John Osmond argues that this does not feel like a 1997 moment
Following this week’s end of the political conferences which were all little more than election rallies the only question left is when the election will be. The assumption amongst most observers seems to be Thursday 6 May next year. My betting, however, is that Gordon Brown will use a last shot in his locker and surprise us with an election on a Sunday in early or late March, depending on the long-range weather forecast.
There’s not much else he can do to unsettle the Tories. They give the impression of cruising into government on a wave of promising polls, favourable media, and a popular mood of “let’s get this wretched lot out”.
The credit crunch, recession and the expenses scandal have created a hugely unstable political backdrop. Gordon Brown’s claim that boom and bust were over has plainly backfired. But his light touch adulation of the City only continued what the Conservatives began back in 1986 when Mrs Thatcher’s ‘Big Bang’, which abolished the distinction between stockjobbers and stockbrokers on the London Stock Exchange and freed them to pursue a pirate-like operation across the globe.
As for the MPs expenses scandal the Tories are as deeply mired in ordure as Labour. As far as I recall duck houses and moats were mainly Conservative creations and they flipped their properties as boldly and cheerfully as anyone else. I think both Tories and Labour are still in denial about what offending MPs can expect from the electorate when the time comes.
It was noticeable that this issue came up hardly at all during the conference season. Yet it is the elephant in the political room. It hasn’t gone away. And getting tough on spending cuts, claiming candour about freezing public sector pay, and generally making a virtue of having to reduce our living standards – a novel approach to the electorate – won’t make it go away either.
So is it really 1997 all over again, that glad confident morning when Tony Blair swept in with his landslide and “to be alive was very heaven”? It doesn’t feel like it. History rarely repeats itself so soon.
To begin with Labour should have won the previous election in 1992, and if they had been led by John Smith rather than Neil Kinnock they would have. The Tories were not within sight of winning in 2005.
By 1997 Tony Blair had really changed the Labour Party. New Labour wasn’t simply new, it was completely different. When the late, great Gwyn Alf Williams declared in the 1980s that we would never see a Labour Government again he was right.
David Cameron hasn’t changed the Tories in the same way. Certainly he has presented himself as a plausible figure. He looks and sounds as though he could be Prime Minister, which is better that all the previous candidates who have been Leader of the Opposition since 1997. But he hasn’t fundamentally changed the Conservative Party. It remains in favour of low taxes, against any real distributive fiscal policy, anti Europe Union, pro fox-hunting, basically anti green, but in favour of neo-colonial grandstanding in Afghanistan and other places around the world.
There is no real enthusiasm for the Tories who remain stuck around the late 30s in the opinion polls. If Labour loses its majority, as seems likely, it will be because they do not deserve to remain in office – mainly because of allowing the city to let rip and going to war in Iraq on a false prospectus. When he took over as Prime Minister Gordon Brown promised to be different, to restore the authenticity of Labour before it was seduced by Blair’s promise of electoral success. Above all he promised to be decisive, for instance on pursuing the constitutional change that Britain so desperately needs. He has reneged on all these fronts.
None of this gives me any pleasure. We desperately need a government in London that recognises the reality of Britain’s place in the world, as a medium-sized country that sees itself in the European mainstream, no longer harbouring imperial pretensions and no longer clinging to the delusion of a special relationship with the United States. We need a Government with a proper understanding that the urgency of Climate Change means much, much more than promoting renewable energy on the one hand while allowing a third runway at Heathrow on the other. We need a government in London that acknowledges that the economic relationship between the City and the English South East of England needs to be rebalanced with the rest of the multi-national state. We need a new regard, and some actual help, for people and businesses that earn their living by making things we really need.
My main hope, therefore, is that neither the Tories nor Labour will win the forthcoming Westminster election, whenever it comes. Instead, we need a hung Parliament in which one or other of them will need to negotiate with the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru to produce a modest, practical programme for government. This should be one that meets the economic needs of the whole of Britain, that is determined to modernise our feudal constitution, and one that acknowledges that Britain itself can no longer be imagined as the global economic power it briefly was in the few decades leading up to World War I.