"No-one (in their right mind) would want to find themselves governing in the scorched earth years that lie ahead of us. Not so much a poisoned chalice as a barrel’s worth of the stuff."A familiar part of any electoral spring is the appearance of our old and counter-intuitive friend – “it’s a good election to lose”.
In varying forms, it has already made an appearance in The Guardian, The Independent and the London Review of Books courtesy of Messrs. Legrain, Lawson and Lanchester, respectively.
For Legrain and Lawson, the gist of the story is that it’s 1992 all over again. What appeared at the time, to some, to be Major’s surprising win was just the prelude to the rise of Blair and the New Labour decade.
There’s a curious parallel in Australia’s electoral experience. After a decade in power, Paul Keating won a surprise victory for the incumbent Labor Party in 1993 – the one he said was for ‘the true believers’ - but his exhausted administration just about limped its way through to 1996, a thumping electoral defeat and ten years’ long march through the political outback.
For Lanchester, the story is rather simpler. No-one (in their right mind) would want to find themselves governing in the scorched earth years that lie ahead of us. Not so much a poisoned chalice as a barrel’s worth of the stuff.
In general, the belief that ‘it’s good to lose’ rests on a conviction that a tired old government is best put out of its misery and the incumbent party given the chance to undertake ‘a period of renewal’ in opposition.
Suitably refreshed and revised, and with a new leadership, the party will be well placed to seize back the reins of office and stride confidently into the future. But then that’s what some Tories thought in 1997 and certainly what many in the Labour Party imagined in 1979.
But ten years (or thirteen or, indeed, eighteen) is a very long time in politics. I was at university with young men who thrilled to the bright, fresh morning of Thatcherism but found themselves entering the House of Commons just as the long shadows of night were descending on the Conservative Party.
By the time that Cameron is in Number Ten (should he get there), it will be too late for them. Most politicians just can’t afford to wait. That’s why it’s always hard to find a politician who (really) thinks it’s good to lose – at least before the event.
It may be better to govern in good times than in bad times but it’s always better to govern than to oppose.
Once you’ve made all the accommodations and compromises and signed up for all the half-truths, what is there left but to win? And what ambitious thirty-nine-year-old imagines that a glittering prize will still be waiting for him or her as they crest their fifties?
But for those of us who have a little less at stake, the question remains: can there be a good election to lose and could this be one of them?
To retrace our steps just a little further, it depends upon whether you think this is 1979 or 1974 (always remembering that while Marx might have gotten some things wrong, his claim that history only ever repeats itself as farce was bang on the money).
The 1970s was also a decade of economic crisis (albeit one that is crudely mis-recollected). For all that Labour may have been a bit unlucky to lose in 1979 (more bad timing), Thatcher certainly had a plan (of sorts). Between 1974 and 1979, Labour went on trying more or less what had worked (or not really worked) before.
Do Cameron and Osborne have a plan for something very different from what has gone before? If so, it is cunningly concealed. Could Labour be back in 2015 with a radically rethought political economy? Maybe. Perhaps in 2010, there’s not really going to be a winner at all.
Professor Christopher Pierson