Early ’90s Flashback

John Major and Tony Blair

The pub was packed to the gills with people, who had just finished work, but wanted to jeer at the ultimate blood-sport. My pal and I assessed the odds: I settled on an inky stout, he bought a large whiskey. The first exit poll conducted by Ipsos Mori was announced at 10 PM on Thursday night. The results came as a shock to seasoned observers, who had been expecting a close race.

The night was filled with encounters of engorged Tories, disgruntled Lib Dems and one teary-eyed Labourite. By Friday morning, the worst was practically confirmed and the exit poll turned out to be wrong, it had underestimated the Conservative gains, but not as inaccurate as the pre-election polls. We were consoled by devouring expensive fry-ups and a trickle of free coffee. “That was a long night,” one of the barmen said to another. It was, and the good news was really that the election was over.

Where are we now? The full results are somewhat telling. David Cameron secured his victory with a swing of 0.8% – not even the 3% he mustered in 2010 – which means that the slight blue majority (a mere 331 seats) might only just hold for one more election. It could easily be lost in 2020. The Labour Party secured a swing of 1.4%, just slightly above the 29% in 2010. Cameron remains the most credible, effective and personable Conservative leader in at least a quarter of a century. But that’s not saying a lot.

The Silent Crisis

Even William Hague won a 1% swing in the 2001 election, and Michael Howard went on to win 0.7% in 2005. The Tory victory was secured by the losses sustained by Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Labour failed to mobilise and energise its base. Across Hadrian’s Wall, the Labour heartland was liquidated in a swift massacre, the best moment being when Labour lost its campaigner-in-chief Douglas Alexander to a 20 year-old SNP candidate. In the end, the SNP collected all but three scalps.

Meanwhile, some of the most prominent Liberal Democrats lost their seats: Simon Hughes, Vince Cable, Charles Kennedy, and Danny Alexander. The abyss swallowed many deserving people, but not enough. The Conservatives managed to hold onto more than the official opposition, absorbed seven Labour constituencies, but mostly benefited from the Lib Dem decline. It was still primarily a negative victory, but it does hold few historical precedents. Few people (myself included) thought the incumbent could swing anything.

The last surprise majority was in 1992 won by John Major. Famously, the pre-election polling data had claimed that the outcome would either be a Labour government, or a hung parliament, but in the end Major won 41.9% of the vote (336 seats). It would be another 23 years before the Conservatives would regain another majority, but they have yet to return to such heights. The majority proved too brittle to withstand the backbench rebellion over European integration.

The ousting of Thatcher in 1990 left a deep void in the Conservative Party, which has never been totally surmounted. The first attempt was to propel John Major into its entry. The first problem was that the Conservatives had to redefine its agenda in time to win another election. At first, the Major government moved to initiate market reforms in the public sector mainly in the form of performance targets. Once this failed, Major turned to ‘back-to-basics’ moralism about single parents and other manifestations of ‘indecency’.

London, December 2014.
London, December 2014.

Despite the recession, John Major held strong in 1992, and the Labour Party was once again defeated. Much like Ed Miliband today, Neil Kinnock had attempted to avoid deviation from the acceptable lines of debate. He had capitulated at every turn and hoped to bypass the most pressing political issues of the day. As bad as the Conservative establishment was, in the eyes of most people, at least it was clear where they stood. Likewise, Ed Miliband failed to assert a counter-narrative to the dogma of austerity, thereby disarming the opposition.

The reality of the situation in 1992 was only realised five years later. John Major had won because he was effectively unchallenged, but the silent crisis in the Conservative Party became increasingly vocal. It soon erupted in a rebellion of backbenchers against the leadership and its conditional support for the European project. Major stood little chance against Tony Blair, who easily out-manoeuvred the decrepit government. The void at the core of the Tory Party still remains, even with Cameron at the helm.

The Sweetest Victory

The Conservative majority reflects a little more than 24% of the electorate, which is roughly one in five eligible voters. This is out of a turnout of 66%, increased mainly thanks to the SNP, so the proportion of non-voters – 34% of the electorate – is greater than Cameron’s entire base. Even Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher won around 33% of the electorate in their first victories. It’s due to the peculiar inequity of the voting system that the Prime Minister can herald what he calls “the sweetest victory”. And for some it truly is sweet.

The financial markets were quick to skyrocket in celebration. The Conservative Party received £42 million from the banks between 2005 and 2011. It’s been a good investment for the financial sector. Quantitative easing, first implemented by Gordon Brown, has been used to funnel billions into the banks to inflate a nominal rate of growth. This is the bedrock of the government’s economic policy. Meanwhile the NHS, education, pensions, and benefits, face being slashed to the bone.

Undeniably the Cameron government is taking care of its prime constituency, but it’s clear it could all go wrong. If the economy suffers another financial crisis, or if the government can’t secure referendum, or even if the referendum fails to produce a Brexit, David Cameron could well suffer the fallout. He is more vulnerable to the backbenches than John Major, but he was also one of Major’s advisers in those days. So he will probably be thinking back to the infighting of that time and what lessons he can draw from it.

What is clear from these results is that the Labour Party has dug its own grave. Ed Miliband will now be relegated to the history books, alongside such losers as Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock. The Blairites will pin the blame on the Left for backing the SNP in Scotland and the Greens in England and Wales. Fortunately, Blairism has no means of perpetuating itself any further. It’s also true that there is little sign of a means to shift English politics leftwards. The Left shouldn’t be depending on Cameron tripping over his own foot, but it’s probably the only bet to make right now.


Phorographs courtesy of Elliott Brown and Byzantine K. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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