This weekend I watched “To Play the King”, the sequel to “House of Cards”, which was made in 1993. The reason I mention this is because it was amazing how much of the politics of 2015 seem similar in many respects. This made me think further about British political history and I saw for the first time very clearly just how cyclical and in many respects predictable the politics of this country really are.
The Tories are the mainstays of the whole production; as they themselves are fond of saying, the Conservative Party is the natural one of government. The Tories have been written off many, many times in the past, but eventually the voters not only go for them, but do so in a way that tends to last for several elections. The reasons for this usually come down to a combination of being seen to be effective operators, usually in the face of what is deemed to be inept opposition (so no one else appears to be available), as well as being able to successfully create a narrative around the idea of “cleaning up the last lot’s mess”, a job that always seems to last several parliaments.
On the flipside of this, the problem for the Tories is pretty basic: there a large group of people who only vote Conservative out of fear and would, in their heart of hearts, rather vote for an alternative. But they’ll only do so if: a). the alternative seems credible and stable and b). it looks they could actually win. The two of these things, rather conveniently, usually go together.
So looking back to the 1990s: people felt that Thatcher had “sorted out the other lot’s mess” by then and were ready for an alternative. Kinnock wasn’t considered good enough, Blair was. One orthodoxy on the left that really bothers me is this “anyone could have beaten the Tories in ’97” notion. Here’s one of the most important rules of British politics (in fact, if you only want to absorb one rule, this is almost certainly it): the Tories can always win an election, any time, no matter who is leader or what the circumstances. They’ve proven this time and time again. They can be beaten, obviously, but it always takes something special to do so. It will take something really great for them to be beaten again, of that I have no doubt.
To be clear, I’m not saying this from a “Blairite” perspective; although I feel more warmly about certain aspects of Blair’s time as prime minister than I used to, I am not now nor was I ever a Blairite myself. It’s simply that the facts stand on their own. The guy won three elections against the Tories, which is remarkable. Doing so again will not entail copying New Labour – as much as some things from the 90s are very familiar, there are a lot of differences as well. But it does mean being pretty hard headed when looking at what can beat the Tories and what can’t. We’ve seen how this all goes down many times before, so the lessons are sitting there, waiting to be absorbed.