Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 13 June 2008
I might have said it before, but I’ll say it again. One of the most frightening things about middle age is realising that events you consider recent actually took place ages ago.
The thought strikes me often because I work as a university lecturer, and each year’s intake of students is younger than the last. I’m currently recruiting undergraduates born as recently as 1990 for entry in September. They’re still Thatcher’s children – or at least the Brits among them are – but only just. The other week I went out for drinks with a group of students to celebrate a 21st and was taken aback to discover that the birthday girl had a strong recollection of Labour winning in 1997 because she was 10 the day that Tony Blair arrived in Downing Street. There are still mature students and postgrads with teenage memories of John Major or Monica Lewinsky, but year after year their numbers get fewer.
What really got me this week, however, was not the youth of my students but the jolt of recognition that it’s 25 years since I decided I ought to join the Labour Party. I’m not expecting anyone to start a collection for a long-service presentation – apart from anything else, I didn’t in fact sign up for some time, and the only award I deserve is for most indolent party member not sitting in the House of Lords.
And who would want to draw attention to the circumstances of my mini-epiphany? It was, of course, the general election defeat of June 9 1983, when Labour’s national share of the vote slumped to under 28 per cent, only just ahead of the SDP/Liberal Alliance, and Labour won just 209 seats in the House of Commons. Labour doesn’t want to remember it because it was a humiliation, and for the Tories to commemorate it would seem hubristic. Apart from one meeting of Labour historians in the House of Commons that I missed, the anniversary has gone unmarked.
I’m not proud to admit it now, but I treated that election purely as a spectator sport. I was far too left-wing to get involved, and anyway – whatever the opinion polls said – I was confident it would result in the Tories being defeated and some centrist Keynesian corporatist Labour-Alliance coalition taking their place. That would leave the serious left to push for social revolution through rank-and-file workplace organisation and grassroots social movements. In other words, I thought it would be back to 1960s-1970s business-as-usual (as I then understood it, need I emphasise).
But in the early hours of June 10 1983, as the results came in and the beers went down, it dawned on me with horror that I had got it completely wrong. It was a straightforward Tory landslide. The authoritarian free-market right was utterly triumphant. The idea that somehow there would be space for anything other than desperate defence of the welfare state and trade union rights against the Thatcherite onslaught suddenly struck me as incredibly stupid. Whatever was wrong with Labour, the only alternative in a first-past-the-post electoral system was the Tories – and they were a great deal worse.
A statement of the bleeding obvious, you might think. I certainly do. I’ve not wavered in my belief that Labour is the lesser evil for a whole quarter-century (even while advocating tactical voting for the Liberal Democrats on occasion, though that’s a different story).
But it doesn’t seem that way for rather a lot of people right now. The opinion polls in the past few weeks bear a frightening resemblance to the result of the 1983 general election, and so did the local elections last month. My own focus groups – well, actually, the people I meet in everyday life – confirm all the trends. Gordon Brown is hopeless and Labour is finished if it continues on its current course.
Yes, it’s mid-term; yes, the economy might not be in quite as dire a state as the pessimists claim; yes, the Tories are coming back from a performance in terms of seats that was little better than Labour’s in 1983. But it’s looking less and less likely that Brown will be able to pull anything out of the hat. He is the day-before-yesterday’s man, and nothing he has done this year suggests that he has a clue how to restore Labour’s fortunes.
If Labour wants to avoid a repeat of 1983 in 2010, Brown should not be leader then – and the efforts of all party loyalists for the next few months should be devoted to persuading him to fall on his sword in an orderly manner. I don’t think he’ll do it, but it’s at least worth a try. The other options, professing undying loyalty to a leader who has no hope of winning or attempting to force him out, are recipes for electoral disaster.