wearily back from the polling booths yesterday having grudgingly returned
Labour to power with an overwhelming majority. The turnout has been
abysmal, and Tony Blair seems to have recognised that the mood of the
nation has changed. New Labour are no longer the conquering heroes,
ready to sweep out sleaze like Hercules cleaning the Augean stables.
Now they have are being tolerated for not screwing up -- that is all.
The voters have been apathetic and have blamed the politicians for their
apathy. But there are issues at stake -- issues for all the parties.
They'll be looking back at what they've done, of course. But almost
immediately they will be turning to the next five years.
So what now for Labour? Firstly, and most importantly, the economy must
remain stable. Gordon Brown has achieved much : by adopting Bill Clinton's
line -- "it's the economy, stupid" Labour has its second crack
of the whip, and although growth has not been spectacular, it has been
steady. Threatened recessions have been averted. Inflation is down.
Unemployment is down. The only dark clouds on the economic horizon are
coming from the south. The Euro awaits.
In many ways Labour's (or at least Gordon Brown's) strategy of "wait
and see" on this issue is a political masterstroke. He has declared
his intent but is under no pressure at all to deliver, and, although
a referendum is promised, the Government will then be able to procrastinate
almost as long as it wants to on Europe. Domestic policy is, as the
Conservatives have found to their cost, of far more importance to most
Britons than Europe. Saving the pound is all very well, but how about
saving the NHS first (which in many people's eyes was wrecked by the
previous Tory administrations.) Labour's new five-point plan is far
less nebulous than the last and far easier to acheive. "Tough on
Crime, Tough on the Causes of Crime" was always going to be open
to attack, but "6000 more police" is less open to question.
The important thing for Labour is that this time they have to deliver.
If they don't -- in other words if there are not massive improvements
in the NHS, in transport, and in education, they will not be given a
third chance. They will also not be forgiven for a very long time. For
this administration at least the important thing is for the party to
keep its eye on the domestic ball. And that means not becoming obsessed
with Europe and the Euro.
Finally, Labour must shake off its arrogance. Mistrusted and disliked,
the Goverment has rightly become known more for its spin than its substance:
the crowning example of making something out of nothing was Steven Byer's
insistence that "Labour would fight for the right for people to
be able to ask to go part time at work". Sorry, Mr Byers? Spinning
must become a thing of the past: more likely is that Labour will attempt
to ensure that spinning is seen to be becoming a thing of the
The Conservative party is reeling from another crushing defeat at the
hands of New Labour and predictably enough its leader has taken himself
off to the knacker's yard. William Hague had, if the Today programme
is to be believed, made up his mind to quit almost before the fight
had even begun and fought the campaign of a man who has nothing to lose.
This worked well at first, but eventually the realisation that he was
going to lose, and lose very badly, caught up with the Tory leader and
the campaign lost its way in the final days. Hague accepted the result
with good grace, and then stepped down. In all probability he had little
choice but to do so.
A leadership battle
now awaits, but there is at least no taint of a leadership challenge.
The usual suspects will round themselves up: Michael Portillo, Ann Widdecombe,
Kenneth Clarke will almost certainly run for the job, along with newer
faces such as Ian Duncan Smith. Then, however, the fun will really begin.
As with Labour in the 80's, the main problem will not be who gets the
job but how to unite the party.
Firstly, the party has to work out what exactly it stands for. The Tory
party must ensure that it is not contiunually hung up with asylum seekers
and section 28. Its challenge is to convince the electorate that it
is a party that understands people. William Hague's flirtation with
"caring Conservatism" was, to most members of the public,
just that -- a flirtation. At the moment, despite Hague's entreaties
to the party to embrace people from all ethnic backgrounds, the Tories
are still, in certain circles, viewed as racist and homophobic. The
next leader must ensure that the most rabid element of the Conservative
party is cut free. Extreme views on issues such as taxation and Europe
should be welcome. Extreme views on race, sex, or gender must not. They
are not only insulting and distasteful to most of the electorate, they
are also a sideshow.
Another gigantic problem the Tories face is once again the old enemy,
Europe -- or at least the Euro. The factions within the Conservative
Party are still ferociously divided. Until the issue of the Euro is
resolved it will continue to be a distraction. The
best option for the Tories at this stage (although not many of the shadow
cabinet would venture it out loud) is to pray very hard that New Labour
manage to win the a referendum on the Euro, and that Britain joins at
the earliest possible opportunity. At least then the matter will be
decided and the party will be able to get back to what it does best.
Smaller Government. Law and order. Sound ecomonic management. Lower
taxation. These are all areas at which the Conservatives have prided
themselves, yet in recent years they have been continually distracted
from these strengths. Despite Tony Blair's attacks on the "forces
of conservatism", the Conservative party can and should become
a viable force in British political life.
Charles Kennedy can take a lot of credit for fighting an honest, open
campaign. The LibDems are right to be pleased with the inroads they
have made into traditional Tory territory. It seems that the electorate
are still using the Liberal Democrats as a protest vote, however: it
will be a while before we see a gold rosette on a Prime Minister's lapel.
The LibDems are likely to form new alliances with Labour, which may
pay off: next time round the election is likely to be a lot closer,
and they may find themselves holding the balance of power.
The election campaign seems to have been going for months: now it is
time for the serious business of government to begin again, and for
all their differences the main parties have a fight on their hands.
That, of course, is the apathy of response from the voters. The voters
must take some of the responsibilty for this apathy, however. Polititians
don't call the shots. We, the voters, do, or at least should. There
are still important issues to be debated in this stable, comparatively
wealthy country. It is up to us to find and discuss them. Politicians
should be our servants, not our masters.