26 November 2009


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 27 November 2009

So here we are, with just six months left. The party conferences and the Queen’s Speech have come and gone, and judgment day is looming. There doesn’t have to be a general election before 3 June next year, but just about everyone agrees that it will be on 6 May, the same date as the local elections.

I don’t demur on that – but when it comes to the consensus among the commentariat that the election is a done deal, with Labour set for a drubbing after 13 years in office, I’m not so sure.

Of course, Labour’s polling figures are dire, with only a handful of surveys in the past year suggesting anything less than a safe Tory majority. (That one of them was published last weekend, in the Observer, is not that significant: it could be a rogue.) Gordon Brown has been the least popular prime minister since Chamberlain, as David Cairns put it so memorably, for the best part of 18 months now.

And yet … believe it or not, I’m less pessimistic about the election than I have been for ages. The polls might not have moved towards Labour yet, but my hunch is that they will before very long. For the first time in more than six months – since the MPs’ expenses scandal broke, in fact – the government is beginning once more to look as if it knows what it is doing; and if the economy really is in recovery there seems to me to be at least a half-chance that Labour will begin to claw its way back into contention. The Tories are, with a couple of exceptions, an unattractive shower, and their slash-and-burn approach to public spending is seriously scary.

There was very little in last week’s Queen’s Speech that was particularly attention-grabbing, with the possible exception of the (apparently hastily improvised) promise of better care for old people. But the overall thrust of the government's legislative programme is clear and, if hardly radical, a sign that Labour has not yet run out of steam.

It’s true, as Daniel Finkelstein argued in a column in the Times last week, that the Queen’s Speech will have passed most voters by. But every little helps. Add decisive action on the MPs’ expenses scandal (which is unfortunately by no means guaranteed) and a pre-budget report that makes it clear why the government is right in its economic policy and the Tories are wrong, and it's by no means inconceivable that Labour will enter the new year trailing the Tories by six or seven percentage points in most of the polls.

That would still be hung-parliament territory, with the Tories as the largest party, but it would not be the prospect of impending disaster with which Labour has been living since spring 2008, and with four months to go before polling day there would be everything to play for. With a little bit of luck and an imaginative and radical manifesto – one promising investment in the railways and in energy, thousands of affordable homes, action to control the City, an elected Lords and proportional representation for the Commons – I really do think that Labour could pull off a spectacular comeback.


In the meantime, some potentially good news. The cause of libel reform has been around a long time. I remember banging on about it in Tribune in the early 1990s when the New Statesman came close to ruin (John Major had thrown the kitchen sink at it after it published an article saying there was no evidence for a rumour that he was having an affair) and Michael Foot was at it as long ago as the 1950s, when Tribune was almost forced out of business by a ludicrous libel action from Lord Kemsley, then proprietor of the Sunday Times and the Daily Sketch, that went all the way to the House of Lords. Long before that, reforming the libel laws was one of the mainstays of 18th and 19th century radicalism.

But the cause has been given new momentum by a spate of recent cases in which rich foreign nationals have used Britain’s notoriously plaintiff-friendly defamation legislation to silence legitimate criticism.

Earlier this month, the pro-free-speech pressure groups Index on Censorship and PEN published a report recommending major reform to curb “libel tourism” and cap libel damages – and last weekend Jack Straw told the Sunday Times that he agreed, and that he was going to draw up proposals to change the law.

That is a long way short of a rock-solid promise of action, but it is welcome none the less. As long as reformers keep up the pressure, there’s a better chance of decisively transforming our draconian and antiquated libel laws than at any time in living memory.