I agree with Paul that Labour needs to treat the Lib Dems with something other than disgust and fury.
Luke puts the other case trenchantly: “We shouldn't just be attacking them we should be trying to destroy them as a viable political entity.” Now, I’m all for taking as many votes as possible away from the Lib Dems. I just don’t think a full frontal assault is the best way to do that. These are people who did, after all, choose to vote for the party and still at least in part identify with it. They may be uneasy, but most of them are still giving the coalition the benefit of the doubt, and if we try to savage the party then we risk deterring these would-be switchers.
(Have you ever had a friend who was going out with someone who you thought – and your friend was starting to suspect – was bad news? Slagging off this other half is tempting, but often counterproductive if your friend then rallies in defence.)
I’d have three tactics to use on the Lib Dems: (i) Ignore them. What better way to suggest their inability to tame the Tories than disregarding their existence? Refer to ‘the government’ or even just ‘the Tories’ – not ‘the ConDems’, which is cute but maybe a bit too pleased with itself, nor even ‘the coalition’, which sounds too much like ‘the consensus’, and who wants to be against that?
(ii) Make gentle overtures towards them on issues where their position differs from the Tories. It would be politically smart to campaign with them for AV. Even if the referendum fails, it’ll be handy to have stood with them on the side of reform. Also push hard on democratising the Lords: a government paper is due out on December, so we should be well into the debate before then. Also, we should scour their manifesto for any decent policies that didn’t make it through the coalition deal, and cheerfully adopt them.
(iii) Chastise Clegg, more in sorrow than anger, when he moves rightwards away from prior party commitments. Did the hopeful progressives who voted Lib Dem really sign up for this?
As well as straightforwardly winning voters from them, I want at the next election for Labour to be getting tactical votes/second preferences from people who still prefer the Lib Dems. Naked aggression won’t help so much with that.
But we also do need to win votes from the Tories – if they stay in the high 30s, we’re stuffed. So we can’t just play to left-liberal anxieties. We need to have things to say that are worth a broader audience’s attention in traditionally right-wing areas, such as the economy and immigration.
Even before the recession, living standards for middle-income people (I mean that literally, not in the newspaper columnists’ fantasy-land way) were stagnating. So Labour needs to focus hard on economic growth and job creation, which also brings us onto the matter of the deficit.
People aren’t going to listen to Labour on the public finances if they think we’re too statist and spendthrift, and many do. I think we’re in the same sort of situation as the Tories were with immigration in 2005: voters may in theory prefer our approach, but their general view of the party’s motives means that they don’t trust us to carry it out. We need to change that.
A ‘fight the cuts’ approach has virtue of simplicity but there’s also a hollow desperation to it, an implication of all-or-nothing that will leave many people resignedly thinking that it’ll probably just have to be all, then. But ‘slower cuts and faster growth’ is a positive proposal, turning the debate into a matter of choice between different degrees of action – not reality vs denial – highlighting that there’s a trade-off and pushing the government onto what many will think is the wrong side.
We should also go to great lengths to show that Labour isn’t just about the state. We should aim to outdo Cameron on the ‘big society’ front. Whatever specifics emerge from the current fog, the rough principle has merit. No doubt the policy agenda that comes under that heading will have failings – lack of funding and other support, incompetent organisation, too demanding of people’s time, unfairly distributed between different social groups, too much like government abdicating its duties, disregarding the negative social effects that the market can have, or just not amounting to very much – so we should develop a vision of decentralising and redistributing power that’s better than Cameron’s. And please, think of a better name.
And then there’s immigration, which has come up in the polls again and again as a big complaint for a lot of people. I don’t believe that Labour can win a numbers game: we’ll never convince the right-wing press that we’ll keep as tight a limit as they’d like, and trying to do that will tear us apart as well as repelling potential Lib Dem switchers.
So we need to change the terms of the debate: make it about the impact of immigration. We should pivot on Gordon Brown’s most painful moment (in the way that Cameron played off Thatcher’s notorious “society” quote) and say that most people worried about immigration aren’t “bigoted” but reasonably concerned about coping with change and whether they’ll get a raw deal as a result. It’s completely true that a lot of people moving into your area can be disconcerting – whether they’re from elsewhere in the UK or halfway round the world. There are all sorts of impacts on housing, public services and the labour market. That’s the set of concerns we should take on.
‘Managed immigration’ should be about this, not clumsy attempts to set a national limit. The total number of immigrants coming here is probably unknown to most people anyway, and official figures are distrusted. And of course immigration isn’t distributed evenly across the country; it’s the local amount that has an effect on people.
There are, of course, bigots who just don’t like foreigners; I don’t propose we try very hard for their votes.
I expect this parliament to last the full five years (certainly, I think Labour’s ability to shorten it is basically zero). But unlike the Tories after 1997, we’re not stuck miles behind an unnaturally popular government, so people are going to be looking at Labour sooner, with genuine – albeit critical – interest, so we need to get our act together quickly.
(These quarter-formed thoughts don’t add up to a strategy. But I think they point in roughly the right direction. And I think David Miliband is most willing and able to take this sort of approach, so he gets my vote. Ed M’s not too far behind, though. Also, I think David comes across a bit less awkwardly than Ed on the telly box.)