A Good Election to Lose?

by Alex Massie

Is this actually an election it would be best to lose? There are certainly some Labour MPs and even cabinet ministers who cannot abide the idea of Gordon Brown remaining in office for a further five years. Nevertheless, Labour has more stomach for the fight than the Conservatives did before the Bonfire of the Tories of 1997.

The latest polls suggest that, while hardly steady, the Tories aren't wobbly quite so much as they were over the weekend. Then again, with at least one poll coming out every day everything assumes a greater immediate importance than might otherwise and sensibly be the case. Still, on average the Conservatives have a six or seven point lead. That's hung parliament territory.

It was Dominic Lawson, son of Margaret Thatcher's Chancellor, who suggested last week that this could be a useful election to lose. This is the sort of clever-clever stuff someone always suggests every election season. This time, for once, there could be something to it. Because this is a horrid election to win.

The public has yet to come to terms with the total absence of money, nor with the consequences of the current, unsustainable, level of debt. Just 25% of voters think the deficit is a priority. This poses a problem for the Tories since, having been caught out by agreeing to match Labour's spending plans in the past, they have decided to make the deficit the centrepiece of their economic approach.

Lawson imagines the previously unimagineable: a fourth Labour term:

Leave aside the prospect of more years under the command of such a morbid misanthrope as Mr Brown (and it is this, rather than the Prime Minister's alleged bullying, which fills his colleagues with such despair); what is the political and economic inheritance which the Labour government would bequeath to its reconstituted self? The scene would be something like the end of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, when Kurtz in a sudden moment of realisation declares: "The Horror! The Horror!"

The victim of the former rugby-playing Prime Minister's hospital pass – as he has both shattered the country's finances while also making further commitments which can not possibly be afforded– would not be David Cameron, but himself. It would be Gordon Brown, Mr Public Investment, who would have to cut state expenditure on a scale which has never before been done in this country – a guarantee of vicious internecine conflict between the Labour Party and its main financial backers, the public-sector trade unions; either that or face such a buyers' strike on the part of international investors in Britain's vast debt as would require the final humiliation of a second Labour Government having to throw itself on the not so tender mercies of the International Monetary Fund.

By this reckoning a fourth term would be just as damaging to Labour as a fourth term was to the Conservatives when John Major won his own surprise, come-from-behind, victory.
But there is one crucial difference: defeat and then, more importantly, the sadly-timely death of hte party leader, John Smith, persuaded Labour that they really had to change and change for good. quiet anguish of the past few years is how much of that change Labour squandered and how little reforming return it got for its spending investment. Winning in 1992 didn't do the Tories many favours, but it was very important for Labour. That will not be the case this time.
The Tories are supposed to have been through their purgatorial reforms. If decontaminating the party brand and trying to refashion an idea for a new kind of Toryisim, fit for the 21st century, proves insufficient then what on earth would be left?
Sure, another five years in office could destroy the Labour party too, but only after it had, after more than a century of trying, slain the Tory dragon for once and forever. In this sense, then, the stakes are as high for the parties as they are for the country.
Governing without money and in an age when the public hates politicians won't be much fun but all that can be said for winning is that, as is usually the case, it's a little bit better than losing.