With the general election fast approaching, the two major parties grapple with each other over the 34% mark in the polls, neither apparently able to spring ahead to a lead. It is looking to be an exciting election night, but I hope to ruin that for you by predicting, on the basis of historical events, that Ed Miliband will be our next prime minister.
Marx's famous saying - though originally, by his own account, Hegel's - goes that history occurs twice: 'the first as tragedy, the second as farce'. It stands to reason that this could refer also to the present, and perhaps to the future. I have no wish to turn this into a history lesson, but the idea of a modern (since 1997) right-wing 'post-Thatcher consensus' to match the largely left-wing 'post-war consensus' that prevailed roughly between 1951 and 1979 was suggested around a decade ago, and a close examination of the two periods reveals some parallels that are almost eerily striking, and which suggest that future events, if the current consensus continues to mirror the old, will follow a certain course.
This mirroring can be traced back to the very earliest source. In 1945, Clement Attlee's reforming Labour government came to power and utterly changed the face of the nation, sending it down an interventionist, statist path from which no party would dare seriously to diverge for over thirty years. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher's reforming Conservative government came to power and, especially from its landslide victory in 1983, utterly changed the face of the nation, sending it down a free-market, economically-liberal path from which no party has dared seriously to diverge to the modern day. Both parties, in the latter parts of their respective periods, collapsed under the weight of their own dogma and began a long period of in-fighting: Labour in the 1940s and 1950s over the issues of nationalisation and unilateral nuclear disarmament, the Conservatives in the 1990s and 2000s mostly over the issue of Europe.
During this time, the party in opposition took power and enjoyed a long period of political dominance, coincidentally thirteen years for both. They achieved this by taking on the policies of the weather-changing party; in the 1940s the Conservatives adopted most of Labour's programme in the Industrial Charter, and in the late 1980s and 1990s Labour gave way to New Labour. The Tories in the 1950s and Labour 1997-2010 won three elections before economic problems and an unpopular new leader lacking in charisma (Alec Douglas-Home and Gordon Brown respectively) handed victory to the other party, though on a margin of victory much smaller than that which had been expected in both cases (in 1964, Labour won a majority of just five seats; in 2010, of course, the Conservatives did not win a majority at all).
Labour in the 1950s and the Conservatives in the 2000s had, further, gone through much the same changes. After years of continued feuding, both eventually elected a dynamic young leader, Harold Wilson for the former and David Cameron for the latter, who was able to plaster over the divisions in the party temporarily with the language of modernisation. Both were very good on television and in the House of Commons, and both claimed that the economic problems which hamstrung them were the fault of the other party.
So much for the past: this is merely an attempt to prove how deep the similarities between the two periods are. My own belief is that the explanation for what seems a counter-intuitive piece of determinism is that both politicians and the electorate respond in the same way to the same challenges - hardline doctrine, civil war in the party, the economic situation. It is because of these similarities, at any rate, that I feel we are able to make predictions about the near future, beginning with the forthcoming election. Wilson's opposite number in the Conservative Party from 1965 was Edward Heath, a personally awkward man whose personal popularity ratings plunged early on as a result of his stiff media persona and poor performances in the House of Commons. Such a description naturally brings to mind a more modern Edward, our very own Labour leader; and both also won the ballot unexpectedly against a more likely candidate. Heath defeated Wilson in 1970 largely on the back of a huge block of undecided voters who cast for him on the day, just as commentators have been occasionally mentioning a block of undecided voters now, immediately before the 2015 general election. (Incidentally, Wilson fought a very personal campaign in 1970 which focused on himself as leader and which focused on attacking his opponent - look up 'Yesterday's Men poster 1970' - not unlike that which Miliband has been enduring of late. Cameron does not seem to have been benefiting from it; neither, if he is interested, did Wilson.) Just as Heath won in 1970, so will Miliband win in 2015.
What else may we predict, while we're about it? That the 2015 election will also be the first general election success for parties outside the political establishment seems inevitable already, but again, this draws parallels with 1970. Ukip, or alternatively a wide variety of smaller parties, seem set to prove themselves to be the 2015 equivalent of the Liberal Party of 1970, which - in a then groundbreaking achievement - prevented the two main parties from gaining 90% of the vote collectively. It is safe to predict, at least, that a small party or numerous small parties from outside the mainstream will begin to make itself heard, and indeed by 2020 (assuming fixed-term parliaments remain) might well be a potential kingmaker as was Jeremy Thorpe - a suave, popular, cheeky, and most of all refreshing man not unlike Nigel Farage - after the general election of 1974.
What else will be the result of the 2020 election? It would not seem too much to expect that Miliband will, as did Heath, lurch sharply into enemy territory in his policy, and adopt right-wing ideology just as Heath adopted relatively left-wing. He may be beset by economic problems, and though it is difficult to see at the moment what his equivalent of the unions might be, it could prove to be the energy companies, or companies in general; he has promised to regulate them more firmly, and they hold substantial power over the populace. He may be caricatured as a hardline left-winger in spite of his policy; he has already gained the moniker 'Red Ed'. And he is unlikely to win the 2020 election, probably yielding it to a Conservative Party which will have lurched as firmly to the right as Wilson's Labour Party did to the left in 1974, when it promised stricter economic planning and nationalisations. People will by then probably be even more disillusioned by politics, and each party will struggle to get a majority.
What will come after this hypothetical win by the Tories in 2020, then? Between 1974 and 1979, the Keynesian consensus was already breaking up, with informal monetary targets adopted by the Treasury and austerity measures introduced. Indeed, hints of its demise had been seen as far back as 1969, when Roy Jenkins had brought in substantial budget cuts, perhaps the equivalent of the 2008 bailouts for banks. It was broken finally by the government elected in 1979; thus according to this pattern a government elected in 2025 will be the one to change ruling economic thought. Just as the Left was thought to be making the running in the 1970s, we may expect the Right to do so in the 2010s and early 2020s; but just as this hid a rising tide of neo-liberal conservatism in the 1970s, so too might there be an increasing demand for left-wing policies, already visible even now in the wide appeal of the SNP, in the near future.
It seems likely that this will take the form of a Keynesian strain of thinking. Why? Because once again, the parallels exist between free-market thinking in the 1960s and 70s, and Keynesianism today. Initially, both are mocked as unworkable relics of an ancient past, with just a few adherents, mostly outside mainstream politics. Both gradually seem to become more realistic as the incumbent system comes under strain, and perhaps the reports of the Institute for Economic Affairs, often a lone free-market voice in the 1960s, could be see as similar to Thomas Piketty's recent book Capital in the 21st Century. So I think a return to Keynesianism seems most probable, and will be far more so if there is a dramatic increase in unemployment in the time preceding 2025. Just as high inflation in the 1970s turned the body politic against Keynesianism in the 1980s, so too has the free market historically been damned as a result of the high unemployment which it creates, specifically in the 1930s.
Predictions of the future are always foolish; there are too many factors at play in any situation. But the parallels between our world and the world of the late 1960s are too striking to be ignored, and so perhaps here indulgence might be granted for such speculation. We can only wait and see.Suggest a correction