Candidates start to be chosen and campaigns planned. We have a much clearer idea of what kind of opponents we will be up against in 2015. A new leadership finds its feet and gets to grips with its medium-term political strategy.
The trouble with the end of an era in politics, as in most other branches of human thought, is that in our rush to turn the page, we’re invariably faced with the baby/bathwater problem. And the next election is no exception.
New Labour is dead, and those of us who were part of it need to be sanguine about the need for moving on. But there’s a current fashion in some quarters of the party to go further: to try and convince ourselves that everything which happened after 1994 was somehow a tragic disaster, an aberration from Labour’s true path.
The truth, as ever, lies somewhere in the middle – it was neither perfect nor a disaster, but it was self-evidently a pretty good thing to be in government for thirteen years. But where Labour decides to draw that line, between what to keep from that success and what to throw away, will arguably determine our fate at the next election.
Now, it is certainly true that electoral landscape in 2015 will be rather different from what it was in 1997. For one thing, we are coming from a vastly higher electoral base than we did then. And we are also likely to have to deal with, in no particular order: voter disillusion with all parties; an ever-greater middle class, coupled with an ever-diminishing propensity to vote along the lines of class; the unusual phenomenon of a coalition in power, which may well lead to a collapse of the Lib Dem vote; a situation in Scotland whose resolution is anybody’s guess; and a continuing economic crisis.
The strange times in which we are living, with their awful uncertainty for pretty much everyone, add fuel to the attractive idea that the old rules no longer apply – an argument very easy to propagate when there is both a new generation of activists who do not even remember 1994, and an older one which never quite reconciled itself to the need to win votes outside Labour’s traditional base.
So, one of the arguments recently to be heard in – let’s not forget – a party rather dominated by Scottish, Welsh and northern English activists, is that we spent too much time chasing the votes of affluent southerners who would ultimately turn out to be capricious and flaky in their in their support.
And it is an attractive, if not entirely realistic, position, to take Labour’s 2010 wipeout in the south as proof positive of those lily-livered southerners’ treachery, having the temerity to turn away from a vote for Labour.
But one thing is identical between the pictures in 1997 and in 2015: our electoral system is still, despite Nick Clegg’s best efforts, first-past-the-post. And Labour, for the first time in those nearly twenty intervening years, will once again lack seats in the south – or, indeed, wherever there are constituencies which are neither affluent Tory strongholds or struggling inner cities – and it needs them to win.
It would be nice to think that with a one-more-heave strategy we could sneak back into power by simply appealing to our core vote and picking up the spoils from an imploding Liberal Democrat party. But that is a dangerous piece of foolishness and, furthermore, the maths does not add up.
In the South (loosely defined as the south-west, the south-east, and the east), we currently have only ten seats out of almost two hundred – less than five per cent. We used to have four times that number only two years ago. It is inconceivable that Labour could secure a majority without winning back a comparable number of seats in these regions.
This week Southern Front, aided by Progress, is launching its Fightback fundraiser kitemark, to help marginal constituencies across the country but especially in these three regions. In an era where the party itself is seriously strapped for cash in a way it has not been for many years, innovative schemes like this can help us deliver what the party may struggle to.
Whatever our political viewpoint, whether we consider ourselves on the right or the left of the party, there’s a simple conclusion to be drawn: we should all support such an initiative, because we can’t afford not to. The party machine should support it. The shadow cabinet should support it. Ed Miliband should support it.
This is not, after all, about political strategy. It’s maths.