Why Labour won four of the last five elections: a 2024 letter to Prime Minister Miliband
Tuesday December 31 2024
Dear Prime Minister,
Why the Tories last governed with an overall majority in 1992 - over 30 years ago
Let me say at the start how grateful I am for the opportunity you have given me once again to serve the Labour Party, and of course the country, as Deputy Prime Minister since you first won office in 2015. As you know, I have been your strongest supporter from the very beginning.
Having won two successive election victories and being now on the verge of a third - an achievement that would match both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair - you will presently be besieged by memos advising you how to achieve it.
I have no wish to add to their number, but believe that it is useful to review the history of the last half-century to help establish why Labour is achieving Roy Jenkins's strategic aim of making the centre-left as dominant in this century as the centre-right was during the last one.
Labour has won four out of the last five elections.
Of the ten general elections that have taken place in the past 50 years, five saw a Labour Prime Minister take office and five a Conservative one. The last 25 years, however, show a trend. We have won four out of the last five polls. The Tories last governed with an overall majority in 1992.
How has this come about? It is evident from our poor share of the vote - we have won the last two elections without reaching the 41% share of the vote that we achieved in 2001, let alone the 44% share in 1997 - that the explanation lies with Conservative failure, not Labour success.
The three changes that have thwarted the Tories. First, cultural change -
The cultural revolution that convulsed the 1960s took time to penetrate the elites, and more time still to convert the masses. When Thatcher won her first election victory in 1979, many of these elites were still conservative with a small "c".
The legal, civil service, policing and military elites tended to lean that way. So did much of the teaching profession, parts of the universities and bits of the arts. Most of Fleet Street was Conservative with a capital C.
There was no European Union, no devolution and no human rights act. Politicians have never been popular but Parliament was more powerful, and the reputation of MPs less low. The membership of political parties was far larger.
Small c-conservatism didn't guarantee big-C Conservative victories, but it provided the Tories with a solid electoral base of between some 35% in 1974 and 42% in 1983. With the fall of old Labour and the emergence of the SDP, this was enough to deliver them four election wins in a row.
By 1997, however, the Conservatives had lost the teachers, the universities and the arts almost completely. The legal profession was ready for the human rights act and policing had been changed by the Scarman report. The churches and the BBC were social democrat by instinct.
- Second, demographic change -
In other words, the foundations of Tory support had been eroding for some time before 1997. But three structural factors hit them very hard both before the Blair landslide and after it.
- Immigration. Migrants and their descendants are on the whole less likely to vote Conservative than the rest of the population. In 2010, the Tories' most successful of the past five elections, they won only 16 per cent of the ethnic minority vote. The proportion of such voters was under one in ten in 2001. By 2050 ethnic minorities will make up a fifth of the population.
- Scotland. In 1979, the Conservatives won 22 seats in Scotland. In 2010, they won one. Perhaps more than any other single factor, the driving of the Tories to the margins in Scotland has frustrated their prospects of winning a majority at Westminster.
- Vote distribution. The way in which votes distribute themselves helps us. Even now, ten years or so after a reduction in the size of the Commons, the Tories need a six or so point lead over Labour to squeeze a bare majority in the Commons. This factor has been at work for a long time: in 1992, the Conservatives secured an overall majority of only 21 despite having a lead of almost 8% in the popular vote over Labour.
These cultural and demographic factors explain why even in the aftermath of the 2010 election 70% of voters would consider voting Labour, but only 58% voting Conservative.
- Third, economic change.
1945 ushered in 30 years or so of Keynesian consensus. The Callaghan Government's cuts in the mid-1970s prepared the way for the next 30 years of liberal economics. Of the seven post-1974 elections the Conservatives won the first four and New Labour the next three.
In short, Thatcher was in tune with the new market economics and old Labour had a tin ear for it. It was only with the advent of the New Labour project that the party embraced liberal economics, won the trust of Fleet Street, and finally rode the new cultural and demographic tide.
Once elected, it was able to sign up to three successive EU treaties, implemement devolution, pass the Human Rights Act, and expand its voter base through tax credits. These achievements greatly restricted the Tories' room for manoevre after Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010.
The tabloid hacking scandal near the start of "the new 1930s" - as the post-Lehman collapse decade is now known - the post-Leveson reforms, and the end of the old Murdoch-led Fleet Street culture substantially weakened the Conservatives' support in the media.
Middle and working class incomes shrank in real terms, and have only now begin to recover. Your pre-2015 gamble on a ferocious voter backlash against bankers, the city and capitalism itself paid off: in short, you helped to set the terms of debate, just as Thatcher did in the mid-1970s.
The Tories' three main missed opportunities since 1997
The Conservatives had three main arenas in which to erode this cultural, demographic and economic disadvantage - the three "Es" - and failed, largely because of their narrow loss in 2015:
- Education. The Gove school reforms offered the Tories a means of addressing their cultural disadvantage. Turning state schools into academies and free schools might eventually have challenged the monopoly we have established elsewhere. However, your decision to send Ed Balls back to Education in 2015 closed down this danger, just as Yvette Cooper's term at the Home Office killed off the elected police commissioner experiment.
- England. We remain exposed in England, where the Conservatives won a majority of votes even in 2005. Fortunately, the Tories have been unwilling to lose Scotland to the Union, which allowed "devo-plus" to pass without compensating constitutional change elswhere.
- Europe. Some Conservatives hoped to create the circumstances for a Europe-dominated election or referendum which would place us on the wrong side of popular opinion. Fortunately for Labour, this never happened, and the final break-up of the Euro bloc happened on our watch in 2016. This allowed you to shoot the Tories' fox by negotiating Britain's position as a member of the expanded EFTA.
The danger of a Conservative recovery...
This memo is in danger to date of painting a triumphalist picture of Labour's prospects. It is therefore necessary to balance it by considering some of Britain's present difficulties. It is hard convincingly to claim that we have halted the country's relative decline.
I will refrain from providing a list of symptoms - the loss of the Falklands, the means-testing of the state pension, the now annual summer riots season, our exclusion from the U.N Security Council, the introduction of NHS charging, the lost Trident key debacle, electricity rationing, and so on.
There are even signs that the Tories are finally recovering under the leadership of that veteran Parliamentarian, Elizabeth Truss. (I see that MPs are now often unwilling to serve more than two terms, which makes her experience more rare than it might be.)
Nor can we discount the danger to our left from the New Radicals: I continue to believe that they had no alterative but to change their name, since the Liberal Democrat brand had been contaminated by the leadership of our present Ambassador to Argentina, Nick Clegg MBE.
You had little choice given the development of human rights legislation but to concede the Tony Blair war crimes trial, and I appreciate that the flight of that person to the Cayman Islands, and the continuing sabbatical of Gordon Brown in Bethlem Royal Hospital, remain embarrassing.
However, I repeat my advice not to set up an enquiry into the MPs expenses scandal similar to that set up into the banking collapses - which so suitably led to the mass removal of honours and was so ably chaired by Lord Cable of Coutts. A truth and reconciliation commission will suffice.
...And how to prevent it. Keep the licence fee and the Barnett formula...
It is vital to retain control of the commanding heights of the cultural economy. The maintenance of the BBC licence fee has enabled to Labour to maintain one of its traditional redoubts. There are signs that the "new generals" are changing one of the last Conservative ones - the armed forces.
This leaves the Daily Mail as one of the few remaining others. The post-Leveson regulation regime should be utilised to challenge further breaches of fair and impartial reporting, and its proprietor must be reminded of the use of those provisions successfully to nationalise the Guido Fawkes site.
There are signs that Truss is poised to pitch to English nationalism by championing the end of the Barnett formula. The revival of regional government proposals under the joint leadership of Lord Prescott and Gloria de Piero would be a suitable diversion.
...And end the localist experiment
This would also have the advantage of snuffing out the worst elements of the Coalitions's localist excesses. The single-figure majority we obtained in 2015 prevented us from ending the elected Police Commissioner experiment until three years ago.
We have thus had to move slowly on elected Mayors, but enough are now Tories or centre-right sympathisers serving in those posts for their termination to win party support. Finally, I remain concerned that the drift of former UKIP voters back to Conservatives will continue.
Which is why my service as Deputy Prime Minister may continue to be useful. I may not be as young as I was, but experience matters, and I know the Tories better than they know themselves. Above all, my personal commitment to your leadership has been unwavering from the start.
(The Right Honourable Lord Mandelson PC OM,
Deputy Prime Minister,
First Secretary of State,
Lord President of the Council,
Secretary of State for the Economy, Business, Enterprise and Fairness,
Honorary Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Estates
& Custodian of the Codpiece of Maintenance.)