The Long Road Back (if there is one)

(GE2017 Post No. 3)

In yesterday’s post I suggested that Jeremy Corbyn would not give up being Labour Leader – even after a crushing defeat – until his succession by another hard-left candidate was assured.

Let’s make two assumptions – Labour get badly defeated in GE2017 and Corbyn does go and is replaced by someone who can start Labour’s climb back. Big assumptions I know, but what would happen then?

Well we have two examples of one of the major Parties suffering a big defeat followed by a – as it turns out very slow – recuperation: Labour in 1979 and the Tories in 1997.

I have compared the number of MPs gained by each Party in their initial big  General Election defeat – Labour 1979 and Tories 1997 – and then at each subsequent election until they regained power. The results do not look pretty.

The most hopeful example (for the defeated party) is the Conservatives experience between 1997 and 2010. They suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of Tony Blair in 1997, falling to only 165 MPs (the sort of numbers being talked about for Labour in GE2017).

Although this was a massive defeat, at least they didn’t sink any lower. At the next election (2001) they put on one extra seat and the next (2005) gained another 32 to bring them up to 198 MPs. In 2010 they put on another 108 seats, bringing them just short of an overall majority – 306 MPs out of the 326 needed.

Labour’s experience between 1979 and 1997 was arguably far worse – at least initially. From 269 MPs they slumped to only 209 in the even more catastrophic 1983 defeat. (As I pointed out yesterday they won only 8.5m votes as against over 20m for Tories and Liberal-SDP Alliance). They came back only slowly – 229 MPs in 1987 and 271 in 1992 – when Neil Kinnock had been thought the possible winner but John Major pulled off a surprise win.

The main lesson here is that after a bad defeat each Party struggled to recover over the next two General Elections. It wasn’t until the third attempt at a comeback they started to make real progress and in both case it was the FOURTH General Election before the regained a majority.

One factor to note – which may or may not have been decisive – is that both main parties made bad leadership choices – in electoral terms – after their initial defeats.

The Tories went through William Hague (1997), Iain Duncan Smith (2001) and Michael Howard (2003) before they finally found someone who could lead them back towards power – David Cameron in 2005.

Labour went for Michael Foot after 1979, followed by Neil Kinnock (1983), John Smith (1992) and finally finding an electoral winner in Tony Blair (1994).

This does not paint a pretty picture for those in the Labour Party hoping that a defeat in 2017 can be turned into future victories by getting rid of Jeremy Corbyn and start the climb back.

Of course, the past is no predictor of the future – politics is far more volatile, not to say febrile, than in previous decades. But in the lesson of history is not a good one for those hoping for a rapid Labour comeback?


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