Greasy Pole: It’s A Date, Then? Or Not?

That was the month that was. In September Gordon Brown celebrated his first speech to a Labour Party conference as Prime Minister by dragging out a procession of exhausted platitudes about the glories of being British and having a Labour government to stop you forgetting it. Soon afterwards a majority of the people who can be bothered to answer the questions of opinion pollsters said that, if given the chance tomorrow, they would vote for another spell of Labour government provided it could be under Gordon Brown. Understandably encouraged by this, Labour’s propaganda machine planted a rumour that Brown would call a general election for 1 November. This was startling news; don’t these people who start rumours know that 1 November comes immediately after Halloween, so that election canvassers were in danger of being confused with kids dressed up as skeletal witches frightening old ladies on their doorsteps with demands for trick-or-treat under threat of having their front gardens vandalised?

Luckily the Tory conference, following hard on the heels of Labour’s event, went some way to putting things to rights because George Osborne, who threatens to be the next Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, did a trick-or-treat on Brown by declaring that when he was in charge at the Treasury only millionaires would be liable for inheritance tax. The dullards who are bothered to be so loyal to the Conservative Party that they turn up at their conferences were ecstatic about this promised financial tinkering to the extent that they failed to notice that Osborne had also put down a marker to be the next Tory leader if the party ever gets fed up with Cameron’s touchy-feely, hoodie-hugging, I-luv-u-babe style of deception. Cameron pitched in with a speech even heavier laden with platitudes than Brown had managed, on the excuse that his speech “may be muddled but it is me” – which, it must be hoped, will not pioneer endless hours of drivel by any leader who confesses to being me. A lot of easily impressed people who had once bothered to tell the pollsters that they would vote Labour changed their mind so that Brown decided it would be wise to abandon the idea of a post-Halloween election, leaving him free to take his kids out trick-or-treating. The Tories were incensed that a party leader could change the polling date to improve their chances of winning, spluttering that this was a diabolical plot, not only to disrupt the winter festivities but also to subvert the democratic process.

Even by the lax standards of political parties the assumed Tory indignation at the possibility that Brown would fix an election date to suit his party’s interests is suffocatingly audacious. Both parties have adopted the same stratagem; indeed it is rare for a government to run its full course of five years. For the  Conservatives, Anthony Eden succeeded Churchill as Prime Minister, after a long, frustrating wait which did nothing to soothe his naturally impetuous temperament, in April 1955. In fact, although the succession had been widely assumed, it was not as smooth or as predictable; Lord Swinton, one of the grander of Tory grandees, told Churchill that Eden “would make the worst Prime Minister since Lord North” and Churchill morosely agreed that he thought it had been “a great mistake” to announce his successor so long ago. The Labour Party, exhausted and shattered by the stress of their participation in the wartime coalition and split by the controversy surrounding Aneurin Bevan, were a long way from offering a realistic option as a government while the Conservative benches were thick with young, thrusting, ambitious newcomers to the Westminster jungle. Political strategy demanded that Eden call a quick election, to exploit the contrast between the ailing, often absent, Churchill and himself as a dashing, handsome, charming ex-Guards officer. After some dithering, notable for the display of the most lurid of his tantrums, Eden decided for an election in May, a year before he had to. Against the Labour Party as it was then, it could hardly be called a gamble; the voters, perhaps in gratitude at having this scion of innate ruling class superiority ordering them about, returned Eden’s government with its unsafe majority of 16 increased to a relatively secure one of 58.

In fact Eden’s government was notable, not for its chivalry but for the chaos and deceptions of the Suez invasion. This episode in cynicism, although typical of capitalism’s politics, did not seem to inflict any long term damage on the Tory Party for Eden’s successor Macmillan constructed an increased majority for them at the 1959 election. It was an uncomfortable fact that, among their confusion, the working class showed no reluctance to pursue an outdated dream of the glory days of British imperialism during which deranged and treacherous foreigners like Colonel Nasser were unwaveringly taught to keep their place. These unhelpful, insupportable prejudices blossomed again in 1982, when the Thatcher government blanketed a number of inconvenient historical facts to justify their intention to eject the Argentinian forces from the Falklands. Satisfactory as this was at the time to the Iron Lady its full value was not revealed until she had to settle on the date of the next general election – the first test of her record since she came to power in 1979.

Had Thatcher’s government served its full term they would have gone to the polls in May 1984. But the prospects for that date were unpromising. The early 1980s were not favourable to the Tories, marked by economic problems – at one stage there were 3 million registered unemployed – showing up in a series of bad by-election results in constituencies like Croydon North West and Crosby,  where the former Labour front bencher Shirley Williams won with nearly 50 per cent of the vote for the SDP. In some cases the Tories were left struggling in third place. Things did not look good if they waited for a 1984 election, in the hope that something would turn up. And something did turn up – apart, that is, from the Labour Party electing Michael Foot as their leader. But the crucial event was the Falklands; when, in June 1982 the British forces sailed triumphantly home, leaving behind their dead and their sunken ships, Thatcher was quick to put the war in the most favourable light for the Tories:

    “We have ceased to be a nation in retreat. We have instead a newfound
    confidence – born in the economic battles at home and tested and found
    true 8000 miles away…we rejoice that Britain has rekindled that spirit
    which has fired her for generations past and which today has begun to
    burn as brightly as before.”

And after that it seemed absolutely unavoidable that she would apply the heat of that newfound spirit to roast the Labour Party in a general election. In June 1983, a year before the government’s full term was up, the Tories romped home with a record majority of 144. Michael Foot’s Labour Party hit its lowest point since the defeats of the 1930s. All things considered, for Thatcher and her party an example of skilful timing, helped by a bit of luck and some hundreds of dead people, who had not been so lucky.

A governing party is absorbed in the timing of an election on the assumption that if they get it right their vote will be significantly higher. But what does this say about the people who vote? Are they content to use their power to bring about the trivial, short-lived changes which concern parties like Labour and the Tories rather than to erect a fundamental, enduring social revolution to consign capitalism to its unhappy history? Are they happy to so misuse their power that they oppose the Tories when unemployment is high but support them after a victorious war? Are they satisfied to use their vote to repress themselves rather than for their freedom?           


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