Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 12 June 2009
Where do you start? It’s difficult to think of a more depressing time for Labour supporters since – well, I was going to say the weeks after Labour lost the 1992 general election, but this is much worse. Labour’s failure in 1992 was like your team losing in the cup final. This is like watching the penultimate game of the league season when you’re three points adrift in the relegation zone and three-nil down and your players start brawling with one another on the pitch …
OK, that’s enough blokish football metaphors. But you get the point. In 1992 we were disappointed to lose when we hoped to win. This time, we are simply staring disaster in the face.
No matter how you look at it, the council and European election results are dire for Labour. In the English counties, the party lost nearly two-thirds of the seats it held and all four of the councils it controlled. Its projected share of the national vote was just 23 per cent, 15 points behind the Tories.
The Euro-elections were even worse. Labour’s overall share of the vote was 15 per cent, eight points down on its dismal performance in 2004. Labour was beaten in Wales by the Tories and in Scotland by the SNP. In the North West and Yorkshire regions, it lost sitting MEPs to the far-right British National Party, and in the South West and South East it trailed in fifth behind the Tories, UKIP, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. Labour was fourth in the East and third in the West Midlands, with UKIP second in both. It came first only in the North East.
European and local elections are not reliable guides to the level of support for parties at the next general election. In general elections, turnout is usually much higher, and parties not already represented at Westminster hardly ever win substantial shares of the vote, let alone seats. In the past, governing parties have been battered in European and local elections and won large Commons majorities a year or two later, as Labour did in 2001 and 2005. But it would be unprecedented for a governing party to win after a performance as poor as Labour’s on 4 June.
Of course, Labour’s drubbing took place in exceptional circumstances. The resignations from the government of two cabinet members and two other ministers before polling day did it serious harm – Hazel Blears’s departure was particularly damaging, not least because it was so obviously intended to be.
What really made the difference, however, was the MPs’ expenses scandal. The message on the doorstep was the same everywhere: I normally vote Labour but I’m so disgusted with what those MPs have done that I’m not this time. The scandal undoubtedly hit Labour much harder than the other major parties. Labour is in government and has more MPs than the rest combined – and, more importantly, many hitherto solid Labour voters are furious at its MPs spending from the public purse the equivalent of a year’s skilled manual worker’s wages on property speculation and lavish lifestyles, all the while claiming to stand for fairness and the interests of “hard-working families”.
But the expenses scandal won’t just fade in voters’ memory as time goes by. The only possible way back for Labour is to get to grips with it this summer by chucking out every MP who has abused the system.
For now, everything else except economic management is a luxury – even coming up with brilliant new policy ideas. And this means that getting rid of Gordon Brown immediately (as advocated by several departing ministers, “rebel” backbench Labour MPs and the Guardian) would be the height of folly.
A leadership election over the summer would not just divert attention from cleaning up the Parliamentary Labour Party: it would make it nigh-on impossible. MPs called to account over expenses would protest vehemently that they were being victimised for supporting one or other leadership contender. The necessary purge would grind to a halt. Whoever won the leadership election, Labour would go into the general election, whether in autumn or next spring, with the expenses scandal still festering – and the result would be a wipeout.
In this light, it’s just as well that Brown was forced by the resignations of Blears and James Purnell to reshuffle the cabinet earlier than planned, so that all the credible would-be replacements for him had sworn undying loyalty in public before the European votes were counted. By the time the sheer scale of Labour’s European defeat had sunk in, pressure for the PM’s resignation had already dissipated .
Which isn’t to say that Gordon shouldn’t go – just that it shouldn’t be yet. There’s a good three months’ work still to be done. And after that? Let’s see …