A calamitous fall in support for the ruling party is unlikely to set in dramatically – it will be incremental, but soon harden into a downward trend, writes Mcebisi Ndletyana
Johannesburg - “There was no general election that pronounced an unalterable and unavoidable verdict; just the steady draining away of members, support and relevance,” Tony Blair observes in his autobiography, A Journey.
Blair was referring to the electoral fortunes of his political party, Britain’s Labour Party, and the year was 1992.
The Labour Party (LP) had suffered another electoral defeat, the fourth in a row.
Blair’s party was clearly unable to persuade most British voters that it was capable of leading the government. Rather, it hovered around an unimpressive 32 percent and its support was largely confined to working people.
Workers’ support was evidently insufficient to catapult the Labour Party back into office. It last won office in 1974.
Clearly something different had to be done. Blair figured that the party had to expand beyond its labour base. It had grown out of trade unions, especially those located in the labour-intensive industries, but this constituency was diminishing.
Instead new industries, based on technology and services, were emerging and didn’t necessarily attract blue-collar workers. Labour Party’s orientation, however, was still focused on the dwindling blue-collar workers to whom it promised socialism.
A reorientation, therefore, was necessary to gain new supporters, especially the middle class.
Not everyone was convinced of the need for change, however – even though the party had lost four elections in succession. Blair, who was first elected a Member of Parliament in 1983, was ridiculed when he proposed modernising the party.
The first of such incidents happened just after the 1983 defeat at a rally, titled: “Lessons from Defeat.” Believing that the rally was meant to probe the cause of the defeat and identify a remedy, Blair prepared what he thought was his best argument.
“I had been a barrister for near enough eight years and I was used to taking facts, dissecting them, analysing them, reassembling them and drawing conclusions. I was trained to be very rational in my though processes”.
And, so Blair presented his argument for modernisation.
He recalls the moment: “I really quite warmed to my theme. Labour had lost touch. It had failed to spot how society had changed.
“I had two lines I was rather proud of: one was about Labour’s attitudes being from the era of ‘black and white TV’; the other was about the party ‘simply repeating old adages learned on your grand-parents’ knees’.
“The crowd was not impressed. I finished to a smattering of applause,” Blair notes rather disappointingly and adds that most “sat… and folded their arms, in unison, their faces grimacing as if a thousand lemons had been forced down their throats”.
Rather, a thunderous applause went to Blair’s opponent, Dennis Skinner, who had argued against party modernisation. Skinner, hadn’t said anything groundbreaking, but simply ridiculed Blair, calling him a snob.
He said: “So your new MP, supposed to be a Labour MP, whose experience in Labour politics up to now includes Durham Choir School (private school much hated by the local proletariat)… St John’s College, Oxford; and the Bar – and that’s not the one you buy a pint in, but one full of lawyers.
“Your new Labour MP thinks our grandparents didn’t know what they were talking about; that its time we disowned them; that’s now’s the moment which we tell them – many of whom never owned so much as a wireless, never mind a black-and-white TV– that they don’t belong in Thatcher’s Britain.
“Well let me tell you, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, my grandparents were poor, it’s true; were humble folk, I admit it; were, I dare say, a little old-fashioned in their principles of loyalty and solidarity; but they were decent people and proud of being working class”.
The crowd loved the put-down.
But Blair was undeterred by the humiliation.
A mere ridicule couldn’t conceal that his party had become stagnant and faced further decline. Rehashing the old party line – as in a preacher’s sermon in the hope that the congregation would see the light – would not work.
The LP needed a general to get into the fight and change the party.
“Battles aren’t won by preachers”, concluded Blair.
And, fight he did, to a point of turning friends into enemies.
He not only won the leadership of the party in 1994, and but also won the general election in 1996 and two more times thereafter, an unparalleled feat in the party’s history.
The ANC of 2014 is no different to the 1980s Labour Party. It dropped support, but it didn’t experience a dramatic fall.
Even though the party has shed 8 percent in two elections, that it still runs the country is enough to lull the leadership into inaction.
Examined closer, however, the results, albeit a healthy 62 percent, portend a gloomy future for the party.
A calamitous fall is unlikely to set in dramatically. It will be incremental, but soon harden into a downward trend. The likely loss of three metros – Nelson Mandela, Tshwane and Joburg – will herald that fatal turning-point in 2016.
The vast revenue controlled by these three urban centres makes it easy for any conscientious party to prolong its stay in power. All that a new DA metro-government would need to do are the basic things, which their revenue enables them to do anyway.
And, the ANC will be shunned to the outskirts to run the troubled, cash-strapped semi-rural municipalities. The challenges in those municipalities don’t allow one to make a good impression.
Does the constitution of the ANC’s new provincial governments suggest awareness of the immediacy of the gloom? It’s not entirely clear. The leadership has opted for party stability, which is good for governance in some areas, but also perpetuates morass in others.
David Makhura’s stabilisation of Gauteng should yield good governance. He has been a popular, long-serving secretary and is savvy.
But, the fact that his appointment was not reached easily shows the difficulty of reforming the party. Ntombi Mekgwe was a serious contender at some point, even though she was not Gauteng’s choice.
Mekgwe’s candidature supposedly advanced gender equity. But, no such arguments were made in the instance of the other six provinces. It appears the motive here was not really about advancing gender equity, but to block Makhura’s appointment, because his province has been lukewarm towards Zuma’s presidency, whilst others have been sycophantic. This explains Ace Magashule and David Mabuza’s unchallenged appointments in the Free State and Mpumalanga, despite running scandal-ridden administrations.
Re-orienting a party is a tough-task. The status quo has a lot of beneficiaries. A mere appeal to one’s conscience will not work. Reformers will have to fight it out, take no prisoners.
Phumullo Masualle’s first task as Eastern Cape premier, for instance, is to decide what to do with Nelson Mandela’s current mayor, Ben Fihla.
Oom Ben is a fine cadre of the movement, but the position is a bit challenging for an 82-year old, who’s never held an executive position before.
The ANC dropped below 50 percent, whilst the DA rose up to 40 percent, and all the recent prognoses point to an ANC loss in 2016 if nothing changes.
It’s time for leaders to lead!
* Mcebisi Ndletyana is Head of Political Economy at Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA).
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.