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May 14, 2008

Gordon Brown - will he keep going down? Asks William D. Rubinstein

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

Can Gordon Brown still win the next election? William D. Rubinstein - professor of modern history at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth - offers his thoughts. The views expressed here are those of Prof. Rubinstein, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director. The Social Affairs Unit is not a party political organisation.

The decline of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister has been as precipitous as it has been unexpected, with the latter being arguably the main point: how many can actually say that, a year or even six months ago, they foresaw the catastrophic ratings of either Brown or the Labour Party? How many can honestly say that they thought that Boris Johnson would defeat Ken Livingstone? Surely not many.

Brown's decline has also been very curious in that he has made few catastrophic mistakes - although he has certainly made many smaller ones - and the economy, although threatened and battered, is ostensible performing well. To me, an air of mystery pervades the Prime Minister's decline. A decline of this magnitude without any real and plainly identifiable cause seems very strange. On the face of it, too, Brown's personality does not seem to be an automatic vote-loser: on the contrary, a rock-solid, experienced, serious-minded Prime Minister would surely seem a winner, to wavering Tories as well as to Labourites, and a welcome contrast to the spin doctor-driven banalities of Tony Blair.

A number of electoral parameters and precedents should also be noted in considering Labour's present position. Many people are probably unaware of just how vulnerable Labour already was, prior to Brown's ascension to Number 10.

Since its great victory in 1997, when it won 43.2 per cent of the vote, compared to the Tories' 30.7 per cent, it has been downhill all the way for Labour, Blair or no Blair. At the 2001 general election, Labour elected 413 M.P.s (compared with 418 in 1997) on 40.7 per cent of the vote, compared with the Tories' 31.7 per cent.

At the 2005 general election, Labour's overall vote declined in relative terms by 5.5 per cent, to only 35.3 per cent of all votes cast, compared with the Tories' 32.3 per cent. Yet Labour elected 356 M.P.s, the Conservatives only 198, in what was surely one of the unluckiest Tory election results ever. (The Liberal Democrats elected 62 M.P.s on 22.1 per cent of the vote.)

In very many seats, the Tories lost narrowly to either party, and turnout in many Labour seats was abysmally low. But only a very small number of changed votes would alter the results dramatically. In 2005 Labour polled 9,562,000 votes, the Tories 8,773,000, a difference of only 789,000, or roughly 1230 votes per constituency. It seems very likely that Tony Blair's presence as Prime Minister made the difference possible three years ago.

Indeed, as many commentators have noted, the rot within Labour runs very deep. It is difficult to see why any young person wanting to engage in politics would join the Labour Party: right-wing activists would join the Tories or some other right-wing party; left-wing and progressive activists would almost certainly join the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, or the like. The traditional working class is almost extinct, and the power of the trade unions is greatly lessened. There is no longer an assurance that a Labour government will protect the interests of the poor, or that it differs in any real way on economic matters from the Tories.

The foundations of the Labour Party, in terms of the recruitment of its future leaders, are rotten and rotting. Essentially, it appears to be composed of members of the public sector, local government activists, some self-made businessmen, and members of some ethnic minorities. Frankly, it appears on the way out as a major party, especially once it loses office and the patronage powers of office disappear.

On the other hand, it is also important to note that one can exaggerate the uniqueness of the depths to which Labour has now sunk in public opinion surveys - according to one, to 24 per cent compared with the Tories' 49 per cent; parties have declined to these levels before and recovered or almost recovered, especially in recent decades. Gallup Polls and other surveys of voting intentions have been taken since 1939 and, on a continuing basis, since the mid-1940s.

Prior to the 1990s, only on a few occasions did one of the two major parties sink to levels which Labour is currently polling, bearing in mind that the Liberals were not really a major party in terms of their electoral share until the 1970s. In October 1956, for instance, during Suez, the Gallup Poll put the Tories at 42 per cent, Labour at 47 per cent.

The first really catastrophic decline (to 31 per cent for the Tories) came in 1962-3, during the Profumo Scandal. During the late 1960s Labour declined to previously unheard-of levels, reaching only 28 per cent of the vote in May-June 1968. Yet the Tories almost won the 1964 general election, and Labour only unexpectedly lost the 1970 general election.

A more general pattern of sharp declines set in when Michael Foot was Labour leader in the early 1980s, and then, on a more extended basis, after "Black Wednesday" in September 1992, after which the Tories under John Major consistently polled atrociously until the 1997 election, reaching a nadir of only 21 per cent on several occasions. In this case, the Tories never bounced back. On the other hand, the massive polling majority enjoyed by Labour at that time - 61 per cent in December 1994, for instance - was also not reflected in the actual general election results.

So there is some hope, but only some, for Gordon Brown, although he has certainly been dancing on eggshells since he became Prime Minister. In retrospect, it appears that David Cameron's strategy of reaching to disaffected Labour and Liberal Democrat voters with a "green", softer image and agenda, so difficult for most Tories to swallow, was the correct one. It is not too late for Gordon Brown to rise from the dead, only very difficult.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. He is the author of Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution, (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and co-author of The Richest of the Rich: The Wealthiest 250 People in Britain Since 1066, (Harriman House, 2007).

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