Students of opinion polls were surprised by the outcome of the British general election but students of history should not have been. Politicians, it appears, are not the only people who tell lies at election time. The opinion polls were universally and spectacularly wrong, and not, although this is their favorite excuse, simply because they failed to measure the full force of a late swing to the government. They were wrong because throughout the three-week campaign they failed to catch the deep ambivalence of voters as they pondered how to cast their ballots.

People were angry and disappointed with the government, hurt by the economic recession and the high interest rates which were serving to prolong it, worried by rising unemployment, and smarting still under the unfairness of Margaret Thatcher’s local poll tax. But they also had little confidence in Labour’s ability to provide better economic government, were worried that their taxes would rise, and unimpressed by the qualifications of the Labour leader Neil Kinnock to become prime minister. So having registered their protest to the pollsters, on election day enough of them proceeded to give their actual votes to the devil they knew and confirmed the Conservatives in power, although with a much reduced parliamentary majority, for a fourth successive term of office unprecedented in this century.

The inaccuracy of the polls is material to the inquest into Labour’s failure to win an election fought at the bottom of a business cycle, after thirteen years of one-party rule, against a government with a dismal record in its third term, and in spite of what was widely seen as its own superior campaign. The last-minute-swing theory—although some late swing back to the government there plainly was—has been seized upon by those who prefer to believe that this was some sort of near miss for the left—the “we wuz robbed” defense that transfers the blame for defeat to the unscrupulous scare tactics of the ruling party and its lackeys of the tabloid press. None of these alibis checks out; they take no measure of the scale of the left’s defeat, avoid the real explanations for it, and obscure its historic meaning.

A historian who had the courage to ignore opinion poll findings, which throughout the campaign, and for many weeks preceding it, reported the two major parties running neck-and-neck, with Labour, if anyone, in the fractional lead, and who proceeded instead entirely by induction would have called the contest correctly. For a Labour victory in Britain in 1992 would have gone against all known socio-demographic trends and defied the tide of history in Europe and much of the world beyond.

The outcome vindicates the thesis that the socialist or social democratic left in Britain, and probably in all developed or “postindustrial” democracies, is in a long-term and perhaps terminal decline. Consider first the numbers. In spite of the government’s intense unpopularity and failure to deliver the economic goods which the citizens of democracy today take to be their natural right, especially when they are put to the inconvenience of electing their rulers, the Conservatives’ 43 percent share of the popular vote held to almost exactly what it was in 1987 when Mrs. Thatcher won her parliamentary landslide at the approaching peak of a pre-election boom. Labour’s share, reduced to a pitiful 28 percent in 1983, had recovered to 31 percent in 1987, but its 35 percent share this time remained below the 38 percent it scored in 1979 when Mrs. Thatcher first came to power. At its postwar peak in 1951 Labour had polled 49 percent of the popular vote.

The aggregate votes, however, tell only half the story. Under Britain’s parliamentary system of government, seats, not votes, are what counts. The electoral battleground is effectively confined to a hundred or so marginal constituencies out of a total of 650. To have any hope of winning power at Westminster Labour has to make significant inroads into the Conservative heartland in the populous and prosperous south of the country, where in 1987—outside metropolitan London—Labour won only two parliamentary seats. A reason for thinking it might do substantially better this time was that the latest recession has been a predominantly southern affair, depressing property values, hitting hitherto booming service industries, and causing unemployment to rise in localities where it was virtually unknown. Labour managed to pick up a handful of ten more southern seats although few in the growing new towns or suburbs. The political geography of Britain remains essentially unchanged, with Labour’s support concentrated in the declining industrial regions of the north and the depopulating inner cities.

Nor did Labour make significant progress among any of the main socio-economic groups that have progressively deserted its once-winning coalition. Almost 50 percent of homeowners, who today account for 70 percent of housing occupants, voted Conservative, as they had done in 1987. The Tories again won the support of half the skilled working class while Labour attracted no more than a quarter of white-collar workers. Meanwhile, the manual working class continues to decline in proportion to the rest of the working population and today makes up less than a quarter of it. Nearly one third of trade union members voted Conservative as they have consistently done since 1979, but the total union vote is much lower: between 1979 and 1992, overall trade union membership has declined from twelve to eight million. Labour won the election among young women (eighteen to thirty-five) but not young men, and in no other age group. By 1997, when the next election is due, 35 percent of the electorate will have no political memory of anything but Conservative government.


By all these measures Labour is failing to make progress up a down-moving escalator. Its share of the vote on April 9 was remarkably close to what election analysts estimate to be its remaining core support as defined by class, housing, and social geography. That base will continue to decline and when the boundary commissioners complete their next redistricting exercise before the next general election, Labour stands to lose a further twenty parliamentary seats as the result of demographic changes.

All of these trends are well charted in the literature predicting Labour’s decline. An acceleration in the process called “partisan de-alignment” has been observed since about 1974, the year in which Labour narrowly won power in order to preside over an economic recession, rampant inflation, and mounting social conflict, which during the remainder of that decade effectively bankrupted the prevailing social democratic ideology and brought Mrs. Thatcher to power in 1979. That 1979 was a watershed election is finally confirmed by the results on April 9. The ethos of home ownership and tax cuts promoted by Mrs. Thatcher survived the present hard times virtually undiminished. Labour’s contrary aspirations to improve public services and social benefits financed through redistributive tax increases appear to have become culturally alien to Britain’s electoral and economic heartland.

All of this came, nevertheless, as an immense shock to the left. For they had convinced themselves for the most part that since the two debacles of 1983 and 1987 the Labour Party had reformed and modernized itself sufficiently to resume its role as the alternative party of government. Under Neil Kinnock, the party had abandoned its support for unilateral nuclear disarmament, espoused Europeanism, and jettisoned its plans for further nationalization in favor of an economic policy putting more emphasis on the market. Not only that but, in the manner of François Mitterrand’s new-model Socialist Party of the Eighties in France, the young Kinnockites donned neckties and business suits and wore in their lapels the red rose that became the logo of the new Labour Party.

Why was this not enough? Essentially because the continental model of social democracy which Labour had belatedly adopted was itself obsolescent as a result chiefly of the same processes of demographic change and economic advance. The German social democrats had made the transition to a social market approach at Bad Godesberg as long ago as 1959. Moreover, Labour, unlike any of the continental parties, retained its umbilical links with the trade union movement which had given birth to it at the turn of the century; the unions remain its paymaster, providing 80 percent of its funds, and, by their block votes at the annual party conference, were the chief force determining party policy. Although less unpopular than they were, their powers severely curbed under Mrs. Thatcher, the unions remain nevertheless redolent of the past and suggestive of a party beholden to sectional interests.

Even while it looked as if Labour might win the election, although not with an overall majority in Parliament, the polls were recording that voters continued to prefer the Conservatives as economic managers and to suspect Labour of being the party of high taxation. The tax issue illustrated Labour’s dilemma and, perhaps, the root dilemma of all liberal or left parties today. Public opinion was ready for increased social expenditure, and a majority were telling pollsters they would rather have higher taxes and better public services than more of the Tories’ tax cuts. But did they mean it, or was the question the equivalent of asking, “Would you rather have a tax cut or be a mean bastard?” The Conservatives correctly suspected that it was.

Even Labour did not dare to propose a general increase in income tax as it had done in 1987. Instead, its “shadow” Chancellor of the Exchequer, John Smith, who is almost certain now to succeed Kinnock as party leader, came up with a redistributive package which would have placed a few pence a week in the pockets of some 80 or 90 percent of the population while at the same time financing modest increases in old age pensions and tax allowances for young children. This was achieved by a steep increase in the marginal rates of taxation on what Labour deemed the rich or richer members of the community.


Being “rich” turned out to mean those with incomes above £21,000 ($36,750) a year (who would pay 9 percent more tax, up from 25 percent) while those who earned more than around £40,000 would have to pay 59 percent, instead of 40 percent, on all income above that. The plan would have cost the £50,000-a-year property owner about £7,5000 a year at a single blow. John Smith, from north of the border in Scotland, had miscalculated the consequences of the rapid income growth which occurred in Britain in the Eighties. His plan stood to penalize the managerial and professional classes, whose best endeavors Labour would have needed if it was to achieve the improved productive performance on which all of its spending the plans depended. Moreover, it would have hit a good many potential Labour voters in the south, where the cost of living is about 25 percent higher than in the rest of the country, with incomes set accordingly. Other who would not directly suffer might conclude, as many apparently did, that the plan confirmed their suspicions of Labour’s general propensity to tax. While the Smith plan threw bien pensant liberals into agonies of introspection in which guilty social conscience warred with their pockets, many ordinary voters seem to have had no such compunction. This is an important part of the explanation of why Labour did nowhere near well enough in the south to come within reach of power at Westminster. It poses the question of whether, in view of the changing patterns of income distribution, any party of the left can dare to propose tax increases and, if not, how any such parties can put forward more progressive and costly social strategies.

One further point has to be made. To confirm its new respectability and monetary probity Labour had wholly endorsed Britain’s membership in the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary System, in which the pound is linked by only slightly flexible parity to the German mark. While imposing limits on its hitherto inflationary tendencies, this arrangement was also a fiscal straitjacket. Keeping in line with the mark required the British economy to become as competitive as the German and, with devaluation precluded, it is hard to see how this could be done except through such supply-side measures as improvements in productivity and efficiency, and in the training of the work force, as well as increased capital investment.

This leaves Labour with precious little latitude for pursuing its social programs, if financed by higher taxation the supply-side effects are likely to be negative and if financed by excessive borrowing, markets would lose confidence in the currency and speculate on eventual devaluation. Labour at the election failed to take the full measure of this predicament or to realize the degree to which a Labour government would now be constrained from pursuing either expansionary economic policies or more expensive social ones.

All of this has to be set in the broader perspective of the liberal-left dilemma throughout Europe today. Socialism is bankrupt almost everywhere in the world, and in Europe the social democratic era is drawing more gently to a close. Were it not for Britain’s Manichaean winner-take-all voting system it would be easy enough to imagine the same sort of pluralistic fragmentation that is today undermining the mass parties and ideological frontiers of continental European politics. In France, Italy, and Germany, its symptoms are the rise of regional parties with nationalistic pretensions and the resurgence of right-wing populism, both exacerbated by the slowing of economic growth. What comes after socialism or social democracy is the unanswered question. For the first time since the French Revolution there is no plausible social vision on the left, not even in Paris. The result of the late British general election, therefore, is not an aberration explicable by tactical failures but reflects something much more fundamental flowing from the changed character and structure of developed democratic societies as they enter the postsocialist age.

Labour did not simply lose in Britain. The Conservatives won. Uniquely they won at the bottom of a recession and in the face of an intense unpopularity achieved in the final triumphalist phase of Mrs. Thatcher’s long dominion. One reason for this has been low inflation. In spite of the depletion of family savings by the unrestrained credit boom which the government unleashed after 1987, in spite of punishing interest rates on mortgages secured against today’s devalued property assets, and in spite of rising unemployment, the reduction of the inflation rate to somewhere near the German level has resulted in a continuing growth in real disposable income. If people sensed that the underlying strength of the economy remained greater than in 1979 when Mrs. Thatcher came to power they were probably correct.

The economy is currently trapped in recession, and, chiefly as a result, the public sector deficit is excessive, while the prospects for the world economy are uncertain. Yet the reelected government takes office at what is generally understood to be the bottom of the economic cycle and is more likely than not to preside over a strong economic recovery. Indeed, some believe that with significantly improved productivity, a stable currency, and low inflation, and a Conservative government firmly installed we shall soon see a substantial flow of investment from abroad and an improved performance in increasingly open European Community markets.

The election made it clear that Mrs. Thatcher’s successor, John Major, is a less than charismatic party leader. He seemed equally out of place addressing large audiences within an elaborate and expensive traveling stage set and from the street soapbox to which he took in the later stages of the campaign. He produced no strong vision of what Conservative government could offer after thirteen long years in office. Yet in the end his competent if somewhat gray and unassuming style was vindicated. From the moment of his succession as the beneficiary of a cabinet coup in November 1990, chosen by his party as the man who would least divide it, the public warmed to him for not being Mrs. Thatcher. In style if less in substance he distanced himself from her and spoke the ameliorative language of Disraelian “One Nation” conservatism, proclaiming himself a local London boy of humble circumstance—as the epitome of the “classless society” toward which he promised to work, although by this he appears to mean no more than a society of more open character and more equal opportunity.

Now, at last, he is his own man, prime minister in his own right as the people’s choice and possessed of his own popular mandate. What will he do? Nothing too exciting; he will strike a still cautious balance between continuity and change, which means an economic policy strongly based on the free-market approach ushered in by his predecessor but with less neglect of public services and of Britain’s increasingly dilapidated infrastructure. He will seek to make good his pledge that Britain’s proper and rightful place is at the “heart of European affairs” while resisting the tide of federalism and championing an open European Community eventually embracing the liberated nations of the East.

If I am at all correct in my diagnosis of Labour’s predicament Major has ample time to plan ahead, for there is now every prospect that he and his party will stay in power until sometime into the next century. As the victor of a tense and uncertain election, Major in both style and substance probably comes closer to the spirit of the times than any other British politician. He is today the undisputed leader of the post-Thatcherite Conservative Party but also, perhaps, Britain’s first post-socialist prime minister.

This Issue

May 14, 1992