New Labour–New Start?

New Labour–New Start?

The extraordinary thing about the Labour landslide on May 1 was that it was utterly predictable and utterly unexpected. Because Britain had been forced to retreat ignominiously from the exchange rate mechanism of the European Community in September 1992—devaluing the pound by 20 percent and giving George Soros the easiest $1.5 billion a currency speculator has ever earned—John Major’s Conservative government had been 20 percent behind Labour in every opinion poll. Major’s victory in April 1992 was not the stunning upset that it has been portrayed as ever since; Labour had never had a lead of more than 3 or 4 percent in the months before the election, and it had been visibly slipping in the run-up to the election. Still, Labour supporters came to believe that the party’s ability to lose elections against all the odds was matched by the Tories’ ability to win them. John Major allowed himself the longest campaign in history by setting polling date as late as he constitutionally could and ending the final session of Parliament three weeks sooner than he had to, and even the coolest heads wondered whether the Labour party would not find some new form of self-destruction in the longest (and most boring) six weeks in recent British politics.

Of course, it turned out that the Conservatives had nothing in the armory. It was they who went in for self-destruction, with daily quarrels over the party’s attitude towards monetary union in particular and the European Union (EU) in general. Whether it would have done them any good to have got their message out more clearly is anyone’s guess. Much like the Republicans faced with Clinton’s opportunistic seizure of “their” issues, the Conservative campaign seemed to be saying that the Labour party had stolen the Tory party’s policies—and they would not work! The truth was that the population was sick of Conservative governments. Even Conservative voters were sick of Conservative governments. Indeed, many Conservative voters appeared to be more sick of their own party’s over-long monopoly of power than were their nominal opponents. “What the party needs is a bracing spell on the opposition benches” became a sort of mantra in what until May 1 had been safe Tory seats. Part of the sentiment was disgust at the dissension over Europe; more of it was disgust at the number of Tory members of Parliament who were involved in one form of scandal or another—being found in bed with teenage “hostesses” and “models” or turning out to have accepted substantial sums of money from insalubrious businessmen in return for political favors.

But until it all happened, nobody believed it would. Labour party officials genuinely believed that they would win with a small majority. The electorate at large never quite believed themselves capable of causing an earthquake. The morning of May 2 saw the British population grinning from ear to ear; it was as though they had meant to be shot...


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