Why the Labour Leadership Matters
In the 1990s, when the Conservatives were ‘unelectable,’ Britain became the Labour party’s oyster. Tony Blair was able to manipulate not just his own campaign for the premiership, but the future landscape of British politics. By May 2010, David Cameron, a young, energetic, reasonably popular Conservative politician, fighting against an exhausted and – for the most part – despised Labour Prime Minster was still forced to campaign on the issues dictated by Labour over a decade ago. Cameron made promises to protect, even increase, NHS and education spending. He even refused to make specific commitments on tax cuts to pay for it. Gay rights, a minority issue of relative obscurity in the 1990s, had become so important to the public by 2010 that it cost Chris Grayling his job.
Due to lack of opposition, Tony Blair was able to transform not just his own party, but everyone else’s, too. So much so, that the Conservative Party’s elected leader now has more in common with Nick Clegg than with many members of his own party.
On Question Time, when being fingered about the ‘dodgy dossier’ debacle, Alistair Campbell justified himself by saying: “Remember, we won an election after that.” Well they, did, but several million of their voters deserted them, and voted for no-one else instead. Lifelong Labour supporters cancelled their membership. Even loyal party members like Robin Cook – not to mention less loyal party members, like Clare Short – resigned from their posts. One million people marched through London to demonstrate their outrage at the war. Yet the thunderous outrage of the public did not translate into votes for the Tories, nor, on any significant scale, for the Liberal Democrats. In other words, because there was no effective, credible opposition government, Alistair Campbell is able to claim a democratic mandate for a decision when there clearly was not one.
Governments, in order to govern well, need good opposition. It is because Labour were not afraid of the electorate, not because they were universally popular, that they have been able to knuckledust their way through policy-making over the past thirteen years.
Which raises the depressing question: what will Britain look like if we have five years of a Conservative government without any credible opposition at all?
For opposition to be credible, the government has to fear it. Only if David Cameron believes people will actually vote for the Labour leader will he govern to the best of his ability. Only then will he not be able to take the public for granted. If, on the other hand, the Labour leader is seen as ‘unelectable’, as unelectable as William Hague, Iain Duncan-Smith and Michael Howard all were, David Cameron and George Osborne will be able to claim – even as a minority government, who did not even win the election – a democratic mandate for anything they please. Just as Alistair Campbell is able to do.