Time was when I thought the Tories were finished. Turns out you can fool most of the people most of the time when you’re in power. But the general election result was a catastrophe for Labour and, being in opposition, they will find it far harder to extricate themselves from what looks like a terminal crisis.
First, Scotland. It’s gone. It is impossible to see how Scottish Labour can overturn the new SNP hegemony – their membership is on the floor, their big hitters have been wiped out, and they are unable to define any purpose to their existence. Without Scotland, it’s virtually impossible for them to win an overall majority, except in a distant Blair-esque landslide.
As a result, any future Labour government would probably be reliant on SNP support, at least for as long as Scotland remains in the Union. Tory strategists believe that the scaremongering over a Labour-SNP tie-up helped swing decisive votes in their favour this week. It’s a fair bet they’ll run the same line again in any future election where this is on the cards.
Also, a Tory majority government can now drive through the cherished boundary changes that the Lib Dems vetoed in coalition. Those boundary changes will make the parliamentary arithmetic far more favourable to the Tories – even allowing for the fact that on Thursday it was the Conservatives, not Labour, that spread their vote more efficiently. Tory boundary changes would make it much easier for the Conservatives to stay in power.
And then we come to the lessons Labour will learn from this defeat. Ed Miliband had long been – and wrongly been – tagged as a “socialist” leader; he was certainly more left wing than Tony Blair. So, after the failure of his leadership, it is inevitable Labour will now shift back to the right – ditch the “welfare” and “deficit” tags, reach out to business, and most of all clamp down on immigration.
Ah, immigration. One look at the Con-Lab marginal results and the large spikes in Ukip support leap out. Ukip seem to have taken chunks of support from Labour in key seats in the Midlands, North West, Wales (where Labour performed disastrously) and in the South. Much of the Ukip vote is a protest vote, an expression of alienation – but much of it is based on concerns over immigration. If Labour decide they need these votes – far more than the Greens achieved – a tougher line on immigration is inevitable.
A shift to the right and a tough stance on immigrants will alienate many on the left of the political spectrum who held their nose just to vote for “Red Ed”. It would come just as the historic funding and membership links with the trade unions end. The ever shrinking coalition of voters assembled around Labour would fracture just as the party needed it to solidify and expand.
So where are Labour’s votes to come from? If they court the Ukip vote, they risk losing the ground they’ve made in multicultural London. If they emphasise austerity (their programme is already austerian) they risk losing their union support.
The centre of the political spectrum is fracturing as the centre of society fractures under the strain of our disintegrating economic model. It is becoming ever harder for Labour to triangulate its way towards a coalition of voters that will carry it to power – different parts of the population are looking for different things from different parties as the two-party binary fragments ahead of schedule.
The Tories can always fall back on self-interest and prejudice – there’s a ready market for both, and the Tories can deliver them far more credibly than Labour.
What can Labour offer? With its Scottish base obliterated and its old alliances crumbling, nothing more than permanent opposition.
We are headed for a very long period of unchallenged, unfettered, unrestrained Conservative rule.