There is much rejoicing in the land at the exit of Boris Johnson. BEXIT day is finally on the way. However, despite popping champagne corks at Southside, this represents a moment of peril for Keir Starmer and Labour. The danger is that Johnson serves as a scapegoat, carrying the sins of the Conservative Party off into the desert, allowing the Tories to regroup under a new leader — and win an election.
This is what the Tories did in 1990, replacing Thatcher with Major. Two years later the Tories went on to win the 1992 general election with 14 million votes, the highest number for any party up to that point. There was a huge psychological impact in removing Thatcher, the focus of so much animus for a decade. With her went the Poll Tax, the policy that caused revolts in Middle England and riots in Trafalgar Square. And suddenly, Neil Kinnock, leader for the previous seven years, seemed like old hat.
The Tories did the same thing in 2019 with Theresa May, making Boris Johnson the new, shiny bloke at the top. And in the 1950s, Eden took over from the ailing Churchill and called the 1955 election, and won a 60-seat majority with almost half of the votes cast. We always remark on how effective and ruthless the Tories are at getting rid of leaders. The fact is it works for them. They know they can change leaders and give the country the change it feels it needs, without Labour or anyone else getting a look in.
This is their gamble, once again. They hope a newly-installed Rishi Sunak or Nadim Zahawi or whoever in Number Ten gives the country enough sense of change to not the need to switch their votes. People feel they are voting for change by voting the same. The peril is that Labour becomes an irrelevance rather than an alternative — making noises-off, offering a running commentary, but not being seen as a government-in-waiting.
The real danger, though, is for the state of our democracy. We cling to the idea that we are a two-party (or two-and-a-half party) parliamentary democracy. But in reality for decade after decade, we are governed by the Conservative Party. In many countries there exists what political scientists call a ‘dominant party system’. These are nominal democracies where a single party dominates for years on end. This is common across Africa, for example, where the ANC in South Africa or the CCM in Tanzania govern in perpetuity. Or in places as diverse as Mexico, Japan, Singapore, or Russia. Britain is becoming a dominant party system.
We have had Conservative government for twelve years, under three, and soon to be four, different prime ministers. It is corrupting to our political system to have a single party in control for decades on end. Democracy is the theory, but the practice is dictatorship. It means all the intrigue, all the challenge, all the drama, and all the innovation, takes place within a party, and not between parties. The media attention (as today shows) focusses on the inner workings, plots and personalities of the Conservative Party.
At this moment of drama and flux, Labour needs to get on the pitch. That means showing there is an alternative to Conservatism. Starmer is right to call for a General Election. And Labour must show it has the ideas and energy to tackle the big challenges like stratospheric gas price rises and Lurpak at nine quid a pack. The old saying about not interrupting your enemy when they are making a mistake does not apply here. Instead, Labour needs to force itself onto the media agenda with more than gleeful running commentary or sniggers of schadenfreude.
Rishi, Nadim, Liz or Michael — this is not the change the country needs.
Paul Richards is a writer.