the Lib Dems for "selling out" or "betraying" people. Now I am aware that as a Lib Dem activist I am biased here and maybe the public at large like this sort of thing but I hope that is not the case. It feels outdated to me and smacks of a party that is still mired in a binary way of approaching politics that again does not auger well for them.
My final reason (I will stop in a minute!) is a bit more subtle but perhaps the most important one of all. An important part of Labour's parliamentary strength in recent decades has been how its core support has been concentrated more in heavily populated and predominantly northern areas. But a day of reckoning on this was always going to come. The fact that they were able to get 55% of the seats on 36% of the vote in 2005 may have been blithely brushed aside at the time but there was always going to be an adjustment to mitigate this inequity at some point. And with the boundary changes likely in the next few years to equalise constituency sizes this reckoning is almost upon us. Now as far as I am concerned this is the right thing to do. I think a proportional system would be ideal in terms of fairness but whatever system we have, the constituency sizes should be as equal as possible. That is also fair. But a consequence of this will be that Labour will find it harder to retain and win seats that it previously would have taken for granted. Over time this will erode its base unless it broadens its appeal. It will also reduce the "my father, grandfather and great-grandfather voted Labour" enclaves as those voters will be diluted with others often from more suburban or rural areas. All this is doing is evening things up but the effect for Labour will likely be to make their job harder.
So what can Labour do about this? I would suggest four things would help mitigate this and assist it in returning to power at some point:
1) Give the party members back their absolute right to make and veto policy. I know this caused the party damage in the past especially in the 1980s but the pendulum has swung too far the other way. If activists are going to slog their guts out in the cold and wet month after month, year after year to put the MPs into parliament the least they can expect is to be able to collectively decide the policies. It would be a bold move but the activists would love Ed Miliband if he did this and I suspect his leadership would be secure for many years. After all they are the ones who can keep him in his job were he ever to be challenged.
2) This is probably related to number 1 but a clearer statement of principles and direction of travel is needed. Labour used to know what it stood for but there seems to be a muddle at the moment. If 1 was implemented then the guiding principles would bubble up from and be reinforced by the party membership. That in itself would send a very powerful and democratic signal. In the absence of that though for now the public need to know what they would be getting from the Labour party. This may mean being very frank about some of the big mistakes the party made in government in its latter years but so be it.
3) The party leadership should do everything it can to ensure a "Yes" vote for AV in the referendum in May. The one person most likely to make the difference between and Yes and No vote is Ed Miliband. And if the referendum passes then Labour will be encouraged to engage more with other parties (partly to try and get second and third preferences) and over time to not be so tribal.
4) They should reform their leadership election system so it is one Labour party member, one vote. No longer should MPs have more say than anyone else and the third/third/third split between the three parts of the electoral college (MPs/members/unions) should be abolished. It would be brave for Ed Miliband to do this given he was elected under the existing system (and may well not have been under a reformed one) but it has to happen before the next leadership election.
I know the polls currently have Labour in a strong position but Labour also seemed well placed in the early 80s and it took them nearly two decades to get back into power from that point, and only after lots of painful soul searching and reform. I suspect something similar will need to happen again before they are serious contenders for government. The question is how quick the current leadership are to grasp the various necessary nettles.