Andrew Whitaker: Will election history repeat itself?

Margaret Thatcher applauds her successor as he celebrates his surprise 1992 election victory. Picture: Getty
Margaret Thatcher applauds her successor as he celebrates his surprise 1992 election victory. Picture: Getty
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Can 2015 bring a similar result for the Conservatives and Labour to that of 1992, asks Andrew Whitaker

FORMER Labour cabinet minister Alan Milburn’s warning to Ed Miliband that the party is at risk of running a pale imitation of its losing 1992 general election campaign follows a train of argument that will doubtless occupy a great deal of column space and airtime in the coming months.

David Cameron and George Osborne have also reportedly attempted to calm Tory backbench nerves, with reassuring words that the party would prevail along similar lines to John Major’s against-the-odds, but decisive, victory in 1992.

So, with apparent stark parallels between 1992 and 2015, with a narrative seemingly already in place of an unpopular Tory party triumphing over a Labour leader failing to present himself as a credible prime minister in waiting.

But could 2015 really be a re-run of 1992? Will history really repeat itself? Will Ed Miliband become the first Labour leader in 20 years not to be elected as prime minister.

The novelist LP Hartley in his classic novel The Go-Between, begins with the famous line “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

In a great many respects, the UK of 1992 bears very little resemblance to that of 2015 and generally speaking fits the above description of a different nation.

There’s the obvious example of the popular absence of the internet and e-mail and back in 1992 words such as “apps” and “Kindles” would have about as much meaning to the average person as Klingon.

The general election held back in April 1992 was in the pre-Sky Sports era and at around the time when the respective Scottish and English football champions were Glasgow Rangers and Leeds United, now two fallen giants languishing in the lower reaches of sport. British television popular viewing included shows such as Lovejoy – the gentle very English comedy drama about a roguish antiques dealer, whereas now reality TV is all the craze.

But the question is were the politics of the day anything like those of now? Back in 1992, the SNP was no political force to speak of with Alex Salmond just two years into his first spell as party leader.

Also with devolution not a reality, it would have been a brave punter who would have laid a bet on the SNP being the Scottish party of government for eight years and holding a hefty opinion poll lead over Labour, who in 1992 were overwhelmingly seen by Scots as the only possible alternative to the Tories.

For all the talk of a John Major-style victory this May, it’s perhaps worth bearing in mind that the former prime minister fought the 1992 election as a relatively new party leader having taken over from Margaret Thatcher in late 1990.

Mr Cameron will later this year have been leader of the Tories for a decade, including five years as Prime Minister, although he failed to defeat Labour outright in 2010 despite facing the by then unpopular Gordon Brown.

Of course, during the UK election 23 years ago, the Conservatives were still a significant force in Scotland, winning both Westminster seats in Aberdeen, where the party made a gain from Labour, as well as holding constituencies in Edinburgh and the suburbs of Glasgow, including the seat now held by one Jim Murphy.

In 2010, Cameron’s party managed to take just one seat in Scotland, compared to the 11 won by Mr Major in 1992.

While in itself the loss of ten seats in Scotland for the Conservatives on what the party won in 1992 is unlikely to be decisive in May’s election one way or there other, it does illustrate the point about a shrinkage in Tory support over the past two decades.

So if 2015 if Scotland is a different country to 1992 for the Tories, it’s also true of whole chunks of Britain’s metropolis – particularly in parts of northern England and even areas of the Midlands, where the party just does not exist in any meaningful sense.

As for the SNP, with a substantial poll leads over Labour and a commitment not to prop up a Cameron-led government, the party is already heavily promoting an election message this year that it’s highly possible to vote Nationalist and still evict the Tories.

Back in 1992, with even Paddy Ashdown’s Liberal Democrats suggesting that their preferred option was a Kinnock-led rather than Major-led government, in Scotland it was pretty clear that Labour was the only game in town.

But for those who are still getting a bit of a back-to-the-future feel, the one thing that does at first glance appears to have a stark parallel is that of the difficulties facing the Labour leader of the day.

Neil Kinnock was arguably caricatured in a somewhat offensive way at times as a “Welsh windbag” and was even on the receiving end of jibes about his appearance.

Mr Miliband has himself been portrayed as geekish and gawky, with sections of the tabloid press seeking to portray him as a weirdo, who has scarcely ventured out of Hampstead.

But in the cold light of day, could anyone really imagine Mr Miliband repeating the monumental misjudgment of Mr Kinnock’s infamous Sheffield rally, when the then party leader went into pop star mode, taking the podium and repeatedly shouting: “We’re alright!”

Also, while Mr Miliband clearly has some very real difficulties with his poor personal approval rating, it’s worth pointing out that Mr Kinnock had already been decisively rejected by the electorate once, at the 1987 election.

So there’s the SNP eclipsing Labour as the dominant force in Scottish politics, the long and slow slide of the Tories north of the Border and the Lib Dems no longer seen as an anti-Tory force and facing the prospect of a meltdown after five years of electoral drubbings at Holyrood, council and Euro elections.

All these things make 1992 look like a different country and yet it’s impossible to remove talk of that year’s contest largely due to the ghosts from that battle still haunting both parties.

The Tories, paradoxically, have yet to fully recover from their last outright win in 1992, with almost daily crises engulfing Mr Major’s government and an ensuing collapse in support, while for Labour, a fourth defeat on the bounce to a politician who was largely seen as the “grey man” was particularly hard to stomach and still burns away at the party’s psyche.