Despite the smallness of the Conservative majority in 2015, it has triggered talk about long-term political dominance. So now is a good time to look again at what happened the last time people were speculating about such matters. Hence this reappearance for a book review I wrote five years ago.
Spoilers: neither the pundits nor the Conservatives did well.
Shortly after the Conservative Party won its fourth general election in a row in 1992, a symposium met to consider the question of whether Britain – formerly a country with regularly rotating government between the two main parties – was turning into a political version of Japan, where the same party had been in power for nearly forty years.
Even between the event occurring and the publication of a book based on it, Turning Japanese? Britain with a Permanent Party of Government (eds. Helen Margretts and Gareth Smyth), political events in both countries had taken a dramatic turn. In Japan the LDP lost power, starting a period of much greater political fluidity with even subsequent LDP Prime Ministers struggling to restore their party’s previous dominance. Meanwhile in Britain the collapse of the Conservative Party’s economic policies following Britain’s enforced exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) quickly made the government appear very vulnerable, even if debates in Labour continued on whether, as John Smith preferred, one more heave was all that was needed or whether, as Tony Blair insisted on after John Smith’s death, a more radical reshaping of the party was required to win the next election.
However, whilst the question of turning Japanese therefore quickly faded from consideration, the book provides a mini-case study in how easy or hard it is to make long-term predictions about the direction of Britain’s political system – a particularly pertinent point given the speculations now about future progressive majorities or centre-right alignments.
The most obvious lesson is how fragile apparently long-term shifts can turn out to be. Just as shortly after its record fourth victory 1992 the Conservative Party plunged into unpopularity that made talk of Conservative hegemony look woefully misplaced, so too those heralding a realignment in American politics epitomised by Barack Obama’s 2008 victory very quickly also looked to be talking about the past rather than the future. By contrast, in Canada the first minority government of Stephen Harper was treated by many Liberals as a small aberration in a tale of Liberal dominance, yet his repeated success at staying in power means that at some point a long period of rule starts looking like a more successful change.
John Curtice’s chapter read now with the advantage of hindsight enhances his reputation, for he accurately picked out how the quartet of Conservative election victories was brittle, for it was not accompanied by a major shift in the ideological views of the public. As Curtice puts it, “It is difficult to argue that the Conservatives have retuned the ideological heartstrings of the British electorate to a more right-wing pitch … The mistake that many commentators have made is to assume that voters simply vote on the basis of issues”. Moreover, as Robert Waller goes on to point out, a long-term tilting of the electoral playing field in the Conservative Party’s favour thanks to the electoral system and demographic and social changes only gave the party an edge – not a guarantee of victory. As the ERM debacle demonstrated, such edges accumulated over decades can be wiped out extremely quickly by political events.
Hence Vernon Bogdanor’s prediction that a formal electoral pact between Labour and the Lib Dems was necessary to give the Conservatives a real chance of defeat at the next election turned out to be wrong. 1997 did not turn out like that at all. So too Will Hutton’s concluding chapter saying that the route back to power for Labour was to become more critical of markets. New Labour did not turn out like that at all either.
The moral from this? As with the predictions from think tanks, sudden events such as the ERM exit and 9/11 can and frequently do completely overshadow the apparently deterministic long-term trends pieced together by pundits seeking to predict the future.