To start, how about this?
Unless there is a change, Britain is in jeopardy of becoming entrenched in a system of almost permanent one-party Conservative government: elected by a minority but able to exercise the exclusive power of a majority.
Or perhaps this?
There should be a parallel debate … about the future of progressive politics, how it is reconstructed and reshaped into a winning coalition. This should include Labour, traditional left and right, the Lib Dems, those disenchanted with both main Parties and those not at present engaged in any Party. It must be a Big Tent debate, open and frank.
What’s interesting about those two quotes? The first is Paddy Ashdown speaking in 1992. The second is Tony Blair speaking today. I don’t want to get completely bogged down in looking to the past, but it’s fascinating to read Ashdown’s speech and not notice how much of it is still relevant today, and how much of it is echoed in the comments Blair and others have made in the week since the election. We’ve just had an election where the various anti-Conservative forces in the country have failed to hang together, and now we most definitely get to hang separately.
So, the question has to be what can we do now to make the result of the next general election in 2023 or 2024 different from the norm? And let’s not make a mistake here — the norm for British elections since WW2 is that the Conservatives get less than 50% of the vote and a comfortable majority in Parliament. By the time that election rolls around, we’ll have had 48 or 49 years of Conservative Prime Ministers, and 30 years of Labour ones. On current boundaries, around 50 Tory seats need to flip at the next election just to get to the point where an all-party Anyone But Johnson coalition could take power with a bare majority. As we’ll likely be facing new boundaries that task gets harder even before you consider there’ll be a lot of Tory MPs with a first-term incumbency boost to their chances.
Now, we could work on the assumption that something will come along that will dramatically change all these calculations. Some of Ashdown’s ideas from 1992 were made irrelevant a few months later when Black Wednesday destroyed the message of Tory competence on the economy, for example, but it didn’t stop John Major — a man with a lot more scruples and a lot less lust for power than Johnson — remaining in Downing Street for nearly five years after that, having already been re-elected after his party had provoked riots with the Poll Tax. The Tories are the masters of reinvention while in office: Johnson follows Major, Macmillan and Eden in being able to win a majority after taking over from an incumbent PM, something no other party have done in the era of universal suffrage. Events may eventually fatally damage Johnson’s ability to remain in office, but that does not guarantee that the Conservatives will not simply reinvent themselves again in the wake of his departure.
What that means is that we have to work out a strategy to beat them, because we can’t merely hope that they’ll find a way to beat themselves. Blair and New Labour built the foundation for three non-Tory terms by not being content with the Tories beating themselves on Black Wednesday, but pushing to keep defeating them up to 1997 and beyond.
So how do we defeat them? I’ll be honest, I don’t know, just like no one in 1992 knew how to defeat them when 1997 came around. What I do know, and what you can see in Ashdown’s words from there, is that now is time to take stock of the situation, to pause and think of the big strategies we need, not the detailed tactics. To paraphrase Gibson, much of the last decade of British politics appears to have been designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button. There have been vast changes in all areas of the political system: the issues we talk about, the organisation of the parties, the relative size of their electorate and representation, the geographical division of the vote, the way politics is communicated, understood and consumed; all of these are vastly changed and we’re not going to learn what they all mean after momentary reflection before we plunge back into the fray.
All I will say is that the analysis of how we put this fight together has to be plural and it has to be wide. The lessons we need to learn about stopping the Tories need to come from anyone and everyone, no one individual, movement or party has all the answers or made all the mistakes. First, we have to understand our own positions, accept our own mistakes and issues without laying the blame on others, and then we can honestly take steps towards working together and having a different result when we next get the chance. To finish how I started, here’s Paddy again:
These are not simple tasks. It is always safer to take shelter in our own exclusivity than to include others in the circle of debate. It is always easier to celebrate our own purity than to venture outside the traditional boundaries of party politics. It is always more straightforward to deal in our own narrow certainties than to share conclusions on a wider scale.