The reverberations from April 1992 still ring out

by Kevin Meagher

Next week sees a grim anniversary for Labour people of my generation. Losing the general election on 9 April 1992 was a gut-wrenching experience and the memory is seared into our collective minds. A government long in the tooth and mired in a recession of its own making couldn’t win a general election, we confidently told ourselves. Only it did.

The argument about how Labour “snatched defeat from the jaws of history” in 1992 is well rehearsed. Neil Kinnock wasn’t trusted. The Sun and the right-wing press were unrelentingly hostile to Labour; and John Major was a newish face who was worthy of a second chance, voters felt.

But a loss is a loss and Major’s unexpected victory had as big a psychological effect on the Labour party as Ramsey McDonald’s ‘betrayal’ for establishing the National Government had on earlier generations.

It seems another age given the three election victories the party would go on to win, but there was serious talk Labour was completely finished after its record fourth defeat. As Tony Blair put it in his autobiography, ‘A Journey’: “The party had almost come to believe it couldn’t win, that for some divine or satanic reason, Labour wasn’t allowed an election victory no matter what it did.”

This defeat and the self-loathing which followed, paved for the way for New Labour’s decade of iconoclasm. Dumb before the shearer, the party more or less acquiesced as reform after reform to party structures and policy were pushed through. As the late Tony Banks succinctly put it, “my constituents will eat shit to get a Labour government.”

But 1992 represented a triumph for Conservative politics too. A party that held its nerve in the face of massive odds prevailed. Just two years previously the poll tax riots were in full swing and 18 months earlier they had dethroned Margaret Thatcher. However their instinct to fight to the bitter end was rewarded with victory. The Tories’ iron nerves triumphed yet again.

So is history going to repeat itself? Will the Tories’ 2015 campaign plan simply re-run 1992?

Twenty years ago their strategy was simple: however bad a job we’ve made of it, paint Labour as potentially worse. Think you pay enough tax now? Just wait until Kinnock and John Smith drop their tax bombshell. Think you’re badly paid now? Just wait until Labour’s minimum wage destroys tens of thousands of jobs.

Labour’s central flaw in 1992 was the nagging doubts voters had about the party’s credibility in running the economy. Two decades on and the chink in Labour’s armour is identical. As signs of those fabled “green shoots of recovery” begin to break through during 2014 (as surely they must), the backdrop will be a carbon copy of 1992.

In fact the government doesn’t need the economy to be flying; it just needs to be performing well enough to reassure voters that it will do so once again. Just as Labour’s claims to be the best party to “secure the recovery” in 2010 may have sewn enough doubts in voters’ minds to stop Cameron being able to “seal the deal” with them, so, in 2015, it may in fact be advantageous to the government if growth is more in prospect than in full flow. “Don’t stop us now” may be a message that convinces a wavering electorate to vote for continuity at an uncertain time and stay the course with the Tories. And it is a message the Lib Dems will be happy to echo.

This is a significant change from 20 years ago. Then, the prospect of a hung parliament saw clumsy talk of lib-labbery. This time around a campaign focusing heavily on the economy will see the Tories and Lib Dems with a joint record to defend and an identical explanation for austerity.

Labour’s challenge is remembering the bitter lessons from 1992. First, the party has to be trusted on the economy to have a hope in hell of winning. This is a work in progress. Second, the Tories will always fight to the last man and the last bullet. They are temperamentally suited to being unpopular in mid-term, knowing that mercurial voters will come back to them. The third is that another hung parliament is a very real possibility and heading off a joint Tory/Lib Dem attack on Labour in 2015 should be seen as a strategic priority for the party.

The joy of Labour’s landslide in 1997 has done much to diminish the memory of 1992. However recalling what it was like to lose badly two decades ago and learning the lessons is infinitely preferable to repeating the exercise.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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4 Responses to “The reverberations from April 1992 still ring out”

  1. swatantra says:

    The electorate are a bit more intelligent than they were in ’92, so the Doomsday’ scenario will not happen. What we’ll have is another hung Parliament, and thats even without AV. You can’t fool the people twice.

  2. John Reid says:

    Before the usual we lost because of tax, even though we said we wouldn’t put the basic rate of tax up, or Sheffield rally Jennifer’s ear(even though that was responsible for us going 7% ahead) I don’t think this next election will be 92 other than the left thinking the Tories are less. Popular than they were , the next election if anything could be a re run of Oct 74′ we win by default and then in 2019 the Tories win with a new far right leader who’s in power for 15 years

  3. paul barker says:

    A Comres last week found only half of Labour “voters” ready to trust Labour with the Economy, thats a pretty appaling response to a question that already set the bar low.
    Its not another 1992 you are facing but another 1983.

  4. Geraint says:

    A lot of things have changed since 1992, the polling is a lot more accurate for a start, Cameron is no John Major and the Tories are very badly split under his leadership, and there are plots against Mr.Cameron in significant numbers. Ed Miliband is also a new leader of the party, Neil Kinnock had already lost an election.

    I think we should be the largest party after the next election, if not win an outright majority. Don’t forget that Cameron couldn’t win a majority against Gordon Brown, an unpopular leader, leading an unpopular third term Labour government, and during a time of economic hardship, with almost all the press against Labour, and a badly run election campaign by Labour. If the Tories cannot win when the odds are stacked in their favour, they will struggle to win when the odds are against them.

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