Politics is a fickle business. Labour started the week under fire for selling a mug that declared its support for controlling immigration, only for Ed Miliband to see his personal poll numbers improve for the first time in months. The Conservatives, for their part, seemed at the beginning of the week to be on the back foot, with commentators’ pronouncements claiming that the party’s entire campaign had lost its way. Fast forward twenty-four hours and Chancellor George Osborne had cause to delight, hailing aso-called economic ‘hat-trick’ of revised upward growth figures, increased real household disposable income and burgeoning consumer confidence.
Of course, the mug is just a mug, the opinion poll just an opinion poll. And economic figures only ever tell part of the story. But this is a general election. And the first week of the campaign proper has certainly been a dramatic one.
The highlight of the week was the leaders’ debate. After months of quibbling with the broadcasters, David Cameron finally took to the stage in a head-to-head contest. In contrast to 2010, however, the ITV special marked the onlybrawl of its kind in this election, the sole opportunity forCameron and Miliband to debate each other directly. Andthe Labour and Conservative leaders were far from alone.The prime ministerial hopefuls shared a platform with fiveother leaders: Green leader Nicola Bennett, the current deputy prime minister and Lib Dem chief Nick Clegg, UKIP’s Nigel Farage, the SNP leader and current Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, and the leader of the Welsh nationalists, Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood.
Each agreed that the debate would consist of four main themes: the economy, immigration, the health service and the future of the UK. The discussion itself was wide-ranging in scope, if not in depth. The biggest losers were probably the viewers. The format seemed messy, a reminder that too many cooks really can spoil the political broth. The highlight for me was when, fifteen minutes from the end, a member of the audience – social worker Victoria Posser –went off cue and began heckling from the stalls.
By contrast, the biggest winners were almost certainly the nationalists: Wood scored the first audience applause; Sturgeon once again showed herself to be a relaxed, skilled speaker. Farage, meanwhile, seemed a little off his game, the point about AIDS patients being treated by the NHS unlikely to go down with well with most voters. Cameron was quiet. Miliband was resolute. And Clegg stood his ground where he had the opportunity to do so. If anyone struggled it was Bennett, still reeling from her ‘mind blank’ LBC radio interview a few weeks ago.
After the ordeal, the results of four snap polls conducted to decide who emerged as the ‘winner’ were announced – andeach delivered a different response. The truth is that these debates still mean little in British politics. At best theydecide the nature of the campaign, not the result.
Beyond the debate, the economy and British membership of the EU really defined the political narrative this week.Launching its business manifesto in the heart of the City of London, the Labour leadership was at pains to stress that, as it saw things, the biggest threat to the economic recovery was not a Labour-led government but a Conservative onetaking Britain out of the EU. The party quickly reiterated the point by placing an advert in the Financial Times, quotingvarious business leaders to emphasise their point. The reaction was not quite as expected and both Siemens and Kellogg’s expressed concern about being drawn into a political debate, although the managers of CM Direct and the investment group Redbus were more supportive of Labour’s sympathetic stance on the EU. Responding to Labour claims, Grant Shapps, the Conservative chair, once again reiterated the line that if the British people want a referendum on the EU, they should have one – ignoring the fact that, when asked, the public tend to support holding a plebiscite on any area of government policy.
But what struck me more than anything about this week was the very real sense of déjà vu.
Picture the scene. The British economy staggering out of recession. The prime minister struggling to unite a fissiparous party divided once again by the issue of ‘Europe’. The electoral landscape politically splintered, withminor parties hoping to make major political gains. The opinion polls equivocal as to which party will enter office, instead pointing towards a messy election result with a hung parliament the likely outcome.
Such a summary neatly surmises the situation today. But is also aptly describes the political environment in February 1974, when Edward Heath and Harold Wilson fought over the keys to Downing Street. It even captures the scene in 1992, when John Major faced his first election as Conservative leader against the revitalised Labour party then led by Neil Kinnock.
Needless to say, the February 1974 vote – the first of two that year – was fought in very different circumstances, theperiod characterised by the 1973 oil crisis and the on-going three-day week. And the 1992 election was the first electoral test for the Conservatives following Margaret Thatcher’s departure just two years earlier. But there are clearly anumber of lessons that we can draw from both elections.
For a start, in both 1974 and 1992 the opinion polls were extremely close – and ultimately wrong. Talk about a hung parliament in the lead up to both votes was, it is certainly true, widespread. In 1974, however, most expected the Conservatives to edge ahead in the days leading to the February vote, whereas in the event Labour emerged as the single biggest party but with fewer seats. In 1992, by contrast, Labour was marginally ahead in most polls, only for the Conservatives to secure a majority of twenty-one seats. It is a reminder that we should take any opinion poll with a hefty dose of salt.
Second, in both elections the SNP played an important role. In 1974, the party emerged as the fourth largest party in the Commons. In 1992, it increased its vote tally by 50 per cent.Today much is made of the SNP and the power that the party might wield after the forthcoming election. But history tells us that the SNP’s influence in Westminster politics is nothing new. It is the ability for the SNP to sustain this pressure on the larger parties that will be of longer-term significance.
Third, both elections were a portent of things to come with regard to party divisions over ‘Europe’. The 1992 vote for instance did little to soothe discussions within the Conservatives over the Maastricht Treaty. But the 1974 vote is perhaps more pertinent to today’s debate. Soon after the February election the Labour party set about renegotiating Britain’s membership of the then European Community. The reworked package, which in reality was nothing more than a window dressing exercise to placate a vociferous section of Labour MPs, did little to change the terms of British membership. But it was an ‘agreement to differ’, whereby Cabinet ministers were able to dispense with collective responsibility and disagree openly with one another and vote as they saw fit, that in the long-term caused problems for the Labour movement. Anti-Community ministers immediatelyrefused to accept the positive referendum result, an approach that really set the scene for the battles that would seal the party’s electoral fate in 1979. The whole process of agreeing a new settlement with Britain’s Community partners was, then, a palliative, mitigating rather than solving Labour’s deep ideological and political wounds. It is in this sense thatDavid Cameron should take note: in the long-run renegotiations and referendums do not solve deep-seated party political problems.
Overall, while the recent leadership debate was very excitingand the quality of political discussion in this election impressive, many of the issues that are under discussion now are by no means new. Politicians today would certainly do well to study those of yesteryear. Politics, much like fashion,is not invented but reinvented. History provides the perfect opportunity to understand the significance of these issuesand to learn from them.