The ability of the British electorate to surprise us all should not be underestimated. My first election in 1970 saw even as the polls closed, pollsters predicting Labour sailing to victory only for its boat to crash when the results came out, the Tories were surprised in the first election of 1974, Labour in 1992 and we all know what happened to Theresa May in 2017. In some ways this election has something of the feel of 1974 ….. writes Mihir Bose
If pollsters and bookmakers are to be believed then the 2019 election is already over. The Tories could get a majority of anything up to 82 seats and my man at bookmakers William Hill says Conservatives are 4/11 to win, Labour 20/1 and a hung parliament 9/4. Even those who fancy Boris Johnson returning to No 10 would not want to back £11 to make a profit of just £4.
But is a Conservative majority guaranteed? The ability of the British electorate to surprise us all should not be underestimated. My first election in 1970 saw even as the polls closed, pollsters predicting Labour sailing to victory only for its boat to crash when the results came out, the Tories were surprised in the first election of 1974, Labour in 1992 and we all know what happened to Theresa May in 2017. In some ways this election has something of the feel of 1974.
Then Edward Heath went to the country demanding the people give him a mandate to finish the job he had begun against the miners. Now Boris Johnson has gone to the country demanding he be given a majority to finish the job with the European Union. While Johnson was not leading a majority government as Heath was, Johnson could easily have stayed in office and, despite Tory attempts to fudge this issue, his Brexit bill had got a second reading. And the other great similarity is that Europe had a great influence in 1974.
In 1974, of course, it was the Conservatives who were pro-Europe, Heath having taken the country into what was then the European Economic Community while Labour was largely anti-Europe and Harold Wilson, the Labour leader, was trying to hold his party together on the issue by promising a referendum. But then, as now, party loyalties were shifting and in 1974 Enoch Powell proved to be the siren who helped lure Tory voters away and deliver them to Labour.
Enoch Powell by Paul Corthorn (Oxford University Press), which provides an interesting study of Powell’s role in British politics mentions how he collaborated with Harold Wilson to try and defeat his former party in the February 1974 elections. Although Corthorn does not go into details of this collaboration, but then this is not a full-scale biography but more a discussion of Powell’s political views, Powell himself would tell Ben Pimlott, Wilson’s biographer, that beginning in June 1983, eight months before the 1974 elections, meetings between the two took place. They were always in mid-afternoon in the gentleman’s lavatory in the Ayes lobby. “There were half a dozen meeting with Wilson in the loo.”
There has never been any chance of Nigel Farage meeting Boris Johnson in the lavatory of the Ayes lobby as Farage is not an M.P but clearly his Brexit party has been in contact with the Tories although whether Farage was offered a peerage, as he has alleged, still remains to be proven. Would it not make a very colourful drama on Netflix if it emerged that Farage had been offered a peerage by Boris or one of his associates, in a loo somewhere?
Sunak is tipped to become Chancellor of the Exchequer should Johnson win
But this is where 2019 differs from 1974. Then the split was only in one party, the Tories. Wilson, unlike Cameron, May or Johnson, managed to keep his party together. Now the political scene is so fluid that both the major parties are split, so much so that several former ministers and front bench spokesmen from both parties are fighting seats against their former parties.
Powell, it should be noted, while urging a vote for Labour did not contest the February 1974 election and in the October 1974 election fought and won a seat in Northern Ireland. It is this fluidity which makes me think that opinion polls may not have got it entirely right. In recent elections when polls are wrong pollsters have made much of shy voters, those who do not tell the truth. They are generally, according to pollsters, Tories but this time there could be shy voters of both the major parties.
The other major difference with 1974 is then Labour could rely on the support of three distinct minority groups, Jews, Hindus, Muslims. In this election Labour’s failure to deal with anti-Semitism in the party has meant it will not get many Jewish votes. Hindus too are less than happy, witness the strong anti-Labour statement of the Hindu Council in support of Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis’s article that Labour’s anti-Semitism has made Jews feel very insecure in this country. Labour’s anti-Indian stance on India’s Kashmir policy has further alienated Hindu voters.
The Conservatives , who have been historically anti-Hindu and pro-Muslim, have worked hard to cultivate the Hindu vote. It was significant that last Friday when Nick Robinson chaired a debate on the BBC among the various parties, Rishi Sunak, chief secretary to the Treasury, stood in for Boris Johnson. Sunak is tipped to become Chancellor of the Exchequer should Johnson win. He was the only non-white face on the panel.
What is more he proudly advertised his Hindu faith saying that when he took his oath as MP he swore on the Bhagavat Gita, the nearest the Hindus have to a Bible. I doubt if many in the audience would have known what the Gita means to the Hindus, there were not many non-white faces in the hall where the debate was held. That a man of such belief represented a party which has always been seen as the party of the Church of England at such a high-profile event shows how far it has come. But as if to compensate Labour by its Kashmir policy many have strengthened its hold on the Muslim vote many of whom are from Mirpur in Pakistan controlled Kashmir and, given they form a fair proportion of voters in constituencies that comprise the Labour wall of Midlands and the north, this could be crucial in some marginal seats .
But what makes this fluidity strange is that unlike the 1974 election, or any recent election, there has been a fundamental shift on the broader economic strategy of Tories, Labour and even the Liberals. If we set aside the differences on Brexit, all three parties are really united in fighting the election on a spend, spend, spend manifesto. Yes, Labour is promising to spend much more money than the Conservatives, for every £1 the Tories are offering , Labour is offering £28 but if Labour’s claims of how their spending will be financed has been debunked by experts so have those made by the Tories. In essence these Tory children of Thatcher have abandoned the idea so beloved of their mother that you should consider the nation’s finances to be just like that of your household finances. You balance the books and do not get into debt. This marks a major shift in British politics.
Back in 1979 when Mrs Thatcher won power that marked the end of the post-war pact between Labour and Conservative when both parties accepted that government intervention in economics was good, what was called Butskellism, after Rab Butler, Tory and Hugh Gaitskell, Labour. But since 1979 Mrs Thatcher’s belief has been accepted by all the parties and Tony Blair, Labour’s most successful Prime Minister, as the Corbynistas never fail to remind us, could well have been a Tory.
A Labour defeat, particularly on the scale the polls are suggesting, will probably see Jeremy Corbyn go but the party is now so much in control of the left we are bound to get not a Tony Blair clone but a Corbyn one
It is significant that while Johnson in his speeches may often be more than economical with the truth, claiming there will be 50,000 new nurses when this involves retaining 18,000, or creating 40 new hospitals when the funding is in place for only six, the one constant theme is that he is fighting as a one-nation Tory. Johnson has gone so far down the road that he has even claimed that he has had nothing to do with austerity when, of course, he served in May’s government for two years which was wedded to austerity. But then with Johnson he can talk about Muslim women in burkas looking like letter boxes and then claim he was not being Islamophobic but actually tolerant and inclusive.
But what this Johnson strategy means that he is riding two horses. On Brexit he is the resolute Brexiter promising this country to be out of the European Union by the end of January and do a trade deal by the end of 2020. This he knows will not only appeal to the Tory right but also the Labour Leavers particularly in the crucial red wall of Midlands and the North where Johnson has to win seats if he is to get a majority. But by also saying he is a one nation Tory ready to spend on NHS he wants to court the soft liberal vote. So far that strategy has worked with both Labour and the Liberal Democrats in disarray.
The strange thing is even if this does not work, and Johnson does not get a majority, he is unlikely to be lose the leadership of the Tory party. A Labour defeat, particularly on the scale the polls are suggesting, will probably see Jeremy Corbyn go but the party is now so much in control of the left we are bound to get not a Tony Blair clone but a Corbyn one. Amazingly, the only leader who may not survive the election if the polls are right is Jo Swinson. She has run quite the worst campaign by any political leader in recent times, giving the impression of a sixth former who has sneaked out of school to take part in a grownups meeting.
Let us recall that her decision to support Johnson over calling an election pushed Labour into supporting it and gave Johnson the election he so desperately wanted. The Liberals, having started off by saying they would be in power, are now fighting to be kingmakers but may end up requiring only a large taxi to accommodate all their MPs. Should such a fate befall Swinson it will be deserved as she has made terrible political misjudgements. Her policy to outflank Labour by saying if she gets to No 10 she would revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit has backfired as Labour has not, as Liberals expected, called for a referendum but stuck to its policy of trying to appease both Leavers and Remainers.