Greasy Pole: Countdown To The Election
We have it on good authority – the man himself – that Tony Blair can always stifle any doubts he has about what he is doing by telling himself – and us – that it will all be sorted out, some time in the future, when he meets someone he calls his maker. That may be all very well, but the agenda for that meeting gets longer by the day. How will his maker deal with the deceit over weapons of mass destruction, the broken promises, the exposure of his image as the laid-back, informal, trustworthy favourite of the nation? Number one item to be discussed between Blair and his maker will be the question of what has been called his credibility problem. Which, as it happens, will be central to his developing preoccupation with deciding the date of the next general election.
It was rather different in 2001, when the exact timing was not crucially significant because it was clear that whenever the voters were to be allowed to pass their verdict they would give New Labour another large majority. It is different now, after all those local and European election results and the recent by-elections in Leicester South and Birmingham Hodge Hill which, however the government try to brush them aside as “a score draw”, do not exactly encourage Blair to be overweeningly optimistic. But to delay the election in the hope that things must get better because they can hardly get worse may leave the government, like Major in 1997, without any room for manoeuvre if things in fact get worse. And there are some ominous precedents to help Blair make his mind up.
In 1970 Harold Wilson, looking back on events since his government’s crushing victory four years before, agreed with most of the “experts” that he was on course to make a final reality of his boast that the Labour Party he had fashioned had taken over the traditional Conservative role as the natural governing party of British capitalism. Just to make sure his government had taken some precautions, such as increasing welfare benefits and delaying constituency changes as recommended by the Boundary Commission which, the Tories peevishly complained, could have robbed them of up to 20 seats. “We are,” purred Wilson, “really asking for a doctor’s mandate. We’re the best doctors the country has got.” As it was World Cup year the country’s best doctor appeared on a TV sports programme as a football supporter. How many football-crazy votes would have gone Labour’s way, if England had won the Jules Rimet trophy?
The polls agreed – one put Labour as much as ten points ahead – and so did the bookies, who were making Labour 20-1 on for victory. On 18 June 1970 the country went to vote and on 19 June Wilson was leaving Number Ten. The Tories notched up 46.4 percent of the vote (more, in fact that New Labour in 1997 and 2001) and a majority of 30. Ted Heath, who had been visited on the eve of poll by the Tory grandee Lord Carrington with the warning that if he lost the election he would be required to resign the leadership, was on the steps of Number Ten, thanking a somewhat stunned electorate. In fact Heath later claimed he had never doubted the result because, as he saw it, things were not all that favourable to Labour. A few days before polling the government’s complacency had been shaken by the news of a £31 million trade deficit for May (it was a time when the working class were encouraged to regard Britain’s trading balances as crucial to their interests). Heath also doubted whether Labour’s confidence about living standards was justified. On polling day unemployment was measured as the highest for 30 years. The Child Poverty Action Group (not a natural ally of a prospective Tory Prime Minister) found three-quarters of a million children living at or below the official poverty line and two million people homeless or existing in sub-standard accommodation. An unremarked error in Heath’s assessment was his assumption that workers vote straightforwardly in response to their living conditions; if this were so they would never support the Labour or Conservative parties for a start. But his is the kind of argument that suffices in the feverish, turmoiled delusions of a general election.
In the late 1970s Jim Callaghan, whose exterior as a bluff, avuncular sailor concealed a ruthless political cunning, had to apply what might be called his talents to that same task of deciding when best to go to the polls. He could not, however, enjoy the same confidence as Wilson. In mid-1978 British capitalism’s trading balance had been superseded, as a diversion for workers who did not know where to put their cross, by the price rises which regularly eroded increases in their pay. At that time price rises were between seven and eight percent. The Labour government’s solution to the problem was to try to control pay rises as the cause of, instead of the response to, rising prices. There was much debate in the Labour Party about the advantages of delaying the election date over fixing on one in the near future. Callaghan’s government were about seven percent ahead in the polls, which also suggested that he was a more comforting figure as Prime Minister than Thatcher was likely to be. It was widely assumed the election would happen that autumn but Callaghan signalled this was not to be in typical style, when he sang to the TUC “There was I, waiting at the church . . . Can’t get away to marry you today; my wife won’t let me.” Heading a minority government, he was tired of the need to manage the persistent deals with the small parliamentary parties and hoped that by waiting he could ensure a majority.
But notwithstanding Callaghan’s serenade, he had miscalculated and Thatcher’s Tories came riding into power, with intentions to stop all the nonsense about wages and welfare benefits by battering the unions into compliance, with a majority of 34. It was in fact something of a continuation of Labour’s own policy in government so in that sense it was ironic that it should be the beginning of a long spell in the wilderness for Labour, with steadily increasing Conservative majorities including, in 1983, Labour’s worst result since 1931.
So Blair and his analysts need to take great care, as they settle down with their history books and their statistical tables and their focus group results. They will need to balance precedence against present reality. They will need to look hard at wages, prices, mortgages, hospital waiting lists and crime. They will have no lack of evidence of capitalism’s inherent inability to work in the interests of its people, and that will be the material which they will fashion into another manifesto of promises to pacify the system’s ferocity. It is impossible to imagine them treating their labours as anything other than an exercise in sordid, power-motivated manipulation bolstered by their assumed ability to reshape facts to their own advantage.
They have,after all, had enough practice at that. Out of it all the decision will emerge, the election date will be fixed and Blair will parade it as a fearlessly generous opportunity given to us by a confident government to pronounce a verdict on New Labour in power.
And the voters – the working class – what about them? What do they think about the insulting assumption that they treat their right to vote so lightly that from time to time they will change it from one party to another, none of them at all effective, so that the timing of an election becomes vital to the parties of capitalism? We can do better than this, and human society is worth better than this. The next election will be a good time to start.