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 The pollsters’ cohorts were out of date.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.