British politics: Has Labour Already Resigned Itself to Losing?

This week we had a by-election in the United Kingdom (an election for a single seat in Parliament, rather than a “General Election” when all seats in the House of Commons are contested). And what a by-election it was. Triggered by the death of the popular incumbent Labour MP, Gwyneth Dunwoody, the seat was Crewe and Nantwich, a traditionally rock-solid Labour seat. Dunwoody held it with a majority of over 7,000 votes — a healthy margin in UK political terms. The candidate for the Labour Party was Dunwoody’s daughter. Now, after an electoral earthquake that will be noted as a turning point in future years, it is a Conservative seat with a majority of over 7,000 votes — a swing from Labour to the Conservative Party of over 17%.

Crewe and Nantwich was not a one-off. It fits into a pattern of poor polling and poor performance from the Labour leadership under Gordon Brown, since he took over from former Prime Minister Tony Blair in June 2007.

One might expect to see real rumblings of discontent in the Labour ranks. But on the contrary, prominent Labour MPs — including the members of the Cabinet who might realistically be expected to contend for the leadership in a post-Brown environment — have rushed to tell us that they don’t want to remove Brown from 10 Downing Street. The young Foreign Secretary, David Milliband, is viewed as the most likely contender, but he strenuously denies any interest. Ditto Alan Johnson, the popular Health Secretary.

In these situations such people don’t usually bellow their desire to topple their boss — but a discreet silence or ambivalent answer serves to tell us just what we (and, more importantly, what the nervous Labour backbench MPs waiting with their knives out) need to know. Instead, they are painting themselves into a corner, ensuring that Brown will remain in office despite Labour’s consistently poor position.

Why is this?

Though the Conservative Party enjoys (if that’s the right term) a reputation for an unsentimental approach to leadership (perhaps ruthlessness is a better word), I have no doubt that the Parliamentary Labour Party would do their best to boot out Brown if they thought it in their best interests. After all, it is Labour MPs in seats with marginal majorities that have the most to lose. Everything the pollsters are telling us suggests that if Labour retains Brown as Prime Minister, they are on course to lose the next General Election, which they must call before May 2010. So — are Labour comfortable with the notion of losing — or, at least, might they see it as the lesser of two evils?

It’s not such an absurd notion as you might think. Surely, Labour looks to precedent in making this collective decision — and the most obvious precedent is the removal of Margaret Thatcher from the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1990. She was replaced by John Major, who was Prime Minister for two years before going to the polls in 1992. So the timing, as well as the scenario (longstanding but increasingly unpopular PM replaced by less charismatic Chancellor, who swiftly becomes hugely unpopular in his own right) is daunting.

However, Major went on to win the 1992 election. Many in the Conservative Party now wish that he hadn’t. The 1992-1997 Conservative government was riven by controversy and alleged incompetence, mired in scandal and splits. It reduced the Conservative reputation for competence and reliability to zero, and ensured that the Party’s image in the public eye was appalling — such that it assisted in Labour’s subsequent campaigns for election and re-election for a generation.

Moreover, the effect of those events on the Conservative Party itself can hardly be overstated. As a result of Lady Thatcher’s defenestration, the Conservative Party endured a schism that never really healed. Rather, it was (largely) resolved by the passing of the leadership from one generation to another.

With that precedent in mind, Labour may be attempting to avoid just such a schism now: they may have resolved that, rather than endure the pain of regicide and recriminations, it is better to have the electorate remove Brown for them.