I was quite astounded at the weekend to read that Labour MPs are going around assuming that their party is going to lose the next election which has to be held by 2010. Labour has been in power since 1997 and it seems typical in Britain that we tire of the same politicians after a decade. This is why Tony Blair left office after that time, that and the fact he was exhausted by the job. Owing to the fact that in the 1970s Labour and the Conservatives came in and out of power almost in turn, there is some kind of assumption that long periods of rule by one party are not acceptable in the UK. However, in fact, it was the 1970s that were the anomaly. The National Government was in power 1931-45 (14 years), the Conservatives 1951-64 (13 years), 1979-97 (18 years) and Labour 1964-70 (6 years) and 1997-2008 (11 years, so far). Of course within those governments there have been elections and changes of leader and ministers, but it has been the same party in power. Why should not Labour have at least another 7 years following Blair's period, and Brown still be in power in, say, 2014 in the same way that John Major was Conservative Prime Minister 1991-1997 after the years of Conservative Margaret Thatcher (1979-1991)?
The government is facing many challenges, primarily economic, but ones which are predominantly out of its control and stem for the global jostling for resources that I have regularly noted on this blog and which seem to resemble a real-life game of 'Risk'. In fact Brown's economic stringency of the past decade has probably protected the UK from experiencing even worse problem. The UK is always going to be vulnerable because of its obsession with buying houses which are huge items of capital expenditure for most families that are hard to sell on and have so many elements feeding into them that people cannot modify their expenditure on them the way they can even with consumer items like food. In addition, the privatisation of the UK utility companies means that the government is powerless to rein in the huge profits they make at the expense of ordinary consumer. The fact that BP and Shell the UK and part-UK owned oil companies announced quarterly (i.e. just in 3 months) profits of £7 billion (€8.82 billion; US13.7 billion) suggests that actually big business is not suffering at all from the 'credit crunch'.
A Conservative government would be as impotent in the face of global demand and multinational companies as a Labour one is. In fact given their aversion to regulation and control they would probably handle it worse. The only thing that is going to stop the average person suffering even worse than they are now with consumer-goods inflation, is through greater regulation and intervention. Petrol has risen from £0.87 (€1.09; US$ 1.71) per litre last year to £1.10 per litre now and it is predicted to reach £1.50 per litre by mid-2009 almost a doubling in 20 months; diesel is even higher so affecting the freight industry so raising the price of food and consumer items. Clearly given the vast profits of the oil companies such price rises are not needed to compensate for their increased costs. With the Conservatives in power, the bank Northern Rock would still be floating around with no-one willing to take charge of it and with its risky financial products and need to secure more business it would be continuing to unsettle the jittery bank sector. Labour currently intervenes too late. The UK economy would be better if Northern Rock had been nationalised in 2006 not 2008. Fear of being labelled 'Socialist' is hindering the current government from acting in good time. The Conservatives, in contrast, would not act at all and simply blame workers for trying for higher salaries and would probably engineer a house price collapse as they did in 1990-3, knowing that British people do not riot or revolt they simply blame foreigners for their problems and the Conservatives can tolerate a few race riots.
Why would anyone then vote for the Conservatives? Okay, so most people dislike greater state control, but what different can the Conservatives offer compared to Labour anyway? The policies of Labour and the Conservatives are very close, centred around the Thatcher Consensus though Labour is only achieving things by stepping away from that consensus, but they are not straying far. The Conservatives do not even have that kind of distinctive economic alternative to offer. David Cameron is 41; Gordon Brown is 57 so an age difference seems to be the key thing between them. Neither is particularly charismatic. Cameron cannot shake off the silly public schoolboy image and Brown seems too dour for the British public.
I can accept the point that people may simply select the Conservatives because they have not been in office for a while and Cameron is a bit younger, but is there nothing else to motivate them to switch? I suppose given the level of voter apathy in the UK it will only come down to the votes of a few individuals. Then, again, I would suggest to anyone who is confident that Labour will fall at the next election to look back to 1992 when everyone was assured that Labour would win when put up against boring John Major and yet he was victorious and remained in power until 1992. Being in office so long, Labour has become the 'conservative' party if not actually the Conservative Party and I feel that the lethargy will bring a victory for Labour as it did for the Conservatives. By 2014 hopefully things will be totally different. For now, though, whether you are a Labour MP or just an ordinary member of the public I would not anticipate Labour leaving office at the next election at all, no matter if they lose council seats today.
P.P. Maybe I am deluding myself, with Labour down to 14 councils compared to 45 for the Conservatives and Labour only getting 26% of the vote maybe there will be a landslide for the Conservatives. Pundits always scale up local election results to give pictures of potential UK wide election which is always more distorted than usual assumptions. They suggest Labour would go down to 176 seats and the Conservatives would have a 138-seat majority. As I have commented before things are always distorted by the UK's first-past-the-post system and even if you get just one less vote than the candidate who beats you, you get nothing even though almost as many people have voted for you. I think why I find it incredible that Cameron could become prime minister is due to something Simon Hughes, President (not leader) of the Liberal Democrat party said about the Conservatives being 'policy light'. Labour as the incumbent government may be following 'steady as it goes', but the Conservatives have come through with no policies that are at all memorable. They are not even putting up a strong opposition to Labour on anything much.
The points of contest are not an issue at present such as the UK's role in the European Union. With the two parties so close on the various wars we are involved in, tax, education and the National Health Service, it seems unlikely we would get anything different if the Conservatives win next time. So, as I commented yesterday, it almost comes down to which person you prefer. An election on this basis would be a real step back for British politics. Even though I despise Tony Blair I could never argue that he did not come forward with distinctive policies in 1997 (whether he carried any of them out is another issue). What is Cameron offering but a smile?
P.P. 16/08/2010: I suppose some people could come back to me now and say 'ha, ha, you got it wrong' and yet I would argue that my judgement was not badly out given how incomplete the Conservative victory was and that the fact that we could have had a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition government instead. The aspect in which I made my biggest mistake was in assuming that because Cameron was not outlining policies it indicated that he was close to Labour in his thinking on these issues. What I realise now is that he had an alarmingly virulent New Right agenda in mind which was going to smash the public sector and hamstring the British economy for years to come for the benefit of the already wealthy. I think in my worst nightmares I never foresaw the immense damage that the Conservatives would inflict on the UK. Using the cost of bailing out the banks as their 'September 11th' excuse (i.e. the way that President Bush used the terrorist attacks on the New York World Trade Centre and The Pentagon to justify harsh domestic policy), they have imposed such a swingeing attack on every facet on life in the UK. Their incredible arrogance is shown by the ending of support for speed cameras which were in fact self-funding and reduced road deaths, not for any financial reason, but simply because 'their people' love to drive recklessly with impunity.