Labour's Love Lost

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The late British prime minister Harold Wilson famously observed, “A week is a long time in politics.” How right Wilson was! During a single week in October 2007, new Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown watched his party’s support collapse from an exuberant opinion poll lead of 10 percent over the opposition Conservative Party to dead even. Two weeks later, Labour had plunged even further, falling to an 8-point deficit, a swing of 18 percentage points in just three weeks.

In fact, at the beginning of October, Labour had been in such a buoyant mood that senior party leaders had openly boasted that the prime minister would probably call a snap election for early November (British law allows an election campaign of as little as three weeks, whenever the prime minister decides). Brown had hoped to cash in quickly on Labour’s apparent huge popularity by winning a bigger majority with a new five-year term and to boost his credibility and legitimacy as the new prime minister. That plan crashed along with the poll numbers; Brown then wounded himself further by insisting, to sneers from the media, that his decision not to call a snap autumn election had nothing to do with Labour’s falling poll numbers, but rather to his wish to “get on with the job” and show the British public how well he and his Labour colleagues could govern.

After weeks of lauding Brown’s early days in office, the media then savagely turned against him, accusing him of deception, opportunism, cowardice, and even lying. The barrage hit hard. (The British media are much less inhibited than the American media in their relationship with politicians. Studies over the years have shown that the British media also have more power to influence political opinion in Britain than their U.S. counterparts because the country is more compact, with a sharp focus on national politics, and because Britons pay more attention to the media than we do in the United States.)

At first, Gordon Brown was a hit. A series of national problems—from terrorist threats to floods to a return of foot-and-mouth disease—helped him look strong and serious.

The long-term effect of the October upheaval on British politics is just beginning to emerge. Two alternatives are most likely: either Brown and his government will get over their woes as events smother memories of the October debacle, or the Conservative Party, led by David Cameron, will become a kind of government in waiting as Labour’s political troubles persevere. The best precedent for the second alternative was Labour’s role between 1992 and its election to government in 1997. The Conservatives, in their fourth straight term, suffered a huge policy crisis over membership in the euro zone and were handicapped by the political fallout for the next five years.

THE EXPECTED HONEYMOON

The political underpinnings of the October political storm are interesting. Brown was chosen nearly unanimously in May–June 2007 to be Blair’s successor as Labour Party leader. He faced only the formality of approval by both his colleagues in Parliament and the party membership at large. Under the practice that generally applies in parliamentary democracies, Brown thus was invited (in effect automatically) by Queen Elizabeth to be prime minister as head of the majority party.

But would Brown enjoy the political honeymoon that new leaders usually experience? He had inherited a Labour majority won in a Blair-led election two years before, in 2005. Moreover, although Blair had won that majority for Labour, his government was unpopular, as was Blair himself, by the time he turned his job over to Brown in mid-2007.

The answer came quickly: Brown, to many observers’ surprise, was a hit. A series of national problems—from terrorist threats to floods to a return of foot-and-mouth disease among cattle—gave Brown a chance to appear a strong, serious leader, in contrast to the more cheerful, charismatic, and in the end unpopular Blair. In fact, the contrast between Brown and Blair as personalities, which most pundits had once thought would work to Brown’s disadvantage and rob him of a political honeymoon, worked the opposite way because of both the series of crises and Blair’s troubles. Brown succeeded in driving home the image that he headed a “new” Labour government committed to new policies.

Brown had another piece of good fortune during his first few months as prime minister. The Conservative Party, Britain’s main opposition party (a third party, the Liberal Democrats, usually wins about 20 percent of the vote), plunged into a self-inflicted crisis. Their relatively new and youthful leader, David Cameron, suffered criticism for weeks on end from fellow Conservatives who opposed his drive to move the party from the right to the political center. He handled the criticism badly. He enraged his opponents by criticizing them openly and harshly, going so far as to publicly oust some senior party leaders from leadership positions. During the worst moments, colleagues from the Thatcherite (right) wing of the party even threatened to support Brown and conspire to oust Cameron.

Labour and Brown’s good fortunes continued to zoom upward into September, reaching their zenith during the early part of what the British call their annual political party conference season in September and October, when the major parties hold weeklong pep-rally-style sessions (no policy or leadership decisions) in seaside resorts.

The Labour conference was a resounding success, capped by a well-received speech by the new prime minister. Suddenly Labour’s lead in the polls shot up to about 10 percent, and the media heaped every compliment on Prime Minister Brown. Former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan’s famous phrase “excessive exuberance” certainly applied. Labour was set up for a fall, and the Conservatives proceeded at their conference to give Labour a big push.

The Conservatives could not have hoped for a better conference, held when their backs were against the wall. Staring at the possibility of a snap election, which they feared would be a disaster, and forced to rush their policy proposals into view, they hit a home run. Their proposal effectively to end inheritance taxes on most British estates was immediately popular and much welcomed. (“Death duties,” as they are called in Britain, traditionally have been very high. They have become especially irritating in recent years because Britain’s housing boom has caused such a dramatic increase in middle-class wealth.)

David Cameron, in a short, blazing speech, dispelled all criticism that he was a lightweight in intellect and policy acumen, especially in comparison to the “brainy” prime minister.

But just as important, and perhaps even more so, was the performance David Cameron gave in his leader’s speech to the Conservative faithful. Cameron delivered a devastating blow to Labour while defending his own leadership in moving the party into what he described as a more moderate, electable position. It was a blazing performance with only the briefest notes (a technique more common in American politics than in British), and the press was delighted, describing it as a masterful turn that would cement Cameron’s leadership and gave him the “look” of a future prime minister. Cameron, in an hour, dispelled all criticism that he was a lightweight in intellect and policy acumen, especially in comparison to the “brainy” prime minister.

A BACKLASH

The impact on the polls, propelling the Conservatives upward, was immediate and overwhelming. YouGov.com, a British polling company, reported that the change was not a rejection of Prime Minister Brown but a sudden surge of approval for Cameron, whose rating went from 38 percent approval of his leadership to 54 percent. The rise was especially pronounced among women, among whom Cameron’s approval gained 23 points (the increase among men was 8 points).

The autumn election was called off. Brown was lambasted by the press for awkwardly stoking the threat of an election and then “turning tail” when the polls turned against him. There was talk that Brown was an overcalculating politician leading a tired, old government. Although the odds seemed now to favor a spring 2008 election, many pundits speculated that a “wounded” Brown would retreat all the way until 2009 and maybe even longer than that to call for a vote (he has until mid-2010).

Brown had no one to blame but himself for his political troubles. His first misstep was trying to upstage the Conservative Party conference week by traveling unannounced to see British troops in Iraq. Rather than diverting attention from the Conservative conference, he set off a political backlash by the British media, who accused him of a political stunt. The political ball was then on the move. Suddenly, Brown had gone from hero to goat.

LABOUR SHOWING ITS AGE

What does this wild political ride portend for British politics in the next months or even years?

Clearly, the drastic swings in support over a few weeks show that British politics is much more volatile than has been thought. Brown’s political honeymoon was expectedly vigorous, but, when push came to shove, it was also ephemeral. At first Brown seemed to have convinced the electorate that he headed a government different from Blair’s ten-year-old Labour government. But October’s events seem to have made him part of the old government— which is a serious political problem. Ten-year-old governments are inherently geriatric in the sense that mistakes have accumulated: battle scars, resentments, scores to settle, and overworked and tired ministers who suffer from being out of ideas. Can Brown recover his magic of those first months and be seen as new again? It will be difficult. Although events can pull and push political popularity in any direction, the reality is that Labour will lose at some point and the pendulum will swing back to the Conservatives. This is to be expected sooner rather than later. Observers have often commented about British politics that “all governments fail in the end.” The pain of October 2007 for the Labour government has reminded its new prime minister of that point.

Special to the Hoover Digest.