Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Governments lose elections, Mr Corbyn doesn't win them

I hadn’t been involved in politics very long when a veteran Tory councillor of with many polling days on his CV said to me ‘Leon, oppositions don’t win elections, administrations lose them’.

I had never heard the saying before so did a little digging. I discovered that it was an adage that had been doing the rounds for many years and although sometimes the words were rearranged the meaning always remained the same. 

Even those establishment commentators and academics Bartle, Crewe and Gosschalk when they spoke of the 1980’s  said ‘the new conventional wisdom was that governments didn’t win elections, oppositions lost them’.

The premise remains the same. 

I mulled over the idea for a long time, never quite sure whether I agreed with the concept or not, and then a couple of things happened. Two referenda in fact. 

We all remember the ‘scintillating’ debate of the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum and the genuinely more interesting one around Scottish independence. The results of both, for me at least, were extremely informative. 

Rather than stepping into the unknown when both questions had very strong arguments for change in both cases the electorate voted for the safe, conservative status quo. 

I finally understood what the adage meant. 

Providing things aren’t completely screwed up most of us stay, not always quite so happily, with the devil that we know. 

That’s what happened on May 7th. 

I honestly believe that the electorate didn’t have a great love of the Tories but enough voters saw them managing the economy and public services in a competent enough way that there was no pressing need to change. In other words the Tories didn’t lose the election. 

Now it might be true that in general administrations are voted out but it is undoubtedly the case that oppositions can lack the credibility to be voted in, and that is where we may have massive problems in the coming weeks, months and years. 

Jeremy Corbyn is undoubtedly popular. He has run a superb campaign playing to the traditionalist Labour base and will in all likelihood become Labour leader in a few weeks. 

But what will his brand of politics, his brand of uncertainty, do for those voters who need to be persuaded to move away from an uninspiring but solid government? 
What will voters do when they are offered day after day talk of expensive nationalisation? scare stories of tax hikes to pay university fees? continual op-eds about a man who is friends with terrorists? and editorials about downgrading defence? 

My guess is that just like those referendum campaigns, just like nearly every general election of my lifetime, overwhelmingly voters will return to their inherently conservative viewpoints and keep what they have. That’s not because they are bad people it’s because that’s human nature. 

During the leadership campaign I have heard time and time again the Labour must be a real opposition, and indeed when the Tories do something wrong indeed they must. But we mustn’t be different for the sake of being different, not enough people think this government is doing a bad enough job. 

In some respects the role of the opposition is to not foul up so badly that they can’t be seen by the electorate as a credible alternative.  

So far as a party we are doing spectacularly badly in that arena. I’ve got a feeling we may soon be doing even worse.   


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