Raising The Left From The Dead

LONDON: Victory by the Labour Party in the British election is an historic event, whose implications will spread far beyond Europe. It reminds us that in a democracy no ideology or party can ever take success for granted.

Under Margaret Thatcher, Britain's Conservatives secured a seemingly unbreakable grip on power, dominating political and economic debate. In fact, Conservatives have ruled Britain for 70 out of the last 100 years, almost the same proportion of this century that the Communists ruled Russia. Such was the confidence in the Conservatives' political monopoly that, after the last elections, many commentators doubted whether a Labour government would ever be returned to office. Five years later, the same question is being asked about the tattered, demoralised Conservatives, who seem on the verge of a party split which could condemn them to opposition for decades. Shattering political monopolies is what democracy is all about.

A second lesson from Britain is that politics is not always driven by economics. This election has proved that a booming economy is not enough to assure a government of re-election or even protect it from electoral catastrophe. As the Conservatives' unpopularity plumbed depths never before recorded in the public opinion polls, cynics in Britain said that people might talk from their hearts, but vote from their wallets. They might tell pollsters they were prepared to pay higher taxes for better public services and a more compassionate attitude to the poor. But in the end they would do exactly what they had done in each of the previous four elections - vote for a Party which proclaimed "every man for himself".

Today this pseudo-Marxist theory for economic determinism has been refuted once and for all. In 1992, John Major ran for re-election in the midst of an economic slump, a vicious monetary squeeze and the aftermath of a rapid inflation. Economic determinists predicted that he did not stand a chance. He won. Five years later, Britain has the strongest economy in Europe, with unemployment halved and inflation a non-issue. Voters showed their gratitude by crushing John Major. Rarely, has history provided a more precise controlled experiment to test a political proposition - and prove it false. We can now say with confidence that Marx was wrong: politics does not follow economics.