The lovely phrase “spray on evidence” was coined in the late 1990s in frustration at the attitude towards evidence shown by many in the Labour government. Though officially the government was determinedly set on a course of evidence-based policy, many of those involved in policy making felt that evidence was being applied as a bit of glitter to justify policies rather than really shaping them.
Spray on history now seems to be the order of the day in much political punditry with the futures of the coalition, Liberal Democrats and Labour often talked about with several nods towards the past. A powerful example of this is the use of recent political history to justify views about what Labour should do next. It usually takes the form of, ‘Well look how the Tories got it all wrong after 1997. If Labour want to win again they can’t just sink into their comfort zone. They’ll only win again once they return to the centre ground’.
As far as it goes, that’s a compelling argument. But only as far as it goes. Because if you move beyond the spay on history and look more consistently at the past, it tells a rather different story.
Labour governments have previously been voted out of office at four general elections: in 1924, 1951, 1970 and in 1979. On two occasions (1929 and February 1974) Labour went on to return to power at the next election. On the other two occasions Labour went on to lose two or three further general elections.
What do the two immediate returns to power have in common? Labour kept its defeated leader and didn’t change much in the way of policy or approach. What did the other two have in common? Labour went in for a long-period of soul-searching and made major shifts in policy.
So there you have it. The verdict from history: bring back Gordon Brown and his policies.
Or rather the verdict from history is: beware those who cull one convenient example and pass it off as history’s lesson.