Many months ago, I raised the prospect that, in the event of a large Conservative majority after the next election, Labour might struggle to continue as a unified political entity.
These thoughts have been speculatively confirmed by Paddy Ashdown, who, in an interview with the Telegraph (not available online it seems), indicates that up to a dozen Labour MPs are unhappy with the direction of the Party and want to jump ship to the Liberal Democrats.
This would come as little surprise. In 1994, New Labour distanced itself from the left – the abolition of Clause 4, promotion of a market economy, and the seduction of big business, to name but three methods by which it achieved this. It appears, that after the 2009 Budget (perhaps even before) that New Labour is well and truly dead. No political party which is serious about wealth creation can think that to take over half the income of a successful businessman or entrepreneur is a viable policy. No government which swore by fiscal prudence could allow debt to spiral so inexorably upwards that its repayment would burden future taxpayers for over 20 years.
Yet that is precisely what New Labour allowed to happen. New Labour was a lie, an illogical collision of contradictory political doctrines, and now it is seen to have failed, Labour has nowhere else left to turn – for they know, and it was proved on three occasions, that they cannot persuade a fundamentally market-driven electorate that socialism is a viable alternative. ‘Ah yes’, some left-inclined commentators might say, ‘but the game has fundamentally changed. Gone is the greed and arrogance of market capitalism. The state must now step in to guard against the reckless excess of the market.’ Nonsense. The game has not changed. The British people are not about to perform a swift U-turn in the direction of Attlee and Wilson. People will still want things, people will still want more money and want to make more money. Socialists believe that much of an individual's income is best spent by the state on the greater good. The British public have not agreed with this principle for some time.
This is why Labour could face a much more uncertain future than the Conservatives did in 1997. Conservatism has shown it can adapt, through Churchill, to Macmillan, then Thatcher and now Cameron. It had appeared as if New Labour had moved the goalposts for the Conservatives. Now the economy is in ruins, it appears that David Cameron will now have to emulate the 1979 victor, not the former member for Sedgefield.
New Labour diehards like Charles Clarke, Alan Milburn and Stephen Byers have no future in this Labour Party. The more marginal seats which were won for the first time in 1997 will be lost, and those MPs who owed Tony Blair their jobs in parliament will receive their P45s. New Labour-minded MPs will be in the minority in a 2010-2014/5 Labour opposition. They will have no place in a Party dominated by those MPs whose seats were too safe to fall to the Tories – mainly the left.
There are two main options: firstly, a SDP-style split of the Labour Party, which risks leaving a Labour rump completely unelectable for the foreseeable future, and a fourth-place political party in a FPTP system which has no chance of gaining any influence; alternatively, some New Labour MPs may hold their noses and cross the floor to join the Liberal Democrats. This could leave the two main opposition parties, Labour and the Lib Dems, with similar representation in parliament, and, psephologically at least, it would be a more logical move. It would probably also cause a substantial increase in the Lib Dem vote. Look at where Labour are now – 26-27% – and you realise quite how little support is commanded by the left of the Party in the country.
Both scenarios may hand the Conservatives the keys to Downing Street for a considerable period of time. It is critical that we do what we believe is right for the country, not what we believe will win us the next election. That is real politics – not New Labour’s shameless opportunism. We will need courage, leadership and a great deal of luck; and we will, as we did in the 1980s, prove to the electorate that our approach is the right one, not the profligacy and incompetence of Labour.