For anyone of a progressive bent, the prospect of the Tories returning to power is profoundly depressing. However sick of Gordon Brown people might be, David Cameron is hardly an appealing alternative. So at one level it is cheering to see the Conservatives’ poll lead melt away with the winter snow. While a narrow Tory victory remains likely, according to political betting markets, it is not in the bag. But while keeping the Tories out would be heartening in the short term, Gordon Brown’s re-election would most likely be disastrous for Labour in the longer term.
Some election victories are a poisoned chalice. With hindsight, it was fortunate for Labour and catastrophic for the Conservatives that John Major won in 1992. Sterling’s ejection from the ERM shredded the Tories’ reputation for economic competence, and five years of in-fighting, blunders and scandal consigned the Conservatives to the political wilderness after 1997. It seemed for a while as if the party might never win office again. The Tories would surely have bounced back more quickly if they had lost in 1992. Conversely, a Labour victory in 1992 could have been fatal. Had the pound plunged within months of Labour taking office, the party’s chances of re-election would have been remote. The Labour government would have marked a brief progressive interregnum between long periods of Conservative dominance.
While we do not have the benefit of hindsight, 2010 feels a lot like 1992. Most people are fed up with the government but unconvinced by the opposition. The ruling party has become too comfortable with power and often seems bereft of purpose. The prime minister is at best uninspiring, more often dismal. Most importantly, the economic outlook is unpromising – and there is a growing chance that a run on the pound will wreak havoc with the recovery and the government’s plans. Even if catastrophe is avoided, running Britain in an age of austerity will be a thankless task, especially for politicians who believe in active government.
Tax hikes, spending cuts, curbing public-sector pay, cutting public-sector jobs – does Labour really have the stomach for it? Do Labour politicians want to spend the next five years undoing a lot of what they have achieved over the past 13? Do they honestly think voters will look kindly on them next time around if their sales pitch is that their cuts were “kinder” and more reluctant than the hypothetical cuts voters might have suffered under a Tory government? Even if the economy stages a phoenix-like recovery, will voters thank Labour for it? If Labour scrapes through in 2010, there is a good chance it would face a 1997-style electoral oblivion in 2015.
All the more so since five more years of Gordon Brown would test the patience of even the most diehard Labour supporters. Whatever his qualities might be, he is singularly ill-suited to being prime minister. His style rankles. His decision-making (or indecision) is erratic. He is tainted by all the mistakes of the past 13 years – not least cheering on the financial bubble that has now gone spectacularly bust. And since Labour has not had the guts to get rid of him over the past three miserable years, it seems highly unlikely that the party would find the courage to do so after he had won an electoral mandate. Besides, whoever the leader might be, voters would doubtless be gasping for change after four terms – 18 years – of Labour government.
To put it another way, if the choice for Labour is between either an unrewarding extra term in office followed by several terms on the margins or a narrow defeat, a period of renewal and a good chance of returning to government within five years, surely the latter is preferable? Surely only those whose political lifespan is nearing its end, those who depend on Gordon Brown for their advancement, and those who cling to the trappings of office would prefer the former?
The possibility of a hung parliament does not fundamentally alter this calculation. Since the Liberal Democrats have all but ruled out a coalition, a minority government (and most likely a second election) would prolong the uncertainty – increasing the risk of a sterling crisis – but would not change the underlying choice between Tory now or Tory later.
Of course, there are ifs, buts and maybes. One objection is that a Tory victory might result in such severe harm to Britain – for instance, a sequence of events that resulted in Britain leaving the EU – that it must be avoided at all costs. A more immediate danger is that if George Osborne sl
ashed spending, the economy would tank again. That is a big worry. But even a re-elected Labour government might be forced to bring forward budget cuts if markets panic. And in political terms, the likelihood of Tory economic mismanagement strengthens the argument that losing the election would benefit Labour longer term.
Another risk is that Labour might tear itself apart in opposition, rendering itself unelectable, allowing the Tories to win again by default in 2015 unless the Liberal Democrats could capitalise on the situation – a rerun of 1983. That said, Labour might also tear itself apart if it was re-elected, as John Major’s Tories did.
Others will argue that Labour could succeed where Margaret Thatcher failed and go on and on and on. A Labour victory might cause the Conservative party to implode (extremely unlikely) or result in electoral reform that entrenched a progressive majority. That possibility is certainly appealing, not least to Lib Dems and Greens. But with or without a change in the voting system, it seems highly unlikely that Labour would stagger on into an unprecedented fifth term after five more years of austerity under Gordon Brown, still less that the Lib Dems would want to prop them up in office.
The prospect of a Europhobic, economically confused, anti-immigrant, privilege-defending Tory government led by a lightweight PR man is soul-destroying. But as disheartening as it now seems, this is an election that Labour might be better off losing.