Brian Monteith: Labour return to power not inevitable

Tony Blair and Jack McConnell both looked to be in a strong position shortly before their parties fell from power. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Tony Blair and Jack McConnell both looked to be in a strong position shortly before their parties fell from power. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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One of the most common fallacies of modern day politics is the argument that a particular outcome is “inevitable” and should not therefore be resisted.

One of the most common fallacies of modern day politics is the argument that a particular outcome is “inevitable” and should not therefore be resisted.

We hear it all of the time from politicians of all colours but any follower of the power of reason can tell you it is pure unadulterated hokum. The Labour party risks finding this out to its cost.

Think back to the year 2006, only ten years ago, not that long in the span of a normal life, not even a generation, just the passage of two full terms of a Westminster government or two and a half of a normal Holyrood administration.

Where were you in 2006? What job did you have, which partner were you with, what music were you listening to and how much debt did you owe?

I know it can be hard to believe at times but politicians are in most cases little different from ordinary people, and the ones that are not only help to show that politics is like most professions with its fair share of obsessives and attention seekers. The only trouble is they are meant to make the laws that the rest of us have to live our lives by, so it is in our interests to keep them in their place.

So when a politician, real or aspiring, says that an outcome is inevitable we have to ask what is their evidence to back it up, and even if it sounds plausible we should still treat it with a great deal of scepticism.

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Back in 2006 Tony Blair was still prime minister and Jack McConnell was still first minister. Blair had won his third consecutive term in office only the year before and although he was appearing increasingly messianic his ability to win elections made the Conservatives look increasingly out of touch. Few observers thought the next Tory leader would be able to halt Labour’s rule, and with Gordon Brown waiting in the wings – remember, the man who claimed to have ended “boom and bust” – a long period of Labour dominance was claimed to be inevitable.

By 2010 David Cameron and Nick Clegg conspired to prove that claim wrong.

Back in 2006 Jack McConnell was also allegedly at the top of his game. There were no obvious challengers to his position within the Scottish party and in March of that year he was about to introduce the ban on smoking in internal public places – a policy he regularly cites as his greatest achievement. He was facing a Scottish Parliament election the following year but most observers suggested his coalition with the Liberal Democrats had the look of inevitability about it, for even if the SNP could beat Labour (and the polls were far from conclusive) it was thought the coalition would be able to continue.

By 2007 Alex Salmond had pulled off a famous victory and McConnell was toast.

Back in 2006 Boris Johnson was about to come third in the election for Rector of the University of Edinburgh. Johnson was inevitably seen as a joker, a buffoon destined to be nothing more than a figure of fun – but was elected as London Mayor only two years later and re-elected for a second term in 2012.

Looking at past political outcomes deemed as “inevitable” such as the UK’s membership of the euro, or the continued hegemony of Labour at Westminster under Blair then Brown, or the certain inevitability of a hung parliament at last year’s general election we can see there is very little that is inevitable at all.

If we consider how much politics has changed in the last ten years, both across the UK and in Scotland itself we should recognise that it can change again just as much, or even more so by 2026. That change is unlikely to be exactly what we expect or claimed to be inevitable. Those saying Scottish independence is inevitable should take note.

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This means that the inevitability of an eventual Labour victory is by no means certain, it has to be fought for, it has to be achieved by guile and hard graft, it cannot just come because everyone gets tired of the Tories.

Back in 2006 Jeremy Corbyn was no more than a troublesome backbencher, rebelling against his own government with a regularity that made the prospect of him ever being the Labour Party leader laughable. But here we are in 2016 and he is not just the leader but was elected with a thumping majority. Unfortunately for Labour there is a huge gulf between its parliamentary party – and the trade unions or members that voted for Corbyn.

The idea that Labour lost the last general election because it was not left-wing enough is simply risible. It lost because it did not convince the public the economic recovery – such as it was – would not be put at risk by Miliband’s expedient priorities and crazy spending commitments. People feared for their jobs, their mortgages and what it would mean for the public services if we ran out of money to fund them.

Labour made a variety of welfare promises that appealed to those often at the margins of economic activity. While it was virtuous it was at everyone else’s expense and those that benefitted have a poor record of voting in elections. The result was that those that would pay for Labour’s promises turned out to vote for the Conservatives while those that might benefit were more likely to sit on their hands.

If, under Corbyn, Labour goes down the road of only speaking to itself then it is not inevitable that Labour will remain the natural party of opposition. The SNP showed this to be the case last year.

Since then the Labour Party has done nothing to suggest it will mollify any of the electorate’s fears. Worse still Corbyn has added to them. Many voters will now have concerns about how a Corbyn administration would guard the UK against terrorism or stand up to foreign powers intent on bullying our country into positions against our national interest. His review of Labour’s commitment to updating our nuclear deterrent, and Ken Livingstone’s interest in questioning membership of Nato are making Labour backbenchers very nervous.

Although the latest shadow cabinet resignations are unlikely to be the last Jeremy Corbyn may well be Labour leader in 2020, but how his party fares against the Conservatives, themselves with a new leader, is by no means inevitable.