Andrew Whitaker: Labour fears return of Essex Man

Ed Miliband knows defeat in next month’s election signals real danger for him and his party, writes Andrew Whitaker
A Tory victory next month could see a return to the right-wing hegemony of the 1980s and early 1990s. Picture: GettyA Tory victory next month could see a return to the right-wing hegemony of the 1980s and early 1990s. Picture: Getty
A Tory victory next month could see a return to the right-wing hegemony of the 1980s and early 1990s. Picture: Getty

THERE’S never a good election to lose for a party, whatever various commentators may say and regardless of what some politicians may think about a defeat offering their party a chance to regroup or refresh in opposition.

True, there are some elections that it’s better to lose than others and on reflection Labour’s defeat at the recession election of 1992 wasn’t as cataclysmic for the party as it appeared at the time, with what was a fourth defeat in a row.

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It’s an oft-heard sound bite from politicians at election time that the current electoral contest is the most important in a generation and will define the political landscape for years to come.

For David Cameron, a defeat of any sort or even a failure to win outright would mean that come the next election in 2020, his party will not have won an overall majority in 28 years, 1992 being the last time.

A defeat for the Tories could lead to suggestions that the party may never win outright again, with society now irrevocably changed since John Major’s victory over Neil Kinnock 23 years ago.

It’s inconceivable that either Mr Cameron or Ed Miliband would be able to carry on as leader of their respective parties in the event of defeat.

But for Mr Miliband, putting aside what would be the instant demise of his career in frontline politics, the consequences for Labour and the left in the UK could be absolutely catastrophic.

Mr Miliband is still very much in the game in terms of Labour’s standing in the polls and could well be the prime minister in the aftermath of the election on 7 May – an outcome this columnist believes is still the most likely, albeit as a minority Labour government forced to rely on SNP support in key Commons votes.

But Mr Miliband will be acutely aware of the consequences of defeat for his party and his own brand of democratic socialism and, above all else, what this would mean with the potential of a Thatcherism Mark II.

The Tories have already signalled their plan for a neo-Thatcherite sell-off of a large chunk of the limited social housing stock that still exists south of the Border, as well as setting out plans that could effectively outlaw public sector strikes, preventing low-paid workers such as NHS staff and council road sweepers from taking industrial action.

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A majority Conservative government, unshackled from the Liberal Democrats, would be free to take further its controversial health service reforms, something that has already seen a situation where almost half of all NHS beds can be reserved for private paying patients.

Doubtless there would be further privatisations of public services and utilities and a drive towards selective education south of the Border if the Tories are returned with an increased majority – something the party last achieved in 1983 when Margaret Thatcher won a landslide and proceeded to leave her inimitable stamp on the UK, with war on the unions and the unleashing of market forces.

Mr Cameron may not always use Thatcherite-style language and attempts to paint himself as a more cuddly Tory, although having said that he did attack Mr Miliband and his “sneering Socialists” – a phrase that could have been borrowed from the former prime minister’s 1980s attack dogs, Norman Tebbit and Cecil Parkinson.

So Mr Miliband clearly knows a Tory win outright could be a return to the 1980s in more ways then one.

Such an outcome could potentially herald a 1980s-style Tory hegemony, with market-obsessed radicals ruling the roost and with Labour completely on the back foot with one chastening defeat following another.

As for Labour internally, the message heavily promoted would be one of how “it just goes to show that even a moderately left-wing leader such as Mr Miliband cannot win power and that a Blairite leader is the only salvation”.

Such a chain of thought could well be part of an overall drift to the right, and again Mr Miliband will be all too aware of that prospect in the event of a Labour defeat at the polls on 7 May.

New Labour ultras such as Peter Mandelson, Alan Milburn and perhaps even Tony Blair himself may already be rehearsing TV and newspaper interviews they could give in the aftermath of a defeat for Mr Miliband, all likely to be of an “I told you so” variety.

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Perhaps it’s this very idea that was in Mr Miliband’s head last week, when he delivered a better than expected TV debate performance and perhaps why he may fare better than many imagine during the campaign.

It’s been said many times before, and will doubtless be said many more times before the campaign is over, about just what a knife-edge general election this is going to be.

But perhaps this election could also be a watershed, that determines which direction the UK will take politically in the next decade and beyond, in the way the 1983 election proved to be the high watermark of Thatcherism, which was to go on to dominate thereafter, with the rise in the power of high finance in the City of London as well being notable for the perceived influence of affluent Tory voters sometimes referred to as Essex Man and Essex Woman – groups often caricatured by comedians of the day.

Critically, though, the level of support the Tories now have has plummeted from the backing the party had in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The surge in support predicted by some right wing commentators has yet to materialise, with Mr Cameron failing to pull ahead of Labour in most polls by more than the odd point.

In fact, some polls even give Labour a lead and if Mr Miliband can keep it at level-pegging for a week or two now, he could well be in with a reasonable chance of forming the next government.

In the event of a Tory win and a drift to the right in UK politics, as said previously in this column, the SNP will surely be quick off the mark to state how Scotland and the rest of the UK are now completely politically divergent.

But before the Nationalists are able to make a fresh pitch for a referendum, the UK faces what looks like a very stark choice in terms of what political road it will go down.

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Will there really be another rise of the Yuppie and the return of Essex Man, with their abiding caricatures such as comedian Harry Enfield’s “Loadsamoney”?