The Politics of Freakery


Not only have the press written off the Conservatives winning the next General Election, it seems that large sections of the Conservative Party have also done so. There are a record number of Conservative MPs standing down at the next General Election. Sir Keir Starmer seems to have succeeded in his aim of creating a tribute act to New Labour. Like all tribute acts, he is not as good as the original and any attempt at physical impersonation merely highlights the difference. However, events, such as a global pandemic where no incumbent came out looking good, and a major war in Europe causing an energy crisis, have caused a fair wind in Labour’s sails in the wake of the 2019 Conservative landslide. But there are also other reasons. People are looking at the wrong electoral outcome to understand the Conservatives’ reversal of fortune. It should now be clear that both the 2017 and 2019 General Elections yielded freak results, both because of Brexit. While the implementation of the 2016 referendum result was in doubt, and it was only in doubt because the losing side refused to accept defeat, Brexit disrupted normal voting patterns.

Theresa May had to try to obtain a personal mandate in 2017, just 2 years after David Cameron’s gained a 30-seat majority. Despite still enjoying that majority, Mrs May was obstructed by her own party and also the Civil Service, who seem to have argued that she could not legislate using her predecessor’s majority since that majority brought in a government that campaigned to remain in the EU. Thus the 2017 General Election was in effect the second referendum demanded by the losers of the 2016 referendum. The rise in support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour reflected the fact that he received the votes of nearly all those opposed to Brexit to augment the traditional Labour vote. While Corbyn’s disciples constantly play up the percentage rise in Labour’s vote, all this did was to take Labour from the depths of Ed Miliband’s defeat up to the trough of Gordon Brown’s defeat.

But it is not percentage rises that decide elections. It is the swing, and the swing in this case was a modest 2%, not enough to win.

As the outcome of the 2017 General Election settled nothing, and in fact made things worse, there had to be a second General Election in 2019, which was in effect the third referendum on Brexit. This time the Remain vote was split between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and Corbyn’s personal ratings had crashed as a result of a greater public understanding. 

Corbyn had previously been an obscure politician whose personal popularity in 2017 was entirely due to him spouting unachievable utopian ideals but whose conduct since, certainly over Putin’s Russia releasing a weapon of mass destruction in Salisbury, had turned the public against him. While public dislike of Corbyn was a major factor in Labour’s defeat, Corbyn’s utter failure of leadership over Brexit, preferring to be some kind of aloof ‘honest broker’, led to Labour simply not being a credible alternative government.

The freak result of 2019 turned towards the Conservatives, rather than away, giving Boris Johnson a thumping majority just in time for the nation to be paralysed by the pandemic. So if 2017 and 2019 are to be disregarded as freak results due to Brexit, this suggests that 2015 is the best point of reference for any outcome of the 2024 General Election. It may interest the reader to know that, despite Labour crashing to defeat under Ed Miliband, that he did manage to secure a 0.7% swing from the Conservatives. David Cameron prevailed mainly because a lot of Liberal Democrat seats had been won in previous elections due to tactical voting by Labour supporters. These voters now punished the Liberal Democrats for serving in the coalition, splitting the anti-Conservative vote and thus letting in the Conservatives.

On the right, David Cameron neutralised the threat from UKIP by promising an in/out EU referendum. Since UKIP had no prominent differentiator to the Conservatives other than holding this referendum, UKIP voters knew that the best chance they had to see such a referendum taking place was to vote Conservative. While UKIP’s 2015 vote rose compared to 2010, and more people voted for UKIP than for the Liberal Democrats, the concentration of Liberal Democrat votes meant that they managed to save 8 seats while losing 49, while UKIP just held on to Clacton, Nigel Farage losing in Thanet in questionable circumstances as a Conservative official was eventually jailed for election spending offences in the constituency. So any loss of Conservative seats in 2024 has to be seen as inevitable, as the Conservatives won them because of the turmoil caused in the wake of the narrow Leave victory in 2016, a victory that far too many people of power and influence unreasonably refused to accept, in some cases because they were in one way or another clearly in the pay of the EU.

However it’s not all so rosy for Labour. While Sir Keir seems set to enter 10 Downing Street in 2024, he should be well aware that his days in office are numbered due to the strong trend in Labour incumbency. With a notable exception, every time it has entered office, every postwar Labour government has lasted no more than 6 years. The public tire of Labour after about 3 years and vote the Conservatives back in as soon as they can. This is what happened to Labour in 1951, 1970, and 1979.

By next year, the Conservatives will have been in office for 50 of the last 80 years. Rather than a 2-party system, it is more a 1.6-party system. Labour are aware of this, and so they always spend their limited time in office in a mad dash of legislating. In the 1940s Labour nationalised large sections of the British economy. In the 1960s Labour passed a large amount of social reform legislation, and decimalised the currency. In the 1970s Labour extended economic controls on prices and wages and granted the unions a larger say in the running of the country. The exception to the standard maximum 6-year lifespan of a Labour government is Tony Blair’s New Labour, which was a project not to win in 1997, because that victory was in the bag, but to win in 2001, and again in 2005. Blair did this by swinging Labour to the right, so that conservative-inclined voters felt it safe to vote Labour. It did also help that the Cold War had ended in Western victory and thus socialism had been discredited for a generation, so Blair found it easy to marginalise Labour’s open-ended left wing for over a decade. Tony Blair was in effect Britain’s first post-Cold War PM.

So while Sir Keir may win in 2024, it is likely that he will have expended all Labour’s accumulated goodwill by 2027 as his government will by then no longer be in command of events, and the Conservatives will return to power in 2029. There is a precedent. While Churchill lost by a landslide in 1945, he managed to cut that landslide to a handful of seats in 1950 and was back in office in 1951. This was despite Labour creating the NHS in 1948. It seems that the voting public had less appreciation of the NHS and Labour’s role in its creation in the late 1940s than they do now, which is a paradox few modern commentators seem to have noticed. Labour had another landslide in 1966, having previously entered government in 1964 on a slim majority, but by 1968 Labour’s support had decayed after the pound was devalued the previous year. Harold Wilson gambled on a snap election in 1970 but lost to Edward Heath.

Labour’s leaders are all too aware of the party’s faltering electoral history, which is why they will push through massive amounts of transformative (code for ‘revolutionary’) legislation, which any subsequent Conservative government will find it hard to unravel. It was not until Margaret Thatcher’s government of 1979 that the Conservatives started to undo the fundamental changes to the British economy introduced by Attlee after 1945. If the Conservative Party are quietly preparing themselves for defeat, they should also start organising the framework for how they will undo some of Sir Keir’s legislation. Part of the problem we now have with the NHS is because Churchill, Eden, and Macmillan did not reform it to a continental-style insurance-based system while they had the opportunity, and by 1970 it was too late to do anything, leaving us with a public health system quite unsuited to a 21st Century based on shifting populations for which it is impossible to plan. The Conservative Party should not make the same mistake twice.

Paul T Horgan worked in the IT Sector. He lives in Berkshire.