Why I think the next General Election will be in 2018

http://www.nickbarlow.com/blog/?p=5012

Polling_station_6_may_2010Despite the existence of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, there’s a lot of speculation about just when the next General Election might be. It’s entirely understandable given the current political situation and how much has changed in the fifteen months since the last general election, even if making one happen is now more difficult than it used to be.

At the moment, the general consensus is that May is looking at the prospect of an election in May 2017. There are good reasons for this: she’s inherited a small Commons majority, she needs a proper mandate for Brexit negotiations, she has a good size lead in the polls, and the official Opposition is in absolute disarray. The only real doubt is how she’d actually get Parliament to dissolve itself – would Labour MPs vote for it (some but not all are needed to achieve the two-thirds majority needed), or would the public accept the Conservative Party no-confidencing itself to trigger an election?

While the signs do point towards an attempt for an election in 2017, I’m still not convinced it will happen, because I think there’s a strong case for May waiting until 2018 for it to happen.

First, while the Government only has a small majority, the division and disarray in the Opposition means it’s not as important an issue as it was for, say, the Major Government in the 90s when a coordinated Opposition made life tough in the Commons. If the Opposition aren’t organised or unified, then a small majority is effectively much larger than it might appear.

Second, while May might want to seek a mandate for Brexit negotiations, how long will it take for her and the rest of the Cabinet to work out what mandate to ask for? Do they want to go for full hard Brexit, or just to join the EEA instead of the EU, or one of the myriad of options somewhere between the two? If May goes to the country looking for a mandate, given the circumstance the first question is going to be ‘so what’s the plan?’ I don’t think ‘elect us, then we’ll work one out’ is going to be a winning slogan, and I’m not sure that a proper plan that all sides of the Government can agree on can be worked out in time for an election next year.

On top of those factors that mean 2017 might not be as simple a choice as it seems, there’s another big reason for waiting till 2018 – the implementation of the boundary review. This will reduce the number of seats in the Commons from 650 to 600 and massively redraw and rebalance the electoral map of the UK to the benefit of the Conservatives. What it may well also trigger is a wave of selection battles amongst the Labour Party as the current aim of the party leadership appears to be to force all MPs to go through reselections for the new boundaries, prolonging the party’s current strife. We should also remember that new boundaries will also give May a chance to cement her leadership of the Conservative Party and ensure that the new Conservative candidates at the election are to her liking. Rather than keeping broadly the same mix of Tory MPs in a 2017 election, there’d be much more scope for changes in a 2018 one on new boundaries.

A 2017 election must still be a temptation – especially if the economic forecast for the years after 2017 isn’t good – but by waiting till 2018, May would get the chance to win a victory that could be close to a landslide for a party that’s committed to her vision over a Labour Party that would be swinging hard to the left. The risk of waiting and leaving herself at the mercy of unexpected events is greater, but the rewards of a 2018 election – especially if Labour continue to implode – could be well worth that risk.

Lessons from the SDP for the potential of a Labour split

http://www.nickbarlow.com/blog/?p=5009

SDP_LogoWith all the talk at the moment of a potential Labour split, I thought it might be useful to take a look back at the history of the last major split in the party by reading Crewe and King’s history of the SDP, specifically the early sections on the formation of the party. I#m not going to recount the full history, but I think there were two interesting points in the SDP’s formation that tend to get overlooked in discussion of any potential current split.

First of all, the crisis that led to the foundation of the SDP had been brewing for a long time. Labour’s divisions over Europe had been around for a long time, and the rebellion by Jenkins and others over British membership of the EEC had taken place almost a decade before. On the left of the party, Tony Benn and others had been busy organising and developing the ‘Bennite’ movement for over a decade. There’d been a gradual process of alienation that had made the right-wingers who’d eventually form the SDP consider their position in the Labour Party over a long period of time. The conclusions people came to were after years of tough struggles against the left in local parties, trade unions and the NEC. People had a much longer time to feel they were no longer welcome in the Labour Party and might do better elsewhere.

As an example, Roy Jenkins’ Dimbleby Lecture that was later seen as paving the way for the SDP was delivered in November 1979, while the Limehouse Declaration that established the party wasn’t until fourteen months later in January 1981. There was a long process both of preparing the ground for a new party and people deciding they needed to leave Labour. Then as now, the act of getting someone to defect from a party was a major task, as it’s a major shift in their life and relationships that requires time to achieve the psychological change needed to do it.

The second key point is that this long period building up to a split had led to the creation of various formal and informal groups that would provide the foundations of the SDP. These groups – the Manifesto Group, the Campaign for Labour Victory etc – weren’t founded with the intention of creating a new party but helped provide networks for those dissatisfied with the direction of the Labour Party. Again, this was a process that took place over time and in a number of different groupings – it’s worth noting that the original ‘Gang Of Three’ (Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers) were meeting and planning quite separately from Roy Jenkins and his supporters. Different groups coalesced over time, and the idea of a split emerged over time, it wasn’t a simple process of everyone deciding one day to do it.

The important lessons to learn for today are that any party split is going to be the end of a long process, not something that happens smoothly and quickly. (And as I’ve discussed before, there have been many many more times when people have said a party will definitely split than actual splits) The changes in the Labour Party have happened at an incredibly fast pace – the SDP came after a decade or more of Benn attempting to achieve what Corbyn’s done in less than a year. The gap between Jenkins’ Dimbleby Lecture and the foundation of the SDP is about the same as the gap between the last general election and today.

We’re still at a stage where most of the people who might split see their future as trying to win back the Labour Party, and aren’t close to breaking off all the ties they have with it. Maybe there will be a split in the future, but the lesson from the founding of the SDP is that it will take time to get them to that position, it’s not something that’s going to happen quickly.