I am not a Lab Dem. I am a free man.

by Dan Hodges

Still they come. Nick Clegg’s tired, hungry, huddled masses. The Liberal Democrat refugees.

Labour is providing them with sanctuary. Of the 30,000 new members who have joined the party since the election, almost a third of them are reportedly former Lib Dem members.

The pace of the relief operation is set to intensify. The Sunday Times carried “a bold appeal” from Ed Miliband for “disaffected Liberal Democrat MPs to join the opposition to the coalition”. There are rumors that the shadow cabinet is preparing a charity re-mix of the Red Flag in time for Christmas. Billy Bragg is considering a “Lib Aid” concert at the O2.

OK, I made up those last bits. But our tanks are no longer parked on Clegg’s lawn. They’ve bulldozed through the French windows and are rumbling towards the dinning room.

In the wake of the tuition fees debacle, it may appear to be a sound strategy. The Lib Dems are a broken party. Just look at Vince Cable. At the start of the year he was one of the brightest stars in the political firmament. Standing at the dispatch box on Thursday, attempting to justify his tuition fee betrayal, he resembled one of the Germans at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark who have unleashed the furies of the covenant. It was as if the life force were being sucked from his body.

But just how much more do we have to gain from targeting disaffected Lib Dems? In the latest opinion polls the party is at eight percent. In the north, some polls have them at three per cent, a margin of error from statistical extinction. Meanwhile, Tory support holds steady at around 40 percent.

As Ed Balls wrote in Tribune, “David Cameron must think Christmas has come early. We’re more than 200 days into a government he leads, which is ideologically cutting public services and the welfare state. Yet on almost every unpopular announcement and unfair decision, it is still Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats who are taking all the flak”.

Just how much more of that eight percent do we think is up for grabs? More importantly, precisely what politics are we planning to deploy in order to seize it? On a range of policies, such as law and order, immigration and welfare reform, the pitch required to attract the Lib Dem die-hards will be very different to that needed to make in roads into Tory support.

A case in point: Sunny Hundal, editor of leading progressive blog Liberal Conspiracy, is one of our most high profile post-election converts. Just before polling day, he wrote, “The Guardian endorses the Lib Dems, and I’m with them”.

Attacking Labour’s stance on the Lib Dems’ refugee amnesty, he went on, “the way that both Labour and the Tories (the latter expected anyway) not only dismissed the idea of an amnesty, but actually dog-whistled throughout about how the Lib Dem plan would wreak havoc sickened me”.

He added,  “it made me sick when all Brown could do was attack Clegg for even suggesting a very meek policy, rather than offering ideas of his own. This is a man with no ideas. He is not fit to lead the country”.

I’m not sure if Sunny still holds that view. In fairness, since he joined the party he has been a keen advocate of realpolitik in many areas. But it’s a safe bet that his historic position reflects the current attitude of many Lib Dem supporters. It’s a view that does them credit. But it’s a not a view that the Labour party can share if it wants to get back into government.

And this is one of the problems. Is the primary motivation for those who have recently joined the party a single-minded desire to see us form a new administration? Or is it to repackage their old Liberal Democratic prospectus under a new brand?

One of the alarming things that strikes me about the current debate over the direction of the party is how little the party itself features in that discourse. We are searching for the new politics. A progressive re-alignment. A new political vocabulary.

Well I’m not. Call me old fashioned, but I just want to rebuild the Labour party so it can get itself back into government. Yes, that requires a radical re-examination of Labour’s policies, methods of engagement, even our sense of mission. But that must be a process which we, ourselves, own.

There is a sense that at the moment the party is being treated a bit like a progressive taxi cab. “That last guy didn’t know where he was going, let’s try this one. The radical recasting of the progressive political compact please mate. It’s the third turning on the left”.

There are strange echoes of the early days of Blairism. Blair argued successfully, and rightly, that Labour had to become more open and inclusive. But what we also learned from that time is that if we attempt to bolt on a new political philosophy, rather than taking the time to properly integrate and align it, we’re asking for trouble. Tony Blair managed to sell his vision to everyone in Britain except his own party. Ultimately it proved his, and our, undoing.

I’m not making a pitch to be the new Mrs Duffy. John Denham was right when he said on Sunday, “I think it’s crucial that the Labour party is not seen as tribal and inward looking and sectarian but is willing to reach out to progressive people”.  But as Ed Miliband also said, “my task is to once again make Labour a force that takes on established thinking, doesn’t succumb to it, speaks for the majority and shapes the centre ground of politics. And, I tell you this, if we are not this party, nobody will be”.

That cannot mean our party in name only. It must also mean retention not just of our values but our identity.

John Harris is another high profile, relatively recent convert to the official Labour cause. Once a weird sort of post-ironic anti-New Labour Lib Dem protest voter, he now throws his weight about wholeheartedly on behalf of Ed Miliband. Last week he wrote in the Guardian, “I write this next bit in the expectation of howls of derision, but what the hell: I want the next Labour-led government to be a coalition”.

Again, mine may be a prosaic view. But is it really too much to ask those who now align themselves with our party to actually  want it to win? On its own? Without having to coble together the sort of deal with Nick Clegg and Vince Cable that leads to riots in the streets?

Victory at the next election is what matters. That must be the focus, laser-like, of our efforts. We are an independent political party. Not the backdrop to a Lib Dem revenge fantasy. I’m a member of the Labour party. Not a Lab Dem. Those who wish to join the fight for a Labour government are welcome. But a Labour government must be our sole objective.

Otherwise we all risk all waking up the morning after the next election to the cry, “I want my party back”.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.


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25 Responses to “I am not a Lab Dem. I am a free man.”

  1. Who cares what John Harris wants? Labour needs his vote, not his strategic guidance. And that is why Miliband’s continued outreach is necessary.

    We’re up in the polls at the expense of the Lib Dems, but that’s largely by default. Many of our new voters aren’t enthusiastic supporters, they just want the coalition out. In Lib Dem seats, they’re still persuadable that their local MP is different.

    Victory next time is going to largely depend on Tory-Labour marginals, but many of those will come down to a few percent and there are that many ex-Lib Dems of that sort more or less everywhere. More of them in the marginal areas, in fact – they’re at 3% in the north, whereas they’re more resilient further south where it’ll matter more. If we can win over those voters and make them strongly attached to us, a whole array of seats swing a little closer to us.

    And that’s without considering the Lib Dem seats Labour could win back with a strong swing, or the seats where we’re in third but the Labour-Lib Dem vote is both decidedly left-leaning and rather swingy (most seats in the south where we came close or just won in 1997 and slipped back 10 to 15 points from 2005 to 2010).

    Winning over the Lib Dems isn’t the endgame, but it’s a crucial part of the puzzle and it’s easier to appeal to them now, because their voters are more issue-focused and less election-focused.

    Provided when we talk about the Lib Dems we’re actually appealing to their voters and not to their MPs, we’re doing fine. If we’re appealing specifically to MPs or if we’re only appealing to people who flit between red and blue, we aren’t.

  2. paul barker says:

    HAHAHAHAHAHA

  3. Adam Gray says:

    Edward, why do you regard appealing to people who swing between Labour and Conservative as the wrong track?

    Labour needs to decide – I’d say it’s “leadership” has already decided whether it appeals to the mainstream or the Lib Dem left: and it’s chosen the latter. That choice will cost Labour power by a landslide at the next election and deservedly so. Britain doesn’t have a Conservative prime minister because the country lurched to the left in May.

    For Labour to win, it needs to stand with those blighted by crime – not, as appears likely, become the third party to subscribe to Ken Clarke’s catastrophic prisons policy.

    It needs to accept that on a landmass many times smaller than that of Germany to have a population projected to be greater than than Germany’s by 2050 isn’t sustainable – and that means precisely taking action on immigration (including, if neccesary, renegotiating or breaking our contract with the EU).

    It has to be able to say with confidence that of two people from similar backgrounds the one who works harder and succeeds deserves to be better off than the one who fritters their life away in the certain knowledge the state will always be there to help him or her out.

    Meritocracy needs to be the core of Labour’s values, not equality.

    We should be pledging to do what the Conservatives promised – and will not do: which is abolish the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the Council of Europe.

    Labour should be a party comfortable of winning the endorsement of the Sun and standing shoulder to shoulderwith our Atlanticist brothers (whichever party they choose to represent them in the presidency), not cheering when leftwing irrelevants like Tim Farron say that disgusts them.

    Instead of having a leader wanting to join student protests against tuition fees, Labour should be proudly articulating the fairness of fees compared to the unworkable, inequitable concepts of tuition fees or massive reductions in the numbers going to uni.

    And wouldn’t it be great for a party to restore confidence in exams by acknowledging that a degree from the Universtity of Oxford is of infinitely more value than one from the University of Ex-Poly: and in so doing demand that to obtain a degree you need to attain a similar basis of ability, knowledge and experience rather than the “all must have prizes” mentality that contaminates leftwing thinking.

    What has Labour to say about providing affordable homes for rent as the genuine solution to ensuring that affluent areas remain diverse? Nothing: instead it’s expecting Labour voters in Sunderland to put up with paying vast subsidies for their southern counterparts to live in homes they could never hope to afford themselves. Outrageous betrayal of Labour’s core vote: aspirant working class men and women.

    And there’s apparently absolutely nothing wrong in wasting up to £100million on a referendum on an electoral system that is virtually no-ones choice while services are being cut left, right and centre. But then when was the Labour Party ever asked by its “leader” (and author of the manifesto that won it 29% of the vote) whether it agreed with his AV fetish that only strengthens the worthless Liberal Democrats?

    Dan Hodges’ article can be best summed up thus: pluralists are tossers. He’s right.

  4. Dan Hodges says:

    Edward,

    To return to the point I made in the article; just how much of that remaining 8% of Lib Dem support are we hoping to capture?

    And in targeting that support, just what policies are we preparing to offer to entice our new Lib Dem brothers and sisters across?

    Dan

  5. Dan Hodges says:

    Adam,

    “Dan Hodges’ article can be best summed up thus: pluralists are tossers. He’s right.”

    I didn’t go quite that far…

    Dan

  6. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Adam – Try again. I said we need to appeal to them. Explicitly. I just added that if we aren’t also appealing to people who voted Lib Dem, we’re making a massive strategic error, because those are very winnable voters and it’s madness to ignore them.

    Dan – It’s not the 8% we should be worrying about. It’s the other 15%. They may not be supporting the Lib Dems any more, but their support for Labour is not deep. We cannot be sure they’d stick with us through a general election campaign. If we can deepen their support without alienating other voters (and it’s not like this is an impossible needle to thread), we can take a whole lot of seats out of competition.

    Appealing to the 8% is not going to convince them. But they aren’t the real target audience. The potential advantage of this approach is that we solidify some of the 15% and turn them from ex-Lib Dems into enthusiastic Labour voters.

    That isn’t our winning strategy. It’s not a substitute for winning back voters we lost to the Tories. But it is an effective complement to it. I want a strong Labour government. I’d prefer it governs alone. But we either have a unified base and govern as part of a coalition, or our voters are a coalition of different interests and we govern alone.

  7. Sunny H says:

    Interesting article Dan, and well written as always. Will try and respond to this tomorrow.

    One point though – I do have some sympathy with the Libdem view that their polling is artificially deflated. Those polls would pick up if an election were actually to take place next month. And plus, the 8% figure is the low end of one YouGov poll.

    I suspect the real Libdem number is around 11-14% currently. And that will rise once the Tories allow them to offer some sweeteners closer to 2015.

    My point is simply that writing them off is a bit premature. They might be as low as 3-5% in certain areas, but they always were lower than the national average in those areas.

  8. Chris says:

    @Dan

    But are they actually dead? 8% has come up a couple of times in yougov’s daily poll, monthly polls are showing them at 14%, 16%. Plus, with seat targeting they can outperform their national share of the vote.

  9. Dan Hodges says:

    Sunny, Chris,

    You may both be right. But whatever the true figure of the LIb Dem ‘stickers’ they essentially represent the hard core, (entering coalition, cuts, tuition fee betrayal hasn’t budged them).

    I’ll repeat, the policies required to shake them lose are by definition going to run counter to those required to eat into the 40% Tory share.

    Dan

  10. I don’t think we should appeal to Lib Dem politicians; I think we should let them come to us crawling on their hands and kness. And I think we eshould respond by stamping on them.

    (this comment has been edited).

  11. Chris says:

    @Dan

    “LIb Dem ‘stickers’ they essentially represent the hard core, (entering coalition, cuts, tuition fee betrayal hasn’t budged them).”

    True but the ones that have jumped ship and are telling pollsters they’d vote Labour tomorrow might not stay on board if we go all right wing on crime and punishment for example. Looking at the regional variations there is a significant swing from them to us in the South West, Eastern and to a lesser extent the South East. We need to keep hold of these voters to put us back in contention in the south.

    “I’ll repeat, the policies required to shake them lose are by definition going to run counter to those required to eat into the 40% Tory share.”

    Isn’t part of the reason the tories are doing well in the poll that everytime something nasty has to be done a libdem is fronting it, they’re the tories human shield. If we cozy up to some libdems and get them to denounce the tories won’t that reduce the effectiveness of their shield?

  12. Dan Hodges says:

    Chris,

    I’d need to check the psephology, but I don’t think we’re going to take back the South with a soft on crime, liberal on immigration, high taxation agenda.

    The danger is that in a bid to grab the Tories shield we lower our own.

    Dan

  13. Sunny H says:

    You’re setting up a false dichotomy Dan. Ken Clarke said that you can’t solve crime by just locking people up willy-nilly, it seems that the public is split on agreeing / disagreeing with that.

    I agree, it makes little sense to push policies to attract Libdems that push away other potential voters.

    – But that assumes not only that all voters are aware of all policies (you can certainly target specific ones at specific voters, as your friend Phil Woolas knows).

    – It also assumes you don’t have a mixed bag of policies that voters like parts of and aren’t so hot on other parts of.

    In other words, it’s possible to reach out to both bunch of voters, you just need the right mix. And I’m not convinced you’ve told us what that right mix is. All you’ve said is you think it’s either / or. But it’s never that stark.

  14. Dan Hodges says:

    Sunny,

    I’m not setting up a false anything.

    Ed said we’re going to target Lib Dems. Not me. He appealed to them. Not me.

    I think it’s the wrong message to the wrong audience. I don’t think we should be targeting the 8%-15% of remaining Lib Dem supporters. I thunk we should be targeting the 40% of Tory supporters.

    This ‘pick n mix’ approach is precisely why we’re drifting at the moment. There’s no clarity of purpose or clear definition to our strategy.

    Dan

  15. Dan Hodges says:

    James,

    So why doesn’t he want a Labour government?

    Dan

  16. Planeshift says:

    “Victory at the next election is what matters.”

    I’m sorry Dan, but it is precisely this “victory at all costs” attitute which caused you to lose so many of your members when you were last in government.

    With respect, what matters is not a labour victory in 2015, but whether labour/left ideas are succesful in determining the policy agenda. Presumably you joined the party because you were passionate about seeing certain ideas drive policy, not because you wanted to support a winning team.

    It would be pointless in the extreme having another single party lab government that was constantly afraid of what the Daily Mail said because it was operating a 2 party system where victory went to the party that captured floating voters in middle england. What matters is the political culture in which decisions are made, whether politicians and parties are able to make the right decision, or whether the incentive is to make bad policy in an effort to get headlines or wealthy donars. And you are more likely to get the right decision and better legislation in a multi-party system, or as part of a coalition.

    Here is an exercise I want you to do: write down 3 policies you want a government to do – issues that you are passionate about. Now ask yourself whether those policies are more likely to be implemented with a single party labour government operating within a 2 party system where the spoils go to the party that captures the “centre ground”, or within a coalition containing left lib dems, greens and others of the left.

    So no, victory at the next election is not what matters. What should matter is a victory for labour ideas, not having labour members on the government payroll unable or unwilling to implement labour ideas.

  17. Tom Miller says:

    “There is a sense that at the moment the party is being treated a bit like a progressive taxi cab. “That last guy didn’t know where he was going, let’s try this one. The radical recasting of the progressive political compact please mate. It’s the third turning on the left”.”

    Well, it seems to me that Labour is meant to be that; a vehicle for the democratic left, so to speak. This just doesn’t seem like a problem to me.

    “There are strange echoes of the early days of Blairism. Blair argued successfully, and rightly, that Labour had to become more open and inclusive.”

    Completely, utterly untrue.

    He argued to close it down and centralise it, surely?

  18. Cole says:

    But Ed is not targeting just the 8% to 14% of folk who are still LibDems. He’s surely targeting the 24% who voted for them in May.

    A good number have already come over to Labour (that’s largely why Labour is on 40%). But he needs to keep them & get a few more.

    I can’t see why going after Tories is the priority when the ex & current LibDems are lower hanging fruit (whatever the friends of Phil Woolas may think).

  19. Dan Hodges says:

    Planeshift: “So no, victory at the next election is not what matters”. Well at least that’s honest.

    Tom: Maybe, so long as people aren’t in a position to run off without paying. Blair was a strong advocate of reaching beyond Labour’s traditional basis. It’s true he then stomped all over anyone who got in the way of that process.

    Cole: It’s a question of how much fruit is left on the branches. In my view, not enough to sustain us.

  20. james says:

    On Labour’s “drift” and electoral strategy – the appeal at a national level to the Lib-Dems will probably last until the local elections, no? It will be after this that attracting LDs will be less of a priority and winning voters over from the Tories will be of importance. This, it appears to me, is the long-game being played by the shadow cabinet.

  21. Cole says:

    Dan: there may not quite be enough ex LibDem votes to get us there (& some are in the wrong places), but it gets us over 40% – which is not to be sneered at.

    if you take the latest YouGov poll (42%, 39%, 9%), it would probably result in a Labour majority of 36. Obviously, there are dozens of caveats to such a projection, but you get the point…

  22. Planeshift says:

    “Well at least that’s honest.”

    Nice to see you dealt with the substance of my comment then

  23. Dan Hodges says:

    James,

    I’m not so sure Ed’s Lib Dem strategy enjoys overwhelming support amongst his Shadow Cabinet.

    Dan

  24. james says:

    Dan, that seems to be the case – and it’s no bad thing that we know who is worrying about the strategy. For if the intention was to spend most of the next few years putting the emphasis on the LDs, that would be a terrible mistake.

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