Saturday, May 09, 2015

Opposition parties pay bitter price for 2010 mistakes

Labour hobbled itself in Thursday's election by choosing the wrong brother as leader in 2010, while the Liberal Democrats lost their political identity by joining the coalition. Here's my election round-up which will appear in today's edition of The Journal.

SO we all got it wrong.  All the speculation about hung Parliaments, deals with the Scottish National Party, questions of what would constitute a ‘legitimate’ minority government – in the end, it all proved to be so much hot air.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats are not the only political institutions that will need to take a long, hard look at themselves after the biggest general election upset since 1992.   So will the opinion polling industry.

Its continued insistence that the two main parties were running neck and neck, and that we were duly headed for a hung Parliament, ended up framing the main debate around which the campaign revolved in its latter stages.

Had the polls showed the Tories with a six-point lead, the debate would not have been about whether Ed Miliband would do a deal with Nicola Sturgeon, but about whether the NHS would survive another five years of David Cameron.

There were many reasons why, to my mind, the Conservatives did not deserve to be re-elected, not least the divisive way in which they fought the campaign.

By relying on fear of the Scottish Nationalists to deliver victory in England and thereby setting the two nations against eachother, Mr Cameron has brought the union he professes to love to near-breaking point.

Preventing this now deeply divided country from flying apart is going to require a markedly different and more inclusive style of politics in Mr Cameron’s second term, in which devolution and possibly also electoral reform will be key.

Thankfully the Prime Minister appears to recognise this, although one is perhaps entitled to a certain degree of scepticism over his sudden rediscovery of “One Nation Conservatism” yesterday morning.

But what of the opposition parties?  Well, it is fair to say that both suffered more from mistakes made not during this election campaign but in the aftermath of the last one.

Make no mistake, this was an eminently winnable election for Labour, but it would have been a great deal more winnable had the party chosen the former South Shields MP David Miliband as its leader in 2010 ahead of his younger brother.

That said, Ed fought a much better campaign than many anticipated and stood up well in the face of some disgraceful and frankly juvenile attacks by certain sections of the national media.

What may have swung the undecideds against him in the end was his apparent state of denial about the last Labour government’s spending record, while I shouldn’t think the tombstone helped much either.

Of course - Stockton South aside - Labour continued to perform well in the North East on Thursday, and the party also had a reasonably good night in London.

It was the East and West Midlands that proved particularly allergic to Mr Miliband’s party, and it is here that whoever emerges from the forthcoming leadership contest will need to concentrate their energies with 2020 in mind.

Mr Miliband has facilitated that contest by swiftly falling on his sword, and with deputy leader Harriet Harman also set to stand down, the party will now be able to choose a new team to take it forward.

After such a shattering defeat there will doubtless be calls for a completely fresh start, and new names such as Liz Kendall, Dan Jarvis and Stella Creasy will come into the frame alongside some of the more usual suspects.

As for the Liberal Democrats, well, the Tories’ cannibalisation of their erstwhile coalition partners seems to prove once and for all that Nick Clegg made a catastrophic misjudgement in taking them into government in 2010 – as some of us warned him at the time.

He has also been rightly punished by the electorate for what many saw as an appalling breach of trust over university tuition fees.

The upshot is that a party which achieved a fifth of the national vote under Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy has not just lost nearly all its MPs, more seriously it has lost its identity.

The laws of political dynamics will ensure Labour eventually bounces back from this defeat, just as it did in 1964 and 1997.  For the Lib Dems, though, the future is much more uncertain.

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