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The millstone of incumbency

Sixteen years ago, in March 2008, I predicted that David Cameron was ‘cycling towards election victory’. I was wrong: the result in May 2010 was a Hung Parliament.

Nevertheless, it’s interesting to revisit that post with a 2024 mindset. My argument was that the incumbent in any election has an automatic advantage.

People inevitably like to vote for something known over something unknown. Political parties all too often forget that people don’t vote on the basis of promises, but on the basis of actions: Telling people you’ll do all of what they want can never rival the power of actually doing some of what they want.

On top of this, the incumbent has the advantage, by default, of being the more Presidential or Prime Ministerial figure – exactly the kind of figure one would want leading a nation.

And yet, there are rare moments where the incumbency becomes a millstone.

Now, in 2008, Labour’s greatest achievements no longer resonate. We’ve tired of hearing of the New Deal, the minimum wage is old news, and NHS reform has been done to death. It seems like this government has nothing new to do – it’s done it all before, and we’re comparing Labour’s current promises with Labour’s previous delivery.

Indeed, even systemic failures of government – such as the recent furore over MPs’ expenses – now enter the public consciousness as failings of Labour by default, as they are in government, even though they are often cross-party failings which should tar the Parliamentary machinery as a whole.

It’s easy to make a case that Brown’s lament has been inherited by Sunak. Perhaps Sunak doesn’t get a fair hearing as a result of the millstone of the Conservatives’ record dragging him down.

I think I was onto something when I talked about ‘comparing Labour’s current promises with Labour’s previous delivery’. These days, the litany of broken Conservative promises makes it challenging to set any store by Sunak’s pledges. I moaned earlier this week about passport price fluctuations indicating a lack of a plan, which I think feeds into the same narrative.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Politics.

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