‘Safety First’ is a strategy for defeat – victory in 2015 isn’t inevitable

History is littered with crazy predictions. There was that one by Thomas Malthus that population growth would outstrip food production, and everyone would starve to death. And then someone invented seed drills and bred fatter cows and there was enough food, at least most of the time.

There was the one the Victorian came up with, that the growth in city populations, reliant on horses for transport, would mean that the cities would be under several feet of horse dung within 30 years. Then someone invented the internal combustion engine, and people started to buy cars. Last time I was in London, I didn’t see a horse once, unless it was concealed in my lunch.

The point is that predictions based on trends tend to be absurd in hindsight, because human development means very little goes in a straight line. As soon as the trend takes hold, some new invention or shift in society’s behaviour changes everything. The future has proved impossible to predict. If it was, by now we’d be riding in monorails and eating our meals in pill-form. You certainly couldn’t predict a pocket device which contains the entire sum of human knowledge and wisdom, used mostly to tell strangers what you think about current events.

Into this crowded field, stepped someone called John Ross this week, in an article on Comment Is Free, predicting the winner of the next general election. On first reading, I wondered if it was a fiendishly clever satire, in the style of Jonathan Swift’s famous pamphlet A Modest Proposal, suggesting the Irish should sell their children for food to alleviate their poverty.

But, alas, it is not.

Mr Ross states that the defeat for the Tories in Eastleigh was not because of the UKIP surge, or Cameron’s unpopularity, or their odd choice of candidate, but because of an iron law of politics which decrees that the Tories are in historical decline:

“The key fact is that the crushing defeat of the Tories is simply part of the trend of Tory electoral decline. This analysis also enables us to predict that the Tory party will get 30.3% of the vote at the next general election.”

It’s the precise per centage of 30.3% that cracks me up – like those leaders of religious cults who predict the precise time and date the world will end. I won’t go through the psephology; others, notably Hopi Sen, have expertly poured scorn over the misuse of basic vote-counting techniques. There’s the obvious flaw that Mr Ross starts his trend in 1931, when unprecedented historical factors were at work, and ignores the times in the 1950s and 1980s, then his own trend was spectacularly bucked.

Instead, I want to examine the political attitudes which underpin it. It is this passage that should chill the blood:

“The conclusion is evident. Even at 34.6%, the Tories would not win an overall majority, and at 30.3% they will be crushed. Naturally Labour must show at least reasonable competence to win. In addition to its public performance, I know from negotiating with Ed Miliband several times when working for Ken Livingstone when he was mayor of London that this will occur.”

The really big choice in British politics is this: what will be the policies of the next Labour government? Not what will be the outcome of the next general election. That is already determined by force far more powerful than the Eastleigh byelection.”

Any student of Labour history should be inured to the dangers of assuming that anything is ‘inevitable’. The Fabians soon found out there was nothing ‘inevitable’ about their gradualness. In the 1970s, the Labour Party manifesto’s talk of a ‘fundamental and irreversible shift in favour of working people and their families’ was made to sound hollow by a decade of Thatcherism, which showed nothing is irreversible. My generation, steeled by the bitter defeat in 1992, knows how no victory is in the bag, regardless of what the polls and papers tell you. Even the granddaddy of socialist prediction Karl Marx has been proved to have got it spectacularly wrong in every regard – not least the bit about the ‘two great camps’.

Yet here it is in black and white: the next election is in the bag for Labour, not because of a carefully constructed platform of policies, or a broad co-alignment of the party’s and the public’s values, but because of historical inevitability. Just as long as Ed looks vaguely competent.

Why does this matter? It’s only an article by a Marxist professor who used to work for Ken Livingstone. It matters because my fear is that there are plenty of people who, whilst not agreeing with the absurd precision of the prediction, share the broad sentiment: that Labour will win the next election because of the Tories’ failings. If you believe that, even privately, it can lead to range of other assumptions. You can afford to discount seats in the south of England. You can avoid the difficult decisions on tax and spend. You can ignore people’s concerns about crime and anti-social behaviour. You can dodge the tricky work of devising public sector reforms. You can say ‘yes’ to any old campaign or cause. You can appeal to the ‘base’ and ignore people who voted Tory in 2010.

Instead, the time between now and 2015 can be spent dreaming of the victory, drafting the Queen’s Speech, and plotting what to do in the first reshuffle. It’s what Jim Murphy in his New Statesman interview this week calls ‘a sense of entitlement to win’.

‘Safety First’ is a strategy for defeat. If you want to take lessons from history, the biggest is that Labour only wins when it reaches out to the middle classes. Attlee, Wilson and Blair did it, and won. Ed Miliband can win the next election too, by learning from their example. But a mathematical-formula-plus-keeping-your-head-down-and-not-cocking-it-up is not going to cut it.

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