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Labour should target the Tories, not Lib Dems

The Tories did what we predicted. The Lib Dems did a U-turn but attacking them doesn't seem to work.

For many of those in Labour’s ranks who’d talked of progressive alliances and tactical voting, who’d backed electoral reform to entice them, rejection of  coalition was perhaps even more bitter than rejection by the voters. Disappointment rapidly turned to anger and accusations of betrayal.

David Marquand, for example,ex-Labour MP, SDP founder, Lib Dem, Blairite and Compass founder in that order, spoke of “the betrayal of the liberal tradition” and whether in the wake of the budget there is space for two conservative parties. For many of those who opposed a Lib-Lab deal, such as David Blunkett, the Liberals were Labour’s local enemy whose grip on the local council they’d finally broken – in the case of Sheffield and Liverpool, Islington and Southwark. Tribal hostility to the Lib Dems is surely understandable where they’re the opposition.

Two different positions, two narratives, but naturally coalescing come budget day into a united Labour barrage against the Lib Dems. “How could they support everything they fought against; how could they let down everyone who voted for them; how could they let the Tories exploit them?” demanded Hariiet Harman, and the Independent observed:

Liberal Democrat ministers were accused of selling their principles for the sake of their ministerial cars, in a withering attack by the Labour leader, Harriet Harman. Giving the Opposition’s reply to the Budget speech, Ms Harman seemed angrier at the Liberal Democrats sitting in unhappy silence behind George Osborne than at the Chancellor himself.

Ed Miliband declared “a week of judgement for Liberal Democrats” and is quoted by Mark Ferguson, deputy editor of LabourList, as saying:

“I say to the Lib-Dems very clearly that they should exercise their consciences and be willing to oppose this Budget, on issues such as VAT and fairness. f not, they will be massively betraying their people and they have a real duty to their people who, in Europe and in Britain will expect them to judge this Budget on what it does , and not simply to go along with it”.

Few voices were raised against this approach on the Left apart from that of Sunny Hundal at Liberal Conspiracy who cautioned that:

  1. Lib Dem activists would only respond to Labour when it embraced some liberalism in place of authoritarianism;
  2. Accusations of betrayal now would just reinforce Lib Dem tribalism; and
  3. It would be better to woo the Lib Dem Left than attack the Lib Dem Right.

Now, coalitions with the Lib Dems can be desirable if the programme is right — and have been in local councils and in devolved government — and short-term alliances on particiular issues are often justified. But I draw a bigger distinction between Liberalism and Social Democracy than Sunny. I am unconvinced about the prospect for many defections of Liberal politicians to Labour, or any lasting alliance but Liberal voters are a different matter. Many of them regard themselves as progressive or radical, even on the Left; they voted Lib Dem because they were horrified by Labour’s record on civil liberties, opposed the Iraq war or tuition fees.

If we want their support, first Labour needs to change . Secondly, they are likely to respond better to attacks on the Tories than on the Lib Dems.  Talk of betrayal will tend to unite Lib Dem politicians rather than encourage defections or rebellions. Lib Dem voters (and many others) like politicians “working together” across party lines, and, for now, swallow the apparent consensus on cuts (new Labour included, albeit with differences over timing).

It is a mistake not to concentrate our attacks on the Tories whose cuts are ideologically motivated and deeply damaging. The way out of recession and deficit is through growth and investment not cuts. We’re not winning that argument — polls show that Tory support has risen by roughly the same as Labour’s since the budget as Lib Dem support has slipped. Lib Dem voters, however, have tended to switch their second preferences from Labour to the Tories according to YouGov yesterday — a Labour lead of 15% before the election has turned into a Tory lead of 5%.


  1. Paul Evans says:

    Yep – I’d agree with this. I think that there is a small metropolitan bubble in which some self-satisfaction can be gained from pinning the responsibility for the Tory’s cuts on LibDem, but I don’t think it plays well in the country, and new governments have honeymoon periods in which they can make the weather.

    Tory governments also have the help of the Fourth Estate in this.

    The public also understand that the Lib-Dems made the least-worst decision for themselves in May and they’ll get more latitude than the liberal-left would give them.

    Attacking Tory policies and focussing the fire on Tories is simply the best way of resisting them – and ulitmately, it can help detach the Lib-Dems from them if – at any point – the tories hit a popularity low-point.

    Your concluding arguments on second-preference votes speak volumes, don’t they?

  2. Jeremy Sutcliffe says:

    One remembers the old joke.
    “If you came across a Tory and a Lib Dem standing on a cliff edge which one would you push off first?”
    Answer, “The Tory. Business before pleasure”

    However, it is something that is hard to remember in my borough (Oldham) where the Lib Dems are by far and away our main opposition.

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