Labour had a good night on Sunday. Not Gordon Brown, not Ed Balls, not the Milibands, nor any other of the other ministers who will have been bundled out of office within the next 12 months. They are, of course, doomed. For them ahead lies nothing but months of humiliation, followed, for many of them, by unemployment. But for the Labour party as an institution it is another matter. In spite of suffering an even heavier drubbing in the local and European elections than had been predicted, the Labour party on Sunday ensured its survival and recovery to power some time in the 2020s. I am so sure of this that I would advise anyone in their twenties who is contemplating a political career to join up at once. Given that Labour asks under-27s to pay a subscription of only £1 a year, booking your place in a future cabinet now will only cost you the price of a coffee.
I know it might seem a little perverse to talk up the Labour party in this week of all weeks. As Daniel Finkelstein quipped on the BBC coverage of the Euro elections, the biggest winner of the night was Michael Foot: Gordon Brown has managed to make the former leader’s performance in the 1983 general election look good. But amid the carnage of Labour’s European and local elections, and the triumph of two BNP candidates as MEPs, most pundits missed the biggest story of the evening: the complete and utter failure of the Liberal Democrats.
You can still watch Nick Clegg on YouTube, grinning from ear to ear, saying he was ‘absolutely delighted, thrilled’ that his party had won the modest prize of Bristol City Council. Yet unless the height of his ambitions really is organising wheelie-bin collections on the Avon, he must know his party’s performance was dire. Last week there was serious speculation that Labour would lose its position as the second party, and that the Liberal Democrats might squeak through into second place in the general election to become Her Majesty’s Opposition. On Sunday Labour did fall into third place, but to Ukip. The Lib Dems not only failed to capitalise on the government’s deep unpopularity, they actually went backwards. Their share of the vote in the European elections fell from 14.9 per cent in 2004 to 13.7 per cent. In the local elections they lost control of Devon and Cornwall. Given that the Lib Dems have been relatively lightly affected by the MPs’ expenses scandal, it is incredible that they could not make substantial ground on Labour’s right flank, from the many voters disillusioned with Labour but who could never bring themselves to vote Tory.
Even worse for the Lib Dems, the victory of two BNP candidates has ensured that proportional representation will be off the political agenda in Britain for a generation. Critics of PR have long warned that it gives a platform to extremist parties. Following Sunday’s results, no one can have any doubt. The Green party is still pleading for PR, but there is no electoral system which is going to put Green MPs in Westminster without also putting British National Party MPs there. Britain is almost alone in Europe in not having far-right parties in its national legislature, and there will be huge pressure to keep it that way.
That leaves us with an inevitable outcome: that the British political system will remain a two-party one for the foreseeable future and that those two parties will be Conservative and Labour. The possibility of Ukip establishing second place in a general election is, of course, improbable — the party has never come close to winning a single Westminster seat, let alone the 150 or so it would need at the very least to become the second party in the Commons.
It will be a shattered and fractious Labour party which stumbles away from the next election. If you think it is engaged in civil war now, it is nothing compared with the fratricide which will descend upon the party after a general election defeat. There will, inevitably, be a school of opinion on the left that interprets Labour’s defeat as a result of not being sufficiently socialist. Moreover, there will be a huge drain of talent and money: who wants to back a losing party when all eyes will be on the incoming Conservative administration?
But it is in conditions such as these that political careers are made. Just look at Tony Blair and David Cameron. Both entered parliament when their parties were at their lowest ebb. Both took advantage of talent shortages on their parties’ respective front benches, and both benefited from being untainted by association with the previous, failed regime. Both then were able to position themselves as modernisers driven by a mission to overcome the palaeolithic elements within their own parties. More importantly still, both found that their rise through the ranks of the opposition coincided with the decline of tired governments.
There is a pattern creeping into British politics which I think will take some shifting: party number one wins election and for eight years can more or less do what it pleases. Then complacency creeps in. It wins its third election, although the electorate shows less enthusiasm. Hubris sets in, and the public begin to desert. By the time of the next or next-but-one election, the voters are like the killers in Murder on the Orient Express: they all have different reasons, but are united in wanting to plunge in the knife. In defeat, the party goes off the rails, then takes three or four elections to work its way back to power. Only when it is led by a team wholly unassociated with the last regime is it able to overhaul a collapsing government led by party number two.
If you are under 30, you can string together a decent argument and you have the ability to temper your ego with a few years of stuffing envelopes and making speeches to dusty working men’s clubs, it could be you who sneaks to power when an exhausted Cameron/Osborne/Boris regime collapses in a decade or so’s time. Don’t worry if you are not ideologically attracted to Labour: was Tony Blair ever that? You may have to sign up for and defend a pretty nutty Labour manifesto in the 2016 general election — the one in which you get elected as an MP — but your party will reach its nadir. After that, however, you can gradually shift towards the centre. Meanwhile, start to court editors of conservative newspapers. One of Tony Blair’s secrets of success was to accept invitations to dine at the Daily Mail when other Labour MPs considered such company to be beyond the pale. David Cameron accepted an invitation by the Guardian to pen a diary during the 2001 election. By doing so, you will build hugely important contacts for when you will have to present yourself as the acceptable face of the new Labourism.
In a memorable passage from one of his early conference speeches, Blair declined to write off Conservative chances, using words to the effect that the Tory beast was sleeping, and that it would be back. He then contemptuously dismissed the Lib Dems as no threat at all. At the time there was a widespread belief that the Lib Dems might supplant the Conservatives as Her Majesty’s Opposition, but Blair was right: he knew they had already blown it.
They have done so again, only this time in their narrow window of opportunity to supplant Labour. The Balls and Miliband generation is finished, but somewhere out there, clutching or soon to be clutching a £1 membership card, is the architect of the next Labour landslide.