With friends like these

As has often been observed, in politics one’s bitterest enemies tend to be on one’s own side. No arguments between parties can match the internecine venom always present, if not always visible, between alleged colleagues. Labour is now re-proving that adage in Britain, and the Republicans in America.  

It seems a miracle that political parties endure as long as they do. The three main parties in Britain, and the two in America, have roots that go back to the 19th century, and in some cases earlier. They have suffered turmoil and schisms, have spent years in the wilderness, yet they come bouncing back. And here they still are, the main candidates for our votes. However much cause there is for familiarity to breed contempt, it seldom seems to do so for long.

In the 1980s, it was fashionable to say there would never be another Labour government. In the 2000s, it was fashionable to say there would never be another Conservative government. Now, it is again the turn of Labour to be saddled with the prospect of imminent oblivion.

But there is good news for the party (and it could certainly do with some at the moment). History says it won’t happen, any more than those previous predictions happened.

The British people do not like one-party rule. It offends our sense of having a choice and our sense of fairness. Since 1812, the longest that either of the two main parties (allowing for two pieces of rebranding, and the supplanting of the Liberals by Labour) has been out of office is 18 years. To an ambitious politician reaching his or her prime when a wilderness period begins, that may seem like an eternity. In reality, it is quite short. On average, over the past 200 years an impatient opposition has had to wait little more than five years for a change of government.

When a change is made, it is almost invariably in favour of the party that had previously held office. While the British voting system has had some part to play in this, possibly the greater part has been played by the power of the brand name, even in the age before brand names were known as such. There is little else to explain the failure of the SDP to replace Labour in the early 1980s.

Of course, left-wing purists would argue that the SDP did replace Labour: that New Labour was largely indistinguishable from the SDP. They are probably right, but the difference between New Labour succeeding and the Gang of Four failing can surely be attributed mainly to the possession of the brand name.

This is what should give comfort to Labour. History suggests that there will be a change of government before too many years have passed, and that Labour will play at least some part in forming it. It should also take comfort from the fact that – with two parties theoretically poised to take advantage of its civil war – UKIP have chosen a leader who seems unlikely to appeal to Labour voters in the old industrial seats, and the LibDems have Tim Farron.

In the meantime, the Conservatives will presumably come to incorporate much of the role of the official opposition. There may be a post-Brexit honeymoon, for both the economy and the Government, but neither seems likely to last. It won’t be long before the back-stabbers on the back-benches are sharpening their knives again. The venom between friends will be visible once more.

Another well-worn adage of politics is that divided parties do not win elections (unless they are less divided than the parties who seek to replace them). Few things are more conducive to a divided party than a large majority and a hapless opposition. This Government may not have the former, but it certainly has the latter.

At the start of the 1983 election campaign, the then Foreign Secretary Francis Pym said on Question Time that landslide victories did not produce successful governments. It was one of the reasons that Margaret Thatcher sacked him after the election. She loved landslides, the bigger the better. The 1983 landslide did not destroy her, but the 1987 one did. I was working for Francis at the time, and have never encountered anyone with a shrewder grasp of politics. As he later pointed out, his remark was not original. Disraeli said that ‘no Government can be long secure without a formidable Opposition’. Time and again, history has proved the wisdom of that saying, and it may well be about to do so again.

Labour supporters must hope that their opponents, while now apparently united, will divide as they are forced to define what Brexit means and what the Conservative party now stands for. They must also hope that their own party, while now divided, will unite as it approaches the next election. They must hope that the eternal yin and yang of life will reassert itself.

However, history has never yet supplied an official opposition whose main priority appears not to be the formation of the next government, but the internal imposition of its own version of intellectual purity. Indeed, Neil Kinnock thinks that ‘it’s very doubtful I’ll see another Labour government in my lifetime’. This presents most members of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and those outside Parliament who agree with them, with an almost impossible quandary.

Do they trust to history, to the swing of the pendulum, to the natural desire of a political party to hold power, and sit out the Corbyn years until something changes? Or do they conclude that Jeremy Corbyn is busy breaking history, and that by the time his internal party reforms are complete, there will be no way back for Labour moderates? And, if so, do they dare go off into the night without the brand name for company?

There seems no chance of an immediate political future that does not involve fratricidal warfare in the Labour party; little chance of one that does not involve warfare in the Conservative party; and little chance of the LibDems or UKIP being able to capitalise substantially on either.

Fractious times lie ahead. Friends Disunited.