Echoes of 1992 in the UK (or, Reasons to be Cheerful for the UK Left)

Citizen Correspondent

By David Yarrow

The polls got it wrong – support for the Conservative Party was underreported. The election produced a slim Tory majority. This majority was delivered by a moderate leader much closer to the centre ground than his backbenchers. Britain’s relationship with Europe subsequently becomes the defining issue of the Parliament, bitterly dividing the right. And five years down the road the Conservatives suffer their biggest electoral defeat since 1945.

This is a description of the 1992 United Kingdom general election (followed by the landslide victory of Labour in 1997), but it could well prove a fairly good approximation of the outcome of the 2015 election too.

The 1992 UK general election could well prove a fairly good approximation of the outcome of the 2015 election too.

Cameron has secured an unexpected and narrow majority. This is bad news. It means five more years of a government which refuses to address or even acknowledge the structural problems at the heart of the UK’s political economy: an overdependence on financial services and the growing concentration of wealth in the South-East of England; a political addiction to rising house prices and consumer debt as a surrogate for a welfare state being swiftly dismantled; the lack of a coherent industrial strategy that could address the UK’s chronic current account deficits and woeful productivity growth; a tendency to address unemployment through the generation of low-skilled, low-paid jobs and the casualisation of the labour market rather than through investment and training.

But in the long term, politically speaking, this result may be far better for the left than another Conservative-led coalition. What are the reasons for this?

The first is the Conservative party itself. Cameron’s problem is that he is much more centrist than his MPs and party members. This is true of most leaders, of course, but particularly with Cameron whose modernisation of the Tories was built largely on presentation and spin rather than fundamental policy change or ideological renewal. There remains a deep vein of euroscepticism and an atavistic Thatcherism within the ranks of Tory MPs. This is why the coalition worked so well for Cameron. He could deploy the Liberal Democrats as a moderating force against the right wing of his own party, which he knew to be electoral poison. Now this has been taken away from him, he will be forced to throw right wing ‘red meat’ to his backbenchers, in the process undermining the basis of his modernisation project. The ‘nasty party’ is back.

There is no longer anyone to save the Tories from themselves.

The second is Europe, a historic problem for the Conservative Party. Cameron’s European strategy rests on people who don’t like him agreeing to do things to which they are fundamentally opposed with nothing to gain from it themselves. This is not a strong negotiating position. The result is likely to be a failure to secure the reforms he hopes for (which touch the core of the EU’s founding principles, such as the free movement of people.) As a consequence, he will be forced to vocally campaign in support of remaining in a largely unreformed EU during the promised 2017 referendum. This could well undermine his leadership from within – as it did with John Major in the 1990s – either in the form of further UKIP defections, parliamentary rebellions or leadership challenges.

So, while undeniably a disaster for the left in the short term, a Conservative majority could well prove to be better in the long term for progressive politics than another Conservative-led coalition.

There is no longer anyone to save the Tories from themselves.


David YarrowDavid Yarrow is a PhD student at the University of Warwick. He is interested in how and why our visions of the ‘economy’ and ‘society’ change through time.


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