Friday 14 October 2011

Two tribes: Labour must reach out to the Lib Dems

Looking back on the second conference season of the coalition era, it's clear that the ‘two tribes' of centre left politics are in very different places on the prospect of working together. The overwhelming feeling at the Liberal Democrat conference was that the party stood ready to cooperate with Labour again any time the electoral maths permit. Meanwhile Labour is at a cross-road and divided on how it should approach the Liberal Democrats.

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 Liverpool, there was deep division within the Labour ranks on how, or indeed whether, to engage with the Liberal Democrats. The immediate, visceral anger at the Lib Dems for getting into bed with the Tories may be starting to fade, but Labour remains sharply divided along more historic lines. Pluralists, those open to broad alliances of left and centrist political voices, are pitted against tribalists, who view Labour as the only legitimate vehicle for progressive politics and see Lib Dems, Greens and Nationalists as just competitors to crush.

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 England could be decisive in determining who will govern.

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.


Zio Bastone said...

I shan't quote Mario Tronti on the importance of actually recognising what you are against. (Very little, it would seem, apart from not succeeding, in the case of the tiny minority, 1.3% of the electorate in 2005, it will be very much lower now, who belong to one or other of the main political parties.) I will say, however, that the Conservative manifesto 'commitment' on the NHS was an astonishing piece of dishonesty even in these deceitful times (making New Labour’s 45 minutes claim seem positively truthful) and that if the Liberal Democrats' behaviour over tuition fees was not 'a betrayal of principle' by them then I really don't know what would be, in your terms.

Jos Bell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jos Bell said...

At 12.30 am at the end of a very long week I have just one word. Beveridge. For my expansion on the matter please see Left Foot Forward in the morning....

no longer anonymous said...

"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."

Only post 1992. Before then Lib Dem/SDP/Liberal voters, if the polls were to be believed, had a preference for the Tories over Labour even if the leadership didn't.