The other evening, whilst discussing the possible ramifications of next month’s election, a train of thought led me to a quite startling conclusion: there is a real possibility that, in a few elections time, Labour could no longer be a national political force.
It is startling because of this country’s two largest political parties the narrative of disintegration is most commonly, and not without reason, applied to the Conservatives.
The charge sheet is familiar and damning: we haven’t won a general election outright since 1992; we have failed to reconnect with vast swathes of the electorate in Scotland and urban England; we have failed to comfortably defeat two of Labour’s weakest and most partisan leaders in recent memory, despite (in the latter instance) a genuinely substantial record of achievements in office.
Yet it is hard to imagine the Tories disappearing as a national force. Diminished as it is from its mid-century heyday, our battleground series has found the Conservatives still have a reliable political base in the South, the East of England and the Midlands, and we have re-established ourselves in Wales.
UKIP undoubtedly complicate this picture, but whilst they are doing the Tories real damage in this election we now have a wealth of data that demonstrates the party’s real ability to cut through is confined to certain types of seats and voters.
The People’s Army do not appear poised to, or even to be on the journey to the point where they could, effect a mass displacement of the Conservatives across any of the regions where the Tories have substantial support.
In contrast to this, Labour have a superficially strong position. Their three landslide victories under Tony Blair allowed them to shape the British political battlefield for the 21st Century, much to the frustration and detriment of a Conservative Party still in thrall to its folk memory of the 1980s.
Meanwhile for all his failings Ed Miliband has held his party together and kept it in the running for power, despite the woeful state it was in when it finally left office five years ago.
However, the Scottish National Party have demonstrated that some of Labour’s neglected heartlands, utterly unreachable by today’s Tories, can fall like a house of cards to the right pitch.
Although there is definitely a distinctly Scottish dimension to the party’s rout north of the border (one for which Labour has only itself to blame), there is no reason to presume its English strongholds are immune.
Just look at the ultra-safe constituency of Ashfield, which the Liberal Democrats fell just 192 votes short of taking last time due in part to local anger at having Gloria De Piero, a glamorous outsider, imposed on them. Or Redcar, which the Lib Dems demolished a Labour majority of over 12,000 with a 21.8 per cent swing.
Coalition with the Tories has had a devastating impact on the position of Nick Clegg’s party in the north, where it used to provide the principle source of opposition in local government in places like Manchester and Liverpool. But even as the yellow peril recedes, another looms.
The explicit intention of UKIP strategists next month is to come second a large number of Labour seats and establish themselves as the opposition, then to build local machines and make the seats competitive in 2020 and beyond.
Extensive and in-depth academic research has found that UKIP’s strongest potential for growth lies in courting a distinct electorate (white, working class ‘left behind’ voters) which is concentrated in Labour’s heartlands.
The rise of ‘Red UKIP’ is just the start of the party’s strategic transformation from a sort of ur-Thatcherite remnant into something more classically populist: social conservatism and left-wing economic instincts, wrapped in the flag and a cultivated sense of being the outsider.
Two things might accelerate this process further. The first is if Nigel Farage fails to be returned to Westminster next month: he is an old-fashioned conservative and has no doubt acted as a break on the redder elements of his party such as Patrick O’Flynn.
The second is if Labour manage to scrape their way into office in May, courtesy of a pact with the nationalists.
This would not only strip it of the luxury of endlessly opposing ‘Tory cuts’ (and force it to start making ‘Labour cuts’), but with UKIP both hawkish on defence and happy to play the England card the prospect of a Labour government publicly and continually having to buy off the Scottish nationalists must set UKIP strategists salivating.
It is not impossible to imagine, in those circumstances, an increasingly professional and energised insurgent party doing to Labour’s rotten party machine in the North what the SNP have done to it in Scotland, albeit over a longer span of time or on a smaller scale.
Even if the People’s Army fail to break through, any credible campaign will force Labour once again to reposition themselves politically, and to redeploy vital funds and personnel, away from the places where they’re needed to the Conservatives (which is a gift to any Tory looking to seize the centre).
This is where Miliband’s great accomplishment – holding Labour together and avoiding infighting – may come back to haunt him.
The Conservatives, for all their failings, are at least fully engaged with the debate about their party’s shortcomings and where it needs to go in future. From CapX to TheGoodRight via Bright Blue and the Free Enterprise Group, not to mention our own ConHome Manifesto, there is no shortage of ideas, and the rejuvenation of the party is a key lens through which potential leaders are assessed.
Parallel initiatives in Labour, such as The Purple Book or Blue Labour, have failed to kick start a similar debate, in part because Miliband’s leadership is predicated on the idea that ‘Old Labour’ can win.
Meanwhile, his cathartic rejection of Blair has boxed him into a corner by vindicating the charges of his populist opponents to the left whilst making it harder for him to pitch to the ‘wrong people’ who gave Labour’s most successful leader his huge majorities.
Neither of the major parties currently has the right combination of vision and personnel to command a national majority. But the Conservative base has proved solid enough to permit the party to spend two decades or more finding its political feet again.
Labour may not have that luxury.