Last week, Labour won just 23 more seats than it did in 1983. Like Michael Foot, Ed Miliband was a sincere, but shambolic, leader who took his party to the left and to disaster. The parallels don’t end there. For instance, both leaders succeeded Labour Prime Ministers who took office mid-parliament, only to be overwhelmed by an economic crisis. Both Foot and Miliband found little fault in Labour’s record and thus Labour lost again.
If 2010 compares to 1979 and 2015 to 1983, perhaps we can compare the next election, expected in 2020, to 1987.
History tends to underplay Margaret Thatcher’s third election victory, seeing it mainly as a curtain-raiser to the dramas that were to follow in 1990 (the lady’s downfall), 1992 (the death of Old Labour), 1993 (Black Wednesday) and 1997 (you-know-what). Yet 1987 was a general election of great significance – because it ensured the permanence of Margaret Thatcher’s reforms. Lest we forget, the Labour platform in 1987 was still one of unilateral nuclear disarmament and support for the closed shop. If the unreconstructed version of Neil Kinnock had become Prime Minister, many of the changes of previous eight years would have been undone.
Enough of 1987, what’s at stake in 2020? Let’s look at David Cameron’s first term. Unlike Margaret Thatcher, he had to share power with the Lib Dems; nevertheless, big changes have taken place: in regard to welfare reform; educational reform; the shift from public sector to private sector employment; the decentralisation of political power to local communities; and the long, hard struggle to bring government spending down to sustainable levels.
With a majority, the Conservative government is in a position to make further progress on all five of the above examples (there are others I could have given). For instance, by 2020, the Chancellor aims to have eliminated the deficit. Meanwhile, on welfare reform we should see the introduction of Universal Credit. But according to James Kirkup in the Telegraph the most important changes could come on the localism front:
“In the last Parliament, the Coalition started to cede a little power from the centre to the regions. First came City Deals, where urban authorities get a little more freedom and money. Then came the big one, the Northern Powerhouse, a series of moves to devolve power over transport and then some health and social care to local authorities around Manchester.”
Kirkup says that localism is an “overused slogan” but is transformative when words become action:
“…if anyone ever makes it reality and gives real power to local government, they may just change Britain profoundly. And in a way that people might actually notice in their everyday lives. After all, for all that local government sounds (and often is) very dull, many of our daily interactions with the state are actually with local government-run services.”
Because localism allows different ideas to be tried in different places, it multiplies the potential for reform – unsuccessful experiments needn’t go any further, while breakthroughs can be adapted for use across the country.
If Conservative ministers can use this parliament to extend the decentralising measures pioneered in the previous parliament, then a new era of public sector reform will have truly begun.
However, let’s not forget that, in 2020, Labour will have one last chance to turn the clock back. It may be that, this year, they’ll choose a leader who doesn’t want to turn the clock back – and who may even have forward-thinking ideas of his or her own.
Best not take any chances, though.