The party needs to reach out the hand of friendship by recognising that the coalition is a tragedy of electoral maths, rather than a betrayal of principle. The alternative will be significant Conservative gains in the south and the spurning of swathes of recent Liberal Democrat converts who could be persuaded to give Labour another chance.
At the first of a pair of conference meetings hosted by the Fabian Society and Centre Forum, Liberal Democrat delegates were overwhelming positive about working with Labour, despite feeling bruised by the rough-and-tumble of Labour's opposition tactics. Norman Lamb, Nick Clegg's key parliamentary aide, went as far as to call for ‘civilised dialogue' with Labour well in advance of a general election.
By contrast, a week later in
Labour's tribalists risk making a huge mistake of electoral strategy. Election battles between Liberal Democrats and Labour are often bitter and brutal (with sins on both sides) but they cast too long a shadow over Labour's thinking, considering how infrequent they are. In almost every English constituency the battle at the next election will be between the Conservatives and either Labour or the Lib Dems. For both parties to prosper they need to return to the days of an informal anti-Conservative alliance.
The starting point is for Labour to recognise that in the minds of voters, the two parties are at least partly substitutable. Historically this has played to Labour's advantage with each party ‘lending' voters to the other to win marginal seats. These patterns of support go part of the way to explaining why, at the last election, Labour would have needed only a 3% lead over the Tories to win a majority, while the Tories' needed 11%, according to UK Polling Report. The changes to constituency boundaries narrow this gap, but only a little.
Take the Lib Dem marginals first. For decades, many instinctive Labour supporters have voted for the Liberal Democrats where they are the main contender. If this support were to unwind the Lib Dems could face electoral catastrophe, perhaps returning to a rump of 20 MPs. So far this does not appear to be happening. According to the Tories own polling, Lib Dem support is holding up a little better in Tory-Lib Dem marginals than it is elsewhere. A quarter of Labour sympathisers in these seats say they would vote Lib Dem, despite everything that has happened. It is hugely in Labour's interests to maintain this position. In the event of another hung parliament, whether the Lib Dems or the Tories take twenty odd seats in southern
Voters who backed the Lib Dems last time are also crucial in the far more numerous Labour-Conservative battlegrounds. Although pundits like to talk about ‘swing' voters, who switch straight between red and blue, Labour's fortunes are just as dependent on how many people vote for the Lib Dems and other minor parties. Nationwide, over the last two general elections more of Labour's lost votes went to the Liberal Democrats than to the Conservatives. That pattern may be beginning to play-out in reverse, with the polling in the Labour-Tory marginals suggesting that Labour is regaining a little more support from people who voted Lib Dem than Tory last time.
Labour's polling lead is soft, however. Hanging on to these disaffected Lib Dems will be crucial for Labour in the bumpy three-and-a-half years to the next election. Labour faces a choice about how to shore up this new found support. It can continue to present Nick Clegg as a latter-day Ramsay Macdonald, guilty of selling out the centre left and his own convictions. But this message of scorn and disparagement implies his voters were foolish and gullible in 2010. Is that really what Labour wants to say to them?
An appeal on these lines of course greatly diminishes the chance of Labour supporters lending their votes to Lib Dems in the south in 2015. But it is also very high-risk in the Labour-Tory marginals, given the likelihood that the raw wounds of the coalitions' first year will heal. Labour activists may see Liberal Democrat actions in government as betrayal and hypocricy, but who is to say the public will in three years time? Far safer, surely, to woo the Lib Dem vote? Labour should represent the coalition as a tragedy of electoral maths for both the tribes of the centre left.
Reaching out a hand of friendship is more likely to win back Labour's post-Iraq diaspora, rather than maligning the electoral choices voters made to punish Labour in power.