Greasy Pole: Naming the day

It will not be long now before Downing Street goes onto Red Alert. All leave will be cancelled for the focus groupies, the pollsters and the spin doctors, as it is for the police when some great public disorder is in the offing. Come the First of May next year Labour will have been in power for four of the allotted five years, which means that Blair and his hangers-on must soon give serious attention to the date of the next election.

Whichever day they settle on and whatever anguish they go through in the process it will all be considered to have been worthwhile because there is general agreement that the timing of an election is vital to the eventual outcome. Since the party which is in power chooses the date they seem to have an overwhelming advantage; but if it were that simple no ruling party would ever lose an election. In fact the choice of date is sometimes given such importance that a prime minister who apparently loses power because they chose wrongly can expect that their days as leader are numbered.

This is what happened to Jim Callaghan and John Major. Callaghan was under a lot of pressure to call an election in the Autumn of 1978 (he teased the Labour conference that year by singing a song about not being able to make up your mind) but he chose to wait until the following Spring and these few months turned out to be the Winter of Discontent. This was probably the final nail in Labour’s coffin but it is debatable whether their experience of government at that time was so happy and fulfilling that they should want to prolong it by a crafty choice of election day. They could hardly have claimed to be enjoying themselves, after episodes like the exposure of Wilson as a shoddy manipulator, Denis Healey’s persistent battle to hold down wages, the internal mumblings which eventually threw up the Gang of Four and the Social Democratic Party . . . Callaghan himself, who was a canny political operator, took the view that there had been what he called a “sea change” and there was nothing the Labour could do—including a clever selection of election day—about it. The voters had tried Labour government again, they had seen all too clearly that it could not live up to its promises so they felt like a change. In the usual sclerotic process of political preference, the voters decided that if they didn’t like Labour the only other possible course was to vote for a Conservative government.

It is unlikely that when Callaghan talked about a sea change he expected it to last for almost twenty years. Even worse for the Labour Party—during all that time there was only one election—in 1992—when they might seriously have dared to hope that their day was about to dawn again. In the first election after the defeat of the Callaghan government they presented a manifesto condemned by one of their leaders as “the longest suicide note in history”. And in case anyone thought they were serious about winning the election they chose Michael Foot, who as a vote-loser was in a class of his own, as their leader. In 1987, having elected Neil Kinnock as leader, in the hope that he would appeal to voters as the antithesis of Michael Foot, they lost again because it would have taken more than a clumsy windbag to overcome the entrenched Tory advantage. But in 1992 they seemed to think they had a real chance. They remembered the recent by-election results, they looked at the public opinion polls, they sighed with relief that the public opinion polls, they sighed with relief that the seemingly invincible Thatcher had been replaced by grey, whining John Major. They overlooked the fact that there was still too much ground to make up from the battering they had received in 1983. When he notched up his second successive defeat Kinnock knew it was time to go, to adopt failed the failed politicians’ guise of a wise, benign statesman and look around for one of those lucrative jobs they so easily drop into.

By 1997 Labour had made up all that ground, and quite a but more, with not a little help from the Tories. There was, of course, the rampant sleaze among their MPs (or rather, as sleaze seems a way of life in the Palace of Westminster, the exotic exposure of it by Mohammed Al Fayed, who knows a thing or two about it himself). There was the open war over Europe, driven by the kind of bitterness which had John Major calling some of his most prominent ministers “bastards” and was so unnerving to any Tory who still thought that loyalty was their party’s secret weapon. There was the madness of John Redwood, Michael Portillo and his SAS speech, Ann Widdecombe justifying the shackling of women prisoners when they were in labour . . . Like 1979, it was a time of sea change. It was the Tories who were unelectable and Labour the party trusted to make all the voters’ dreams come true.

The fact that the years since 1997 have had the usual nightmare episodes will be weighing heavily with Blair as he ponders the date when he allows the working class to show how they judge his government. So far the government have not been hit by a recession, which allows them to claim to be controlling the economy through the stringent application of unusually perceptive policies. Blair must also be hoping that Jack Straw’s ambition to go down in history as a more grotesque version of Michael Howard will somehow stop people breaking the law. He will pray that there will be no more media-exciting scandals like Bernie Ecclestone and Formula One tobacco advertising, Lord Irvine and his expensive taste in furniture and wallpaper, Peter Mandelson and his fastidious needs in housing.

In all the excitement and speculation there will be very little attention given to the calculated cynicism implicit in the assumption that the date of an election will significantly affect its outcome. What does it say about how the working class regard their power to bring about the necessary basic, radical change in society, that they may vote Labour in December and Tory in May? That votes are cast, not in the actual experience of what capitalism does to people and how its political parties are unable to change things, but on how and when those parties pitch their appeal? What does it say about the parties who devote so much effort to this whole sordid process? Well, come next May, or whenever, it will be true to answer those questions in the only way the pollsters, spin doctors and focus groupies understand.


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