Labour is certainly in the same territoryas the 1990s Tories in terms of popularity - or rather lack of it.In the final two months of 1996, theConservatives’ average poll rating was at 31%. Surprisingly, Labour’s average poll rating from April to mid-May 2008was actually slightly lower than this, at 28%.
But the big contrast between now and 1997is the average poll rating of the most popular party.Today, the Conservatives’ average poll ratingis just below 42%, yet in 1996 Labour’s average poll rating was a whopping51%.This deficiency in Conservativesupport is also reflected in other polls showing that the public is less thanwholehearted in its enthusiasm for the party and its leader.The ComRes/Independent on 18 May found thatonly 4% more voters agreed that David Cameron ‘has what it takes to be a goodprime minister’ than disagreed.Labouris doing incredibly badly in the polls but, while the Conservative party haslargely succeeded in detoxifying its brand, voters appear to remain wary — anduncertain of an alternative vision for Britain’s futuresuggested by the Conservatives.
A second similarity is that both partiesswapped leaders who had initially been elected on a wave of popular support butthen replaced them with leaders whose popularity subsequently plummeted.
Again, the similarities only stretch sofar.John Major won both a leadershipelection and a general election, irrespective of how surprised most people wereat his win.The danger for Gordon Brownis that he is likely to experience the same degree of challenge to hisleadership that John Major had during what he describes as his ’18-monthwinter’.Perhaps Labour backbenchers alsohave an eye on the scale of the Tory defeat of 1997 and wonder what would’vehappened if someone like Michael Heseltine had successfully challenged Majorfor the top job and called a snap election. Better a hung parliament than a decade in the wilderness?
The third similarity is more intriguing —local election performance.The table showsnational vote shares in the 1995 and 2008 local elections, and the numbers ofcouncillors for each of the three main parties at three points over the past 30years.
The table shows that local electionresults can foreshadow a party being swept into power nationally.In the mid 1990s, Labour was enjoying 46% ofthe national vote share in local elections and had 11,000 councillors.By 2008 the Conservatives had nearly as manycouncillors as Labour had in the mid-1990s with nearly the same national voteshare in the recent local elections.
So May’s local elections demonstrated aseemingly immutable rule in politics: parties cannot dominate both local andnational politics for very long. Moreover, General Election wins are like a midsummer’s day.It’s good to enjoy the longest day but in theback of your mind you know the nights will be starting earlier from that momentonwards.Similarly — and we’ve seen thisspectacularly with Labour since 1997 — a party’s decline in local popularity isalmost inevitable from the moment it takes power nationally.It’s almost as if there is a self-correctingmechanism in the electorate’s mind to keep the dominant party in check.
A further trend is the long term declinein party loyalty.This presents an intriguingchallenge for the parties; on one hand the electorate complain at the lack ofchoice by staying away from the electoral process.However, at the same time, received wisdomsays that the party nearest the centre ground is most likely to win.Tony Blair demonstrated this brilliantly:when The Times/Populus measured people’s political views on aleft-wing/right-wing scale and compared them with perceptions of politicians, MrBlair managed to position himself squarely between where both men and womenplaced themselves.In the same analysis,the Conservative party was seen as the extreme right and the Liberal Democratsthe far left, with Labour regarded as just off-centre.
So are we experiencing 1997 all overagain?If Gordon Brown remains in placeto the bitter end, and the Conservatives don’t slip up, then the similaritieswill doubtless become more apparent.Butif a week’s a long time in politics, then there are plenty of opportunities formishap between now and 2010.