Comment: The echoes of the past are in Miliband's favour

Des Browne: 'The left in Britain was always a minority in terms of its political appeal compared to the right'
Des Browne: 'The left in Britain was always a minority in terms of its political appeal compared to the right'

By Des Brown

In 2015, for the first time since 1966, there will be a general election and a World Cup in Britain during the same year.

The World Cup is rugby rather than football, but the parallels are the same.   Labour supporters can feel heartened that in the March 1966 election, Harold Wilson was returned with a 96-seat majority.    England, of course, also lifted the Jules Rimet trophy on July 30th.  So England supporters will also be hoping that history repeats itself for Stuart Lancaster's men at Twickenham on October 31st.  That is one historical omen Labour will be counting on.   But the post-war past has another comparison worth drawing.

Could the Tories be returned in May 2015 as a minority government?    Clement Attlee's Labour government did in 1950, with a majority of just five.  The government carried on for over a year, before another general election in 1951 saw the Labour government defeated and the Conservatives return to Downing Street.  They would be in power for a further 13 years.


I use the Attlee parallel because the Conservative-led coalition likes to see its reforms in welfare, education and health as radical as anything in 1945 – but the great reforms of the post-war years did nothing for the Labour party electorally.   Indeed, it can be argued there are more things still with us from the 1964-70 Labour government than the 1945 Labour one.

The likeness with 1950/51 is also worth noting, as the UK appears to be reliving the late-1940s.  Then it was also spoken of as an age of austerity.  There are other striking national similarities: a royal wedding (1947/2011), an Olympic Games in London (1948/2012) and the birth of the heir to the throne (1948/2013).

So where does this leave the Labour party?   Something which is never pointed out is just how difficult Miliband's task is.   Only three Labour prime ministers since 1945 have actually won general elections:  Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair (both James Callaghan and Gordon Brown took over in Downing Street mid-term and lost the only elections they fought).

However, Miliband’s chances look good and he has huge advantages.  Firstly, Miliband can take heart that all three prime ministers were multi-election winners: Attlee in 1945 and 50 (though, as said, he lasted little more than a year after that win); Wilson in 1964, 1966, and 1974; Blair in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

Secondly, in 2010 – despite having in Gordon Brown the most electorally unappealing PM since Anthony Eden – Labour still managed to win more seats than the Conservatives managed in 1997, 2001 and 2005.  Forget any arguments about share of the vote, these days the political landscape is more fragmented than at any time in modern history.  It's no longer a landscape dominated by Conservative and Labour – we now have to add in the Liberal Democrats, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Greens,  independents and, yes, even Ukip, although until they actually win a by-election their significance will remain overstated.

Thirdly, Miliband's big asset is something bequeathed by Kinnock and Blair – ding dong, the left is dead.   His decision to cut links with the unions is something from which he has nothing to gain, though is meant to show the distance Labour has come from its past.   Is there a fear in Labour circles that the Tories will caricature the unions as the all-powerful behemoths of the 1970s and that a Labour government would mean a return to the 'everybody out' Britain of braziers and donkey jackets?  That seems to be one rationale to explain Miliband's decision.

That simply can't happen again.  In terms of numbers, unions are a pale shadow of their heyday.   Strikes now last for a day rather than months.  Laws on balloting and secondary picketing mean a return to the three day week and the winter of discontent would be near impossible.  Nobody wants a return to those days, least of all trade unions themselves. No one seriously thinks the NUM and SOGAT are about to make a comeback.  So the Tories would be on a loser trying this scare tactic.

The left in Britain was always a minority in terms of its political appeal compared to the right, which brings me nicely to Miliband's fourth asset – the Tory right.

The backbench intrigue and subterfuge which bedevilled Cameron appears to have subsided.  However, a strong Ukip showing at the Conservatives' expense during the 2014 European elections could, potentially, set off a bomb on the backbenches.  Lots of sitting MPs will suddenly be filing job applications in advance with a view to a June 2015 starting date.     Also, the press may return to the Conservative fold or it may continue its dalliance with Ukip.   We don't know.  Meantime,    The Mirror will remain firmly faithful to Labour through thick and thin, whilst The Sun, Mail and Express are more promiscuous in their political allegiance.   The Sun looks unlikely to endorse the Conservatives at the election.

And, finally, there is Miliband himself.  Miliband was born in the last week of the 1960s.  He'll be 45 if he wins in May 2015.     Miliband's whole character will be different from all of the other figures on the world stage.   Obama will be half way through his second term and history shows that it is not a good place for American presidents to be.     Angela Merkel will still be in power in Germany after ten years.  Nobody likes Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping is dull and colourless.    Miliband is a non-practising Jew and the son of Eastern European refugees from fascism.  In its way, this is far more radical and remarkable than a black president in the US or a female chancellor in Germany.   This sends a hugely powerful image to the rest of the world.   On a more mundane level, other than an appearance in the commentary box of Test Match Special during the second Ashes test (following David Cameron the previous day), he's avoided being a media man for all seasons in the way Blair was.

The latest YouGov/Sunday Times opinion poll on August 4th still gives Labour a six point lead over the Conservatives, which would give them a majority of 76, but – as Bismarck remarked – politics is the art of the possible.   If its 1966 all over again, it'll be a Miliband government by a landslide.  If it's 1950 all over again, expect a Tory minority government to limp on until 2016 followed by the return of Labour.

Des Brown is a blogger behind Be Not Afeard the Isle is Full of Noises, about the cultural, social and political life of Great Britain.  He also writes for the Newcastle Free Press and The Moscow Times.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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