1997 or 1992? For those unable or unwilling to recall these totemic elections, here’s a reminder.
In 1992, after 11 years of Margaret Thatcher and against all odds, the polls and the predictions, John Major held on to a slim but apparently workable overall majority in the face of Neil Kinnock’s reformed but undeniably still ‘old’ Labour Party. Kinnock resigned within the day.
In 1997, Tony Blair swept to an unheard of 179 seat majority (scuttling plans for a Labour Lib-Dem alliance in the process). His victory, under the banner of New Labour on a wave of optimism was – frankly – much to the relief of a Conservative Government exhausted not so much by their full eighteen years in power, but by the chaos and conflict of their unexpected final term. Major went to watch the cricket. Be careful what you wish for.
Sunak looks cast in Major’s role. With personal approval ratings – if not high – running ahead of his party. He has made his political name, almost exclusively, in the Treasury. Succeeding a charismatic but divisive leader (with brief interregnum), his selection as a dull but worthy Conservative leader brought a collective sigh of relief, if little enthusiasm. Safe and boring.
Starmer, however, is neither the scary “will the last one out of Britain turn the lights off?” Kinnock, nor the youthful and inspirational “Things can only get better” Blair. The attempt, therefore, for commentators to draw comparisons in the light of today’s local election results looks immediately flawed, but are nonetheless informative.
Despite increasingly impressive local election results, Kinnock could not get Labour over the line because the soft Conservatives across the country still saw too much of the firebrand trade unionist in him. The Sheffield rally which apocryphally cost him his election was too angry, too hot-headed. Yes, we are happy to have Kinnock’s party running our local council, but not to have the man himself running the country. It’s just a step too far.
Blair was no less charismatic, but he was, above all, safe. Maybe a less charismatic version would have been less capable of motivating middle class voters to switch directly from blue to red without the safe yellow stop-off, but probably the impact would have been marginal. And, of course, Blair had lined up Ashdown as an insurance policy against a less conclusive result.
Starmer may (heck, he does) lack Blair’s charisma, but the horses will not be scared by him. Starmer outside Number 10 inspires little more than a shrug. His challenge is to get the voters out of bed but anger at the Conservatives should do that for him.
Meanwhile, these local elections – and recent by-election successes – show that Davey can provide Labour’s insurance policy this time.
Indeed, even as the results flood in (writing at 9am) what is clear is that the ‘anyone but the Tories’ vote is now fully back in operation. Labour may not be the sole beneficiary but with the Lib Dems (and to a much lesser extent in Parliamentary terms, the Greens) back in the game, the pattern which seems to be emerging across the country this morning is that the party best placed to punish the Tories is, more often than not, able to consolidate necessary votes.
That really is a threat to the Conservatives. Even were it to turn out that Labour moderately underperformed their poll rate yesterday – and there is little evidence of that – the new anti-Conservative coalition is more than capable of sweeping them from power next year.
The lesson from 1992 was that, when push came to shove, Kinnock was too much of a risk for middle England. The lesson of 2023 – when the dust settles – will be that the Conservatives, if not Sunak, is the greater risk.
We may not be looking at a 1997 Labour landslide, but the prospects for the Conservatives look grim.