Neil Kinnock

The Winning Formula?

With the entry of Diane Abbott into the Labour leadership race, the choice before party members suddenly appears to be a wider and more diverse one than before – the other declared names are David Miliband, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, John McDonnell and Andy Burnham. The fact that there is a contest at all makes this a more different scenario from the 2007 ‘shoo-in’ of Gordon Brown, and Abbott’s candidacy brings a welcome shot of diversity to the equation.

All credit to Labour for that but, realistically, the chances are that the next leader of their party is going to be called either ‘Ed’ or ‘Miliband’ or both, thus conforming to the current major party trend of electing a fresh-faced (perhaps not in Balls’ case) forty-something white male leader, with a full head of hair and an easy television manner. This is perhaps Tony Blair’s most lasting legacy to the political landscape of Britain.

When John Smith died so suddenly in 1994 politics was a very different place to the ‘New Politics’ of 2010. It was a post-Thatcher world where John Major had played the ‘safe pair of hands’ card and won the 1992 General Election in the process, Smith had used his substance and intellect to win the Labour leadership, and the fledgling Lib Dems were headed by the flamboyant Paddy Ashdown. 1994 changed everything. While most of the outside world assumed Gordon Brown would be next in line, Peter Mandelson and the New Labour Focus-Groupies had other ideas. Tony Blair won the – post-Granita – leadership election by a landslide (as a member of the party at that time, I must confess that I voted for him) and things were never the same again.

Blair was fresh-faced, energetic and non-threatening to Middle England. He looked like the sort of chap your average ‘soft Tory’ would be happy for their daughter to bring home. In policy terms, the programme was so light there was very little risk in ‘giving the guy a chance’, and the staged battle over Clause Four showed a man very much in charge of, what had previously seemed, an unleadable party. An historic landslide victory at the 1997 General Election confirmed the new leadership model as a winner.

There have been numerous exceptions to this trend of ‘natural’ selection, of course: William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith & Michael Howard for the Tories, Ming Campbell for the Lib Dems, and indeed, Gordon Brown for the Labour Party. Unfortunately the one common strand between these party leaders is that they were all deemed to be failures. Contrast their fortunes with those of David Cameron, Nick Clegg and the Daddy of them all, Tony Blair, and it starts to look like there really is a winning formula for the selection of a leader: as long as the policies (where they exist) don’t frighten the horses, go for the young-looking guy with the nice suit.

I’m not saying that any of these men are idiots. To lead a major political party you need intelligence, determination and an extremely thick skin, and all the successful leaders have had these qualities in abundance. Indeed, I’ve often thought that history will be kinder to Tony Blair than any of his contemporaries were. I believe that, despite his many policy failures, he will come to be seen as the great politician of his era, a communicator without equal in the early part of the 21st century. I just think that there may well be women, ethnic minority politicians and people over 60 who have all of these qualities and more.

Will a woman lead a major political party again any time soon? Will the job fall to anyone over 60? Will the chances of any baldies (like me) be forever ruined by association with Hague, Duncan Smith and Kinnock? And what chance have we of following America’s inspirational presidential lead and electing a black Prime Minister? The ‘New Politics’ is all very well, but perhaps there are still a few things to be learned from the old.

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Are the pollsters getting it wrong – again?

I mentioned before that the 2010 General Election probably has more parallels with 1992 than 1997, and I’m particularly starting to form this impression with regard to the opinion polls. Those of us who are old enough will remember how John Major’s Tory government trailed in all but (I think) one of the surveys carried out during the 1992 campaign, yet spectacularly found themselves returned to power with a working majority once the real votes had been counted.

The polls at the moment seem just as erratic – one minute Labour activists are cock-a-hoop at polls which show the gap narrowing to four points, the next minute Tory smugness returns as another poll shows them twelve points ahead. There is no clear picture and it’s very hard to put your finger on a trend. Only one thing’s for sure – someone’s getting it all wrong.

The 1992 disaster (from the pollsters’ perspective) was put down to the phenomenon of “Shy Tories”. The theory went that, since the Conservatives had been in power for so long (thirteen years by then) and seemed so universally unpopular, it was embarrassing to admit to supporting them. Instead a significant number of respondents told pollsters they would vote for Neil Kinnock ahead of the hapless John Major. (Kinnock regrettably took the polls at face value and indulged in a fit of triumphalism at Labour’s pre-election rally in Sheffield – a sight still guaranteed to make Labour supporters wince.)

I suspect that the problem still exists (to be fair, who would want to admit to anyone that they think George Osborne might make a good Chancellor of the Exchequer?) but are there also a number of ‘shy’ Labour voters out there who choose not to admit their support for Gordon Brown?

And perhaps we should factor in a general cussedness among many when it comes to answering questions about their political views. I have previously lied blatantly to an opinion pollster (purely for sport, you understand) and I very much doubt that I’m alone in this. As people become more and more cynicised by the entire political process it’s surely no surprise that they don’t take ‘being polled’ particularly seriously. Add to that the residual effect of the expenses scandal and it begins to look like an election that will be volatile right up to the end. Such an election would be very difficult for anyone to predict.

It seems there is little to be gleaned from the endless avalanche of polls. Perhaps we could surmise that the Tories are ahead, but not by much; Labour look set to lose a number of seats; and the Liberal Democrats may yet have a say in what happens after the big day. The truth is no one knows exactly what will be the outcome on 6th May – the only thing we can be sure of is that we will get no concrete answers from the opinion polls.