Why 2015 will not be 1992

February 25, 2013 7:01 am

The tenth of April 1992 was a bleak, chilly day for Labour. Many – probably most – Labour supporters had woken up the day before believing that 13 years of Tory rule would be coming to an end as the country went to the polls. Sure, there seemed to have been some late narrowing in the long-standing opinion poll lead, but it was probably just margin of error stuff.Labour’s almost inevitable election victory had been expected since the new year. That hopeless “tax bombshell” and “double whammy” poster campaign, launched by the Tories to some derision earlier on, had not cut through, most people agreed at the time. There was little sign in the polls that voters had been scared off voting Labour for fear of what any tax rises might mean. The media were bored with the tax campaign and said no-one was listening. They laughed at John Major and his silly soapbox. Neil Kinnock may not have been universally loved or admired, and the press were certainly going for him, but the polls showed a clear and enduring Labour lead. Not even a rather over-the-top gathering in Sheffield the week before the election had taken the wind out of Labour’s sails. So election day finally came, and…

Labour lost. Pretty badly. In fact, the near 11.5m votes received by the party compared quite well with the totals registered by New Labour a decade later. There was a difficulty, however: the 14m plus votes received by the Conservatives, one of their best ever performances.

At a fascinating Labour History Group meeting last year Peter Kellner offered the now generally accepted explanation that, far from there having been a big “late swing” to the Conservatives, the apparent poll lead had been illusory all along. The pollsters’ cohorts were out of date. The data were wrong. There were also “silent Tories”, hundreds of thousands of them, who were not revealing their true voting intentions to the surveyors of opinion. The “tax bombshell” campaign had worked.

1992 explains a lot. It explains to a large extent the emergence and dominance of New Labour, led as it was by a generation of Labour figures who had been as pulverised as anyone by John Major’s “surprise” win. In all seriousness, I have heard the attitude of this generation being compared to the “never again” philosophy that underpins the state of Israel, such is/was the intensity of feeling that this defeat generated.

Never again would Labour be flaky or unconvincing on tax and spend. Never again would Labour be seen to ignore the normal and reasonable desires of “aspirational” voters. Never again could Labour afford to be bossed and bullied by a hostile media.

In February 2013 we are at most two years and three months away from the next general election. Once again Labour has a steady if not decisive poll lead. Once again the economy is weak and the Conservative party is in some disarray. And once again Labour has a leader who is broadly popular with his own side, but who is yet to convince more sceptical onlookers.

In a post for Comment is Free recently Geraint Davies MP wrote this:   “The problem for Labour is the danger of reverting to the 1992 Labour brand, ie all heart and no mind versus the Tory brand of all mind with no heart.” He has given voice to a suppressed Labour fear: that 2015 will be a repeat of 1992. A struggling Tory party will nonetheless come out on top for being better trusted to deal with tough times. It’s clearly a possible outcome. So how and why will Labour avoid a rerun of the Nightmare on Walworth Road?

First, the context is different. At the last election the Conservatives could manage only a 36% share of the vote, even though they benefited from supportive media, the appeal of novelty, and the sense that they were up against a fading government and an unpopular prime minister. Yes, they did win over 90 seats, a big achievement. But they should have done better.

For the next election to be a re-run of 1992 you would have to explain why the Conservatives will poll better in 2015 than they did in 2010. In the absence of a truly vigorous economic recovery or glaring Labour mistakes (see below) this will be hard.

Second, the media environment has changed. Academics still dispute whether “it was The Sun wot won it” in 1992. (It was in fact Lord McAlpine – recognise the name? – who declared the tabloids the true heroes of the Conservatives’ 1992 campaign.) But the relentless bad-mouthing of Labour and Neil Kinnock over many months by The Sun (and also by the then Paul Dacre-edited London Evening Standard) must have had some impact. In 1992 The Sun was still selling 3.6 million copies a day. Today it sells a third less. In the post-Leveson environment it is clearly not the force it was. No newspaper is.

Not only that, but the media are not, shall we say, always characterised by limitless courage. They don’t like being seen to be backing a loser – they are businesses too, after all. And if this is going to be a “living standards election”, then Sun readers (as well as Daily Mail readers) are going to matter. It will be hard for these titles to back a government that has not helped bring about good economic times. If Labour positions itself as the party that not only worries most about living standards, but might also have some credible ideas about boosting them, traditional anti-Labour attacks will be harder to pull off.

Ed Miliband knows that he will probably face the sort of attempted character assassination that helped to turn voters off the idea of supporting Neil Kinnock’s Labour party. He will have to be ready for that. His opponents’ powder is still dry, and few hand grenades have been thrown as yet. The final step in avoiding a 1992 re-run will mean establishing Miliband’s identity firmly in voters’ minds between now and election day, and having robust rebuttal teams (and techniques) in place for when the inevitable personal attacks come.

The Conservatives have not lost the next election, yet. Labour has clearly not won it either. But the path to a repeat of 1992 can and, I think, will be avoided. Exactly what outcome will be achieved remains to be seen.

  • AlanGiles

    Why did Labour lose in 1992?.
    Two words: Sheffield Rally (“we’re aright!” x3). It looked and sounded dreadful, a sort of arrogant triumphalism.

    How not to lose in 2015?. Stop demanding “a public enquiry” on any and everything. The conduct of Lord Rennard has bought forth the latest squeal for a PE. If we were to hold one each time a politician, regardless of party, indulged in hanky-panky, we would have no time for anything else. PE’s are expensive and time consuming. There isn’t enough time and money. There is too little of either.

    Start saying what you are FOR rather than against.

    Above all else, stop making wishy-washy promises you will be unable to deliver. I refer, of course to the otiose “One nation” catchphrase.

    • aracataca

      ‘Start saying what you are FOR rather than against’.

      You mean like you do ?

      • AlanGiles

        But I am not attempting to become PM and form a government.

    • John Reid

      he tories got 2.5 million more votes than labour in 92, are you really saying that those millions of voters who changed their mind ,last minute did it cos of “we’re alright”, the difference between 92 and 2015,is that in 1987 the Tories got 43% of the vote labour got 30%, so to get the 42% the tories got in 92 and the 34.5% labour got in 92 was a mountain to climb, the tories got 36% to our 30% in 2010 so its not such a mountain

    • postageincluded

      In 1992 I’d have agreed with you about the Sheffield Rally, Alan. My immediate reaction on seeing it on the box was was “Christ Almighty, he’s blown it!” and I still think it cost Labour a good few seats. Triumphalism? Well the attempt was there, but to me what struck home more was the phoneyness, feeding voters’ suspicions that Neil was just a “Welsh Windbag”.

      But there was more to it than that. A lot of voters were just tired of Kinnock – he’d been Opposition leader for 9 years in 1992, while John Major had only really been in the public eye since 1989. It may seem ridiculous reasoning to you and me but to less partisan voters that made a big difference. Major’s “soapbox” was an excellent piece of street theatre that fed voters’ suspicions that Kinnock and the rest of the Party were not being straight with them. And there were a lot of voters in England who simply wouldn’t vote for a Welshman. And even more voters had disenfranchised themselves to avoid paying the Poll Tax. The party’s official inquest into 1992 uncovered all these causes and more, but seems to have been generally forgotten in the quest for a simple explanation.

      As for the “One Nation” doctrine – you’re just wrong. Like Major’s Soapbox it is an easy way of highlighting a contrast between the parties, and confirming the suspicions of voters that the Tories are only in it for the benefit of their own kind. A string of detailed policies, on the other hand, while it’s a good starting point for disputes between supporters, is not the best way of winning over voters who generally don’t have the time. Ask Neil Kinnock about that, he was a policy man, and much good it did him.

      • AlanGiles

        Thanks for a very considered reply. I felt the “bigoted woman” moment of Brown was the 21st century equivalent of “we’re aright!”. The moment it all fell apart.
        As regards “1N” I still maintain it sounds ridiculous for Oxbridge politicians, who think, for example, it is a wheeze to get photographed in Greggs, when we know they claim a monthly “food allowance” and have no conception, or even wish to understand, what life is like for so many people, to pretend everybody is equal, which is what “1N” suggests – some, as Mr (Eric) Blair said “are more equal than others”

        • Daniel Speight

          I’m not against the ‘one nation’ phrase, but it can be embarrassing when Labour politicians are trying to squeeze it in to sentences without a good reason. Harman did it on the Marr Sunday program with ‘one nation economics’. It doesn’t really mean anything in itself without an explanation, and if you give the explanation there’s no need of the ‘one nation’. It sounds phony, and with the low esteem our political class is held in we can do without anything sounding phony.

        • John Reid

          The 92 election we won the campaign lost the election,but our lead slipped away during the campaign as the public hadn’t forgotten the self inflicted wounds of the early 80’s, the 2010 election we were like a television left on in the corner of the room, that everyone was ignoring, we’d just started to get the public attention of getting the public to realise that the tories were primoising impossible things when gordon said Bigoted woman, id on’ think we would have done much better if the public had stated to listen to us if gordon hadn’t said bigotted woman,but i think the tories would have done worse, But the sheffield rally’s result on the 92 election was minimal, the tories desperately ran pages of stores saying we were going to put the basic rate of income tax up in 92 when we said we weren’t.

        • postageincluded

          Personally I felt that Mrs Duffy was like a glace cherry sitting on top of a full chamberpot. It was already bad, she made it bad enough to be funny.

          Wouldn’t you have just loved to see Mandelson’s face when he heard the story though – unfortunately he can’t be photographed.

  • Brumanuensis

    I have to disagree with Alan about the Sheffield Rally; I think the opinion polls had already turned against Labour in the days before the rally, although it might have confirmed the shift in voters’ minds.

    What I want to know more about, from Stefan, is this:

    “At a fascinating Labour History Group meeting last year Peter Kellner offered the now generally accepted explanation that, far from there having been a big “late swing” to the Conservatives, the apparent poll lead had been illusory all along. The pollsters’ cohorts were out of date. The data were wrong”.

    • AlanGiles

      Good morning Brum. I think what Labour have to remember is this: If heavyweights like Clem Atlee, Harold Wilson, and, arguably Blair (given he got two landslides, I suppose that makes him a light-heavyweight) couldn’t achieve “1N” what chance does Ed Miliband, a very run-of-the mill, average career politician, stand?. The public feel let down by politicians with their “we’re all in this together, Big Society” nonsense, they see it as mere advertising slogan, and “1N” is the same

      Ed is what he is – personable, ambitious but Mr. Pickwick – or Harry Secombe he is not:

  • JoblessDave

    “It was in fact Lord McAlpine – recognise the name? – who declared the tabloids the true heroes of the Conservatives’ 1992 campaign.”

    Did you forget the ” * innocent face * ” after that sentence? It seems a little distasteful to me to bother drawing attention, once again, to the name of an elderly man who was libelled over disproved claims that he was implicated in a child sex scandal.

    A shame after an otherwise very interesting analysis, although I do agree with the commentator below about winning an election needing policies the party support, rather than simply policies that are opposed.

  • NT86

    It’s easy to make parallels with 1992, given how much in limbo the state of the parties are. What you missed out above are two further factors. In 2015, there’s still a major threat looming from UKIP despite Cameron’s referendum pledge. Polling shows that even those attracted to them aren’t prioritising the EU, compared with other issues. They won’t be going away soon. Farage is extremely entertaining and is saying the things which directly appeal to disillusioned Tory voters. So UKIP seems to be far more than just another Referendum party. They could even take a few Labour votes too.

    Plus a collapsing Lib Dem party opens up around 6 million votes (from 2010) for Labour to grab. Take a good chunk of those back and you have something to work with. This is especially important in the many Tory/Labour marginals where they acted as 3rd place vote splitters.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alan.bond.169 Alan Bond

    The 1992 election was almost certainly rigged. The opinion polls have never before or since got anything so wrong. There was certainly a cover up over proxy votes in several areas but the complaints made were swept under the carpet by Major and his cronies. It should have been investigated as soon as Blair took over.

  • http://twitter.com/johnringer John Ringer

    What are we meant to do, ignore McAlpine’s existence for the next century until it all blows over? He’s the one who credited the tabloids with John Major’s success in 1992; it’s an interesting fact that merits mention.

    • Hugh

      No, but what are we meant to imply from the “recognise the name?” aside, exactly?

      Yes, I do recognise the name. He was the bloke libeled on the state regulated ITV and BBC, and on that epitome of people power Twitter. No wonder he’s keen on the tabloids.

  • robertcp

    The problem in 1992 was that Labour had still not fully recovered from the civil war of the early 1980s. As it happens, the Major government was not bad by Tory standards and Labour inherited a good economic situation in 1997.

  • robertcp

    My recollection is that the opinion polls in 1992 suggested that a hung Parliament was likely rather than a Labour majority.

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