Never say never

23 May 08
DAVID LIPSEY | Gordon Brown could still be prime minister in 2011 — really. Here are a few reasons why.

Gordon Brown could still be prime minister in 2011 — really. Here are a few reasons why.

Recent poor polls, some bad by-elections and lousy local election results for the Labour Party mark a return to the normal pattern of post-war politics, from which the first eight years of New Labour — like the six years of Clement Attlee’s Labour government — were exceptions.

A grumpy, footloose and ideology-free electorate today punishes poor performance, real or perceived, in mid-term. This tells us almost nothing about what those same voters will do at the end of the government’s term of office. The Tories came back from a torrid series of by-elections in 1959, and almost did so again in 1964.

In 1978, Labour came back from utter ruin two years before, only for then leader Jim Callaghan to throw away the recovery by postponing the election.

In the early 1980s, Margaret Thatcher was the most unpopular British prime minister ever, but she was re-elected in 1983 and 1987.

Labour’s pains are the result of squeezed living standards. That is why the modest loss for some people caused by abolition of the 10p tax rate was so potent; they simply could not afford to pay. However, this squeeze is in turn the result of high world prices for food and oil.

The retail price index does not reflect most people’s experience. Being able to buy a cheap telly every five years does not compensate for being unable to fill the shopping basket this week. But a full basket tomorrow will soon expunge the memory of an empty one today, while in commodity markets, what goes up usually comes down. That could prove true of petrol and wheat — and Labour could sail to victory at the next election on the back of a £1 litre and a 60p loaf.

Voters might not have noticed, but Britain might just have avoided the biggest financial crisis since the 1930s, largely because its financial authorities have deftly managed an escape. The perils have not yet gone for ever, though. Menacing clouds will hang above us for some time.

In that climate, what would voters rather? Experienced if unexciting ministers or the bouncing baby neophytes of the Conservative front bench? Brown boring on authoritatively about the need to reform international monetary institutions or Tory leader David Cameron and shadow chancellor George Osborne treating the crisis as if it was a new version of the Eton wall game?

The electoral system is profoundly biased against the Tories. To gain an overall majority, they need a swing of 6.9%, equivalent to a lead of between 10% and 11% in share of the vote. The local election results, if replicated, would give them that — but when, if ever, have local election results been replicated in a general election?

It is true that Britain has had eight parliamentary elections in a row that produced overall majorities, but it is also true that if you toss a coin, you will occasionally get eight heads in a row. No betting person would offer much above even money on a hung Parliament in 2010.

If there is a hung Parliament, the Liberal Democrats’ instinct, noses held, will be to support Labour. But if Brown dared, he could convert that instinct into something stronger: self-interest. The government is toying with introducing the alternative vote system, a modest measure of electoral reform. This would allow voters to number candidates in order of preference. If their preferred candidate is eliminated after a count of first preferences, their vote goes to their second choice.

Such a change would be broadly neutral so far as the balance between Labour and Conservative seats is concerned. But the AVS does help the LibDems. They would be more inclined to back the prime minister who introduced it than the Tories — who would be sure to oppose the measure.

Today is entirely different to past situations where prime ministers have been swept from office. Gordon Brown is not mad (compare, for example, Anthony Eden), nor weak (John Major) nor gaga (Winston Churchill) nor shopworn (Thatcher and Tony Blair).

The Labour Party, though not as strong as it was, has no serious policy divisions — compare Callaghan’s struggle with Leftwinger Tony Benn or Major battling the anti-European Right. The government retains a big Commons majority — unlike those of Harold Wilson, Callaghan and Major —and can still get most, if not all, of its legislation through. Labour’s problems are not at Westminster but in the country — and the country can swiftly change.

So Brown could emerge as prime minister after the next general election. But will he? That is a different question. If he shows a steady nerve, sticks to being the brilliant man with the wider view, gets more sleep and relaxes into the job, win he may.

If he gets into a spin, announces a gimmick a day and tries to bribe the electorate with its own money, down he will go — and deservedly so.

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