It was 20 years yesterday since the Tories managed to win an election in the UK. Even against a battered and weary Labour overnment, whose leader had become so unpopular and whose time was clearly up, they failed to secure a victory in 2010. But despite this, the shadow of the 1992 election hangs far heavier over both Labour and the Conservatives.
The devastatingly unexpected loss crippled Labour in ways we are still just now coming to terms with. In many ways in fact, the battles around Ed Miliband’s leadership are the latest explosion of the conversations between those whose understanding of Labour politics was so scarred by 1992 that they have over-learned its lessons refusing to consider that on so many things, the country has moved on and the shibboleths of the 90s have become the millstones of the 2010s; refusing even to countenance the debates that need to be revisited in different times.
But just as unexpected loss changed Labour forever, the Tories' unexpected win had an impact that can be traced all the way to their failure to win in 2010 and beyond. The Tories in 1992 became convinced of their inevitability. As much so as some Labour activists, they became convinced that Britain is a naturally Conservative country. It’s this conviction which has led to them failing to meet the voters where they really are.
You can see this Tory failure in the language they use not just about their own voters and the votes they wish to gain, but also in the derogatory language they use about Labour voters. If a senior Labour figure were to refer to the richest tax-payers in the country – the ones just been handed a whopping great big tax break by George Osborne – as the Tory “client vote” there would be outrage. Labour would be accused of the politics of envy by its enemies, and its internal opponents would throw up their hands decrying a “lurch to the left” and the loss of an attempt to woo “middle-England”. No matter what they thought of the policy, the fear of 1992 would cloud all judgement and lead to a condemnation of the language being used.
But the Tories endlessly refer to sections of Labour’s voters as clients and seem to interchangeably mean anyone who works in, or in any way relies upon, the public sector. They convince themselves this vote is other, is not them, not really Tory and not part of the conservative majority they believe exists.
For myself, again I believe this is a misreading of the natural instincts of the based on an election result 20 years ago. Obviously it’s a mistake I’m happy to see the Tories keep making, as it will continue to stop them connecting with vast swathes of the country. Bits that – like it or not – they can’t rule with an overall majority without. Places outside the south-east that are more dependent on the public sector, but equally voters who really believe it is a part of their Britishness that we have a world class schools and hospitals.
The public isn’t indisputably left or right-wing. Labour will not tempt them with red-in-tooth-and-claw socialism and more than the Tories were able to offer outright Thatcherism at the last election (what they are delivering is something quite different). We tend to talk about the centre-ground in British politics, but we have no sense of that ground’s mutability. The shifts and surprising twists it takes.
The Tories seemingly immutable sense of self-belief and the lesson to keep-on-keeping-on they seem to have gleaned from the 1992 election leads them to take the centre ground for granted. They allow themselves to be distracted by side-issues and forget to care about what the public care about. They stroke the centre-right sweet-spot that the public have on issues like immigration and Europe (without offering real concrete solutions) and adopt wilful blindness to its centre left desire for good, state-provided public services.
Meanwhile, Labour’s seemingly immutable sense of self-doubt lead us to endless disbelieve where the public are on the issues we know we are strong on and confuse even ourselves where we are not. We do down our own greatest achievement by tinkering too much with the public services people love until they start to take on the Tory narrative that something is wrong. For example, where we should have focused all our energies on social care, we tinkered endlessly with a nonsense “choice” agenda that got us nowhere. We ignored issues around Europe and immigration too afraid that it would hurt the businesses we were trying to keep onside.
When Ed Miliband launched his leadership bid, he spoke of one of Labour’s weakest flanks – immigration - and the effect it has had on class issues. I was impressed that he was leaving the traps by tackling one of our biggest challenges, but viewing through a prism that has been all but forbidden in British politics since the 80s. It felt to me like the 1992 spell was being broken, at least over Labour. There has been and continue to be many attempts to recast that spell both internally and externally. But if Labour can be the first party to truly move on from that game-changing election over half my lifetime ago, we will be much the stronger for it.