How Did Labour Fail?

Two days ago Gordon Brown did something unexpected. Britain's embattled prime minister spent the last month presiding over a lackluster Labour election campaign, culminating in the epic gaffe of being overheard insulting a senior. His party had fallen from a merely dismal second place in the polls to facing electoral humiliation in third. And then, with four days to go, and just as the obituaries were being polished and the recriminations were creeping out in public, Brown gave a genuinely brilliant speech.

On Monday all three party leaders spoke at a conference organized by CitizensUK, a group of faith-based community organizers. Brown came last, following competent performances by Tory leader David Cameron and the Liberal Democrat's Nick Clegg, Britain's newest political phenomenon. Brown had lost all three of the campaign's televised election debates -- the first time Britain had held such contests, and which hugely boosted the previously unknown Clegg. Add in a well-deserved reputation for wooden oratory, and the odds were that Brown would again trail in with bronze. But he didn't. In fact, he blew them away.

Brown's passionate sermon (link here) mixed controlled anger over poverty and injustice with a type of free flowing religious rhetoric rarely heard in British politics. It brought the crowd to its feet, injecting a last minute burst of energy into Labour's open-casket campaign. Activists heralded the speech on Twitter; a Facebook group was set up. But it was still a bittersweet moment: a dying twitch that led even the most loyal Labour supporters to ask, with a shrug, why Brown couldn't pull out such a performance before the game was already up?

There are two probable results tomorrow at 10 P.M. Greenwich Mean Time, when the polls close. Both are bad news for Britain's left. First, after a wobbly campaign, the Conservatives could do what many expected at the outset: turn their clear poll lead into an outright majority of seats in Parliament. Second, Cameron could fall short, likely leading to a "hung parliament" in which Clegg's Liberal Democrats would support a minority Tory administration.

The first scenario means a right-wing government, if one led by a man who seems unlikely to abandon his "compassionate conservative" label as quickly as George W. Bush did after his victory in 2000. The second would also see Cameron in Downing Street, although forced to rely on Clegg's Lib-Dems on a case-by-case basis to construct a program for government.

For progressives the first option is obviously bad news: urgent spending cuts to solve Britain's looming fiscal crisis, and a Conservative preference for a smaller state will quickly see painful cuts to the size and scope of Britain's state. The second seems perhaps more in line with public sentiment: a recognition that Cameron's resurgent Tories have not yet sealed the deal and need their worst vestigial instincts kept in check by Liberal Democrat niceness.

Some on the left are optimistic. A hung parliament, the argument goes, would blow the cobwebs off Britain's antique two-party system, even if it means the Tories returning to Number 10. It might conceivably even allow Clegg to extract a promise for a fairer electoral system, and with it a new era of consensual, European-style politics. A mini-Twitter campaign -- with the hashtag #hangem -- has therefore pushed any species of hung parliament as the best possible outcome.

Sadly this is mostly wishful thinking. Neither the size of budget cuts nor the shape of the legislative program would change much if a minority Conservative administration took power in place of a straight majority. Worse, Clegg jumping partially into bed with the Tories would create a lasting fissure between the parties that represent Britain's progressive traditions: 19th-century liberalism and 20th-century socialism.

In all of this there is virtually no chance of a Labour victory. Brown has been confirmed as the flawed leader most thought him to be, unable to connect with the public or deliver a compelling rationale for his own re-election. All polls suggest he will be soundly defeated on Thursday, possibly coming in third in the vote. He may even undercut Labour's postwar electoral nadir in 1983, when the party ran on a platform famously dubbed "the longest suicide note in history" and was duly thumped by Margaret Thatcher. Only the vagaries of Britain's unfair electoral system ensure Labour will not suffer a drubbing.

Facing Labour's demise, many on the left hope for a third option: a surprise pact between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Granted, neither party is likely to overhaul the Conservative's poll lead by tomorrow. But taken together, they are supported by roughly six in 10 British voters. If Labour performs better than expected, their combined seats could be enough to take them over the line.

In recent days, increasingly desperate Labour politicians have openly hinted that such a pact is possible and desirable. Sadly, it isn't. The chances of Clegg keeping a battered Brown in power are slim. The odds of Labour managing to ditch Brown and within days install another leader are equally small.

But even beyond that, the prospect of a Liberal-Labour coalition has taken on even greater symbolic significance. From the moment the opening television debate blew the doors off an initially tepid contest, this election promised more. It seemed as if after such a remarkable, exciting democratic spectacle, politics-as-usual just couldn't return. But, oddly, that is probably exactly what will happen: an extraordinary campaign looks likely to produce a thoroughly ordinary result. And what at the outset appeared to be a "conservative moment" in British politics may well turn out, after all the excitement of the campaign, to be just what the election delivers after all.