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Is Labour really in danger of extinction?

July 30th, 2008

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“This is less a leadership crisis and more a crisis of existence”

In the midst of all the speculation about the Labour leadership, with “Cameron only” now favourite on the next election leaders market, there’s an interesting piece by Iain Martin in the Telegraph today. He argues that a key mistake Labour made was devolving power to Scotland and Wales and thus giving the nationalists credibility in Labour’s “Celtic redoubt”.

    “Endangered in England’s largest cities, losers in London, out of power in Scotland and sharing it with the nationalists in Wales, wiped out in the south, on the run in the north-west marginals, under fire in the West Midlands, all but bankrupt and with a collapsing membership: what is to become of Labour? This is how, if they are not careful, parties die. Extinction is never the result of a single event, rather it happens more slowly, over several decades. A grouping whose leaders and policies once appeared as a fixed point on the landscape, gradually lose definition until virtually no one thinks it is any longer worth paying attention.”

But haven’t we been here before? Labour survived eighteen years out of power, including almost finishing behind the Alliance in 1983, to emerge in 1997 with a bigger landslide (in seats and percentage margin) than 1945. The “can they ever win again?” after the fourth defeat in 1992 gave way to a massive victory just five years later.

More recently, it was the turn of the Conservatives to be touted as possible candidates for extinction. The 1997/2001/2005 elections were their three lowest vote shares since 1832. The Sun famously had a front page comparing the party to Monty Python’s dead parrot, and there was talk of their replacement by the Lib Dems – for example Mark Oaten saying that Charles Kennedy could be PM by the end of the decade.

    So in terms of the chances of ceasing to be one of the “big two”, is Labour 2008 in a more parlous state than Labour in the early 1980s or the Conservatives at the turn of the century? Yes, the party has been experiencing record lows in the polls, is in severe financial difficulties, and there is now a real chance of it having its third leader in one term. But is it really on the slippery slope to oblivion as a party of government?

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Parties of course never operate in a vacuum and are always strong or weak relative to each other. Consideration of the Lib Dems merits a separate article, but after the numerous revivals since the early 1970s under Jeremy Thorpe, could this finally be the time when the Lib Dems take advantage of the weakness of one of the major parties, and get back into the top two for the first time since the decline of the Liberals in the 1920s? Could Nick Clegg’s plans to target Labour’s 50 most vulnerable red-yellow marginals allow the party to make major inroads into Labour at the next election?

Labour and the Conservatives are arguably too entrenched, in terms of safe seats, media support, their base, and their historic links with the unions and business, for the Lib Dems to be able to supplant either of them, even when at their most vulnerable. The polls now, with the Lib Dems pretty much flatlining alongside the crash in Labour’s popularity, have echoes of 1995-6, when Ashdown’s party did not perform especially strongly in the polls, and went on to score a lower vote share in 1997 than 1992, despite the Major government plummeting in public support. Even as the UK party system becomes increasingly fragmented, my expectation is that the “big two” will continue to alternate in power, notwithstanding the fact that Labour could well be out of government for a decade or more – but of course politics is never set in stone.

Double Carpet

A spreadsheet showing the ICM polls for 1984-2007 is available here.






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