Sunday, October 07, 2007

This Election Business

So we're not going to have an autumn election. It's the right decision and will chime with voters' opinions. Polls showed substantial numbers unenthusiastic about having an election so early. Voters have got used to the Labour government going to the polls every four years in the spring and believe that the only reason to deviate from this cycle is if there is a crisis that urgently needs the voters verdict, and there is none now.

As to the volatility of the polls and the "embarassment" of having to say there will be no election - it will probably do Labour good. The Labour party works best when it thinks elections are on a knife-edge. Though Labour was strongly ahead in the polls in the run-up to the 1997 election, nobody believed it, and everybody worked to the bone and campaigned as though there were only a couple of points in it. And though Labour got a huge majority in 1997, the government behaved cautiously, as though things were finely balanced. The lead-up to the 2001 election was full of fretting from Labour about foot-and-mouth and fuel prices. The 2005 election was overshadowed with fretting about Iraq, and the recent Ealing-Southall by-election was fought with the sounds of crowing Tories ringing in Labour activists' ears.

Labour won all the above. But when we allow ourselves to believe it's in the bag, we get careless, we say things we shouldn't, and we lose. Think 1992. All the caution that Labour has shown in the last ten years has been correct. Voters really are brutal and un-sentimental. Look at what happened in 1992. Look at what the voters did to the Tories in 1997.

Voters don't like it when parties talk about "smashing" each other. They don't like it now and they didn't like it in the 80's when David Owen said Labour was "finished" or when Thatcher wrote in 1991 that it was unlikely Britain would ever see a Labour government again. Voters want all parties to be viable in case something goes wrong with the government, so that they have the option of changing government. When they hear talk of "smashing" they shift in the polls to give the would-be smasher a swift shock.

Voters don't like it when they hear talk about the "next ten years" or of people "going on and on". They might give us another ten years, but only if we don't take them for granted and don't act like it's in the bag. When they think people take them for granted, they have an irresistable urge to administer a good kick.

We saw what hubris did to the Tories in the early 90's. The good news is that while they delivered five full years of it, we've just had a couple of days of it at the conference. If we can end it now and go back to being our cautious New Labour selves, all will be well. We haven't lost an election, we've just had a few red faces and some people laugh at us.

We learn from it, and move on. And if the Tories want to be triumphant, let them. We all know where that leads.

No comments: