Has any historian of democratic left parties that form governments examined the phenomenon of how long they have to stay in opposition before they once again return to power?
Labour is currently indulging in a ritual of seeking to answer the question why it lost the 2015 election with different elements of the party from the former deputy leader, Margaret Beckett, to just about every political journalist, offering their opinion.
But is there not a deeper law of democratic politics in play here? This states that other things being equal a party has to stay in opposition roughly in ratio to the time it spent in power. Of course if the new party in government collapses spectacularly, or there is a major constitutional or economic crisis, that can accelerate change. A Brexit vote in Cameron’s forthcoming opportunistic plebiscite might produce such a crisis as Cameron would have to resign. But there is little evidence that Labour as it works its way under Jeremy Corbyn to a new relationship with voters, economic, media and state power-holders would be able to turn Brexit to political advantage. Moreover the elimination of the Liberal Democrats as a significant parliamentary force and the separist paths of politics in Scotland means that even with Cameron going after a Brexit humiliation the chances of Labour profiting from it are not high.
Instead of worrying at the bone of the 2015 defeat Labour should accept it was foretold and instead ask why Labour lost more than one election when in opposition in the 1950s and in the 1980s and what can be done to avoid that history repeating itself and thus putting off any hope of Labour winning power for another ten or fifteen years. There are other problems such as the disappearance of Labour seats in Scotland, the fusion of LibDem seats into the Tory Party (analogous to what happened in the 1940s), and the impact of 800,000 voters taken off the electoral register. The proposed reduction of the number of seats in the Commons to 600 with equal sized constituencies will still further reduce the pool of winnable seats for Labour.
In the summer of 2010, I had an uncomfortable chat in the Commons Tea Room with David Miliband who I was supporting to be leader of the Labour Party.
“You do know, David, don’t you that there is no example of a party of the centre-left being in office for two or three terms, going into opposition, and then coming straight back to power at the first election after losing power?” I told him.
He smiled in dismay and said: “Well, thanks a lot, Denis.”
I did not want to be the bearer of bad news but the boring historical fact is what the French call l’alternance – the desire of voters to try a new government once they get tired of the existing people and party who govern them almost always means more than one term in opposition.
After 11 years holding government posts in 1951, Labour was out for 13 years, just as the Tories were in 1997. After 1981, Labour’s wait was longer.
The same can be seen in Germany where Labour’s sister party, the SPD, after 12 years of government were replaced by the centre-right in 1982 and did not win back power again until 1998. After two solid terms of SPD government, Chancellor Angela Merkel came in and again the SPD had to wait and is still waiting to get back to being in charge of Germany.
In France, the two terms of socialist presidency under François Mitterrand finished in 1995 and the French Parti Socialiste had to wait until 2012 before it again won the Elysée.
Ditto Spain where 14 years in power of the socialist Felipe Gonzalez, which ended in 1996, were followed by two terms of Partido Popular government until they ran out of steam in 2004 and there were two terms of a PSOE (socialist) government before the return of the PP under Mariano Rajoy.
At the Spanish election in December 2015, while Rajoy did not win an outright majority, the Socialists won fewer seats than the ruling Partido Popular did and the nation still waits for a messy coalition government in which the PP (but perhaps not Rajoy) may yet dominate.
The same rule can be seen in Austria, Sweden, Greece, Australia and Canada, namely that when a party loses power after a long(ish) period in office it is all but impossible to return to office immediately. There are some exceptions and some countries with pure proportional representation electoral systems where a dominant party has to offer ministerial posts to smaller allies.
Historians will surely judge the 2010-2015 British Government as an anomaly with Liberal Democrat ministers but David Cameron offered those posts to Nick Clegg and Vince Cable in the same way as the legendary hangman Albert Pierrepoint offered a rope to a man about to be hanged. Clegg and his chums could not see they were destroying the Liberal Democrats as a parliamentary force. The thrill of holding the keys to a red box and membership of the Privy Council blinded the Lib Dems to the disastrous decision they made.
But the report by Margaret Beckett and indeed all the endless post-mortems on why Labour failed to win in 2015, of which the most absurd is trying to pin blame on opinion polls, refuse to acknowledge that nowhere in stable mature democracies do voters who have rejected a party after it has had a good run in office rush back into bed with it at the first possible opportunity. Ask William Hague in 2001, or Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard in 2005 who also discovered that this iron law of electoral politics applies to the Tories as much as to Labour.
Being the first leader of a party of government after it goes into opposition is the most thankless job in politics. It does not matter if Ed Miliband had been a combination of Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair – he was never, ever going to glide Labour ex-ministers back into office after 2010. Thus, while not quite being a debate on angels dancing on the head of a pin, the idea that there is any worthwhile report that explains Labour’s defeat which does not take into account Ed Miliband was on mission impossible is close to pointless.
That is not much comfort to the political commentariat which has to fill columns but it is, alas, a fact. Now, whether a party can come back at its second try for a return to power is an interesting question. Labour tried in 1959 and 1987, and the Tories tried in 2005, and failed. Explaining why these second post-office elections were lost is far more interesting than discussing why voters do what they always do and that is give their newly elected government more than one term in office.
Labour should forget its post-mortem on Ed and start working on a pre-mortem before 2020. Maybe if Labour learns lessons from its defeats in 1959, 1987 and 1992, it may avoid 2020 turning into a Tory third-term win.