Or are Labour still on course for a fourth term?
The last couple of weeks have been among the most eventful in recent British politics, with the election that never was, the “magpie” pre-budget report, Brown’s mauling at PMQs and the polls changing rapidly from an 11-point Labour lead to a 7-point Conservative one.
The key question is whether we have reached a tipping point and it’s all downhill for Labour from now on, with Brown following Callaghan and Douglas-Home as another “fag-end” PM, or whether the government can reassert control over the political scene such that recent events are merely seen as a blip.
With all the usual caveats that apply to political forecasting, and with the foreknowledge that humble pie may have to be eaten, I’m beginning to think that this autumn may indeed be the beginning of the end, and that looking ahead, it does seem to be mostly downside for Labour. While others are sure to disagree, a few points to consider.
The Brown honeymoon is now clearly over, with the Conservatives delighted that Brown was not able to “cash in” on it with an election victory, and as the months go on, the “time for a change” sentiment will become stronger – Labour are likely to have been in power for 12-13 years by the next election.
One of the biggest changes in the last couple of weeks is that the media narrative has turned strongly against Brown, even in parts of the media that would normally be supportive – and even on pb, such normally loyal Labour posters as Tyson have openly expressed their frustration with Brown. For the average voter, who unlike most pb readers doesn’t follow the minutiae of politics, the media narrative is key, whether it might be The Sun, GMTV, or the ITN news, and the tone adopted by outlets such as these will seep its way into voter consciousness. My gut feeling is that the media bellwether The Sun will back the Conservatives at the next election.
Brown said that he didn’t call the election because he wanted to push ahead with the government’s agenda on health, education, and housing. Even if by the next election these have improved, and this may be a big if, will the voters notice if the media continues to be so hostile to Brown? If government figures show improvements in these areas, will they be believed, or will voters automatically assume that they have been fiddled?
Three more disparate areas – on the economy, the state of the public finances is not great, and what are the risks of further Northern Rocks or market crises or even a full-blown recession? In the marginals, the Ashcroft money continues to pour in, bolstering the Conservatives, and next year, Cherie Blair’s autobiography is sure to provide juicy revelations about Brown which could well be damaging.
The government is still in a strong position in many respects however – simply by being the government it has a great deal of control over the political agenda, and for a party in power for 10Â½ years is still doing relatively well in the polls. All that the Conservatives can do is try to present a united front, to keep sniping from their own sidelines to a minimum, and to aim to look like a competent and credible alternative government.
Momentum is always important in politics, and right now the wind has very definitely gone out of Labour’s sails. Have they already passed the point of no return, or is it far too early to be making such judgements?
Paul Maggs “Double Carpet”
Mike Smithson returns full time on 18th October
Paul Maggs runs The Election Game – click on the logo to email for more information.