Since it is probably as well that those of us who earn a living by political punditry should occasionally have a spasm of humility, let me share one of my own with you. I know in my heart that Labour is likely to win the next election, but I cannot for the life of me understand how. In the old days, when a Labour government made an imperial mess of things, there was a bright, shiny new Conservative opposition waiting to take over. If, in the 1960s or 1970s, we had a Labour government that had presided over a precipitous decline in standards in the public service while hiking up taxation, raiding pension funds and systematically lying to the British people, they would have been out like a shot. Yes, I know, the Conservative party is doing its irresistible impression of the proverbial one-legged man in an arse-kicking contest, but its utter inability to do its job does not provide the answer to one fundamental question: who the hell is going to vote Labour?
In 1997, as is well known, Labour won not least because millions of middle-class people voted for them. Many crossed straight over from the Tories, bent on the act of national salvation of removing John Major from office. In 2001 some of these people ended the flirtation, but chose to abstain rather than vote for anyone else, though a significant minority went to the Liberal Democrats. In the first four years Labour had not only shown that it was less friendly to the middle classes than it had pretended to be, not least by implementing serious rises in indirect taxes. It had also failed to improve the public services, of which the consumerist middle classes were increasingly critical. Above all, several acts of alleged impropriety (not all of which involved Peter Mandelson) had served to remind people that the political class in general was decaying, and that corrupt behaviour was not the exclusive province of the Tories. So long as the apostates became abstainers, Labour had little to fear. If they choose to vote elsewhere, however, then the massive majority starts to crumble.
Assuming we have an election in just over five months’ time, Labour has two distinct reasons for anxiety. The first is that the middle classes have been even more alienated in the last four years than they were in the previous four. The second is that competence and achievement have reached such low levels in that time that abstention might not be enough for some people, despite the apparent absence of a conviction-led opposition. Appalled by the pusillanimity of a Conservative party that wants to pay people to look after their grandchildren, and seems to believe in only what its media advisers tell it that focus groups approve of, their first port of call might well be the Liberal Democrats. Indeed, although we are still far away from the event and anything might happen, the Lib Dems look more and more like being the main beneficiaries of the forthcoming poll, despite having even fewer beliefs than the two main parties. Mr Howard and, to a lesser extent, Mr Blair might rail against the unfairness of such a prospect; but the fact is that the Lib Dems are the only one of the big parties whose credibility awaits destruction.
Labour certainly has driven away its support since 2001. The Iraq war has sent serious socialists off to the Respect party, and less serious ones to the Lib Dems. Pensioners, always susceptible to Labour’s welfarist largesse, are instead increasingly under the impression that Gordon Brown has stolen their money and forced upon them a dotage in penury. In Scotland, where Labour did so well at the last two elections, an SNP once more under the sharp and penetrating leadership of Alex Salmond looks certain to make new inroads into an increasingly sclerotic and arrogant Labour establishment. In England, the rural vote that Labour hoovered up so effectively — it has more than 100 rural or semi-rural seats — is the most vulnerable. Foot-and-mouth was bad enough; but the bigotry and ignorance that have manifested themselves over the fox-hunting issue have made many country people of all classes the implacable enemy of Labour. In suburban areas where people flirted with Labour or abstentionism, they have seen a big decline in their quality of life through poorer services, higher taxation, failures of policing, growing congestion and the malevolent side effects of illegal immigration. Considering all this, it would take a miracle for Labour to poll anything like the same number of votes next May as it did in 2001.
With the first-past-the-post system that might not matter a jot. Or it might see Labour’s majority severely depleted by the rise of SNP and Lib Dem MPs, and even with some seats going back to the Tories. Also, the danger of making a judgment at this stage is not that matters might get better for Mr Blair, but that they could get considerably worse. More barbarity in Iraq could drive away more of his core supporters. Any of the traditional winter difficulties in the public services could be the final straw for some floating voters. Above all, the vote to ban fox-hunting could well have dire consequences, in the form of an embarrassing challenge in the courts and widespread, militant civil disobedience presenting to the nation a clear picture of a divided country that is increasingly impossible to govern. It should not seem incomprehensible that a Commons majority of 170 could disappear; the Liberals’ landslide of 1906 was gone by 1910, and Labour’s own huge majority of 1945 had all but evaporated by 1950. Of course, in those days there was a serious Tory opposition, but its absence now makes matters all the more perplexing.
Perhaps, in the next four or five months, the Tories will at last notice all these areas of weakness for Labour and start to capitalise upon them. The auguries, though, are not good. For the moment, they continually produce wheezes which instead imitate Labour, and which are presented with a depressing mixture of incompetence, insincerity and hypocrisy. As natural Tory voters come staggering back from Labour they hear no shouts of welcome from their natural home, but rather see a party that is still without clear direction and, in its clumsy attempts to ‘modernise’, as divorced as ever from the instincts of its traditional supporters. It is no doubt wise in such circumstances for the Lib Dems to keep quiet and to hope that by simply being there, and as yet unrumbled, they might just overcome in the minds of many disenchanted people the seductive idea of abstentionism. Therefore, and in the light of Labour’s destruction of so many of its own bases of support, we might like to reflect upon the strangeness of our having come this close to an election, and no one having raised the apparently obvious question about the serious possibility of a hung parliament.
Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily Mail.