Cameron: I’m loving your election campaign, Labour

by Rob Marchant

In the Labour party, we’re very excited about AV. In Westminster, of course, it’s easily crowding out debate on the (not unimportant) Scotland, Wales, Northern Irish and English local elections.

Ooh, the Yeses. The Noes. It’s all that analytical, wonkish, procedural stuff that we love to debate. We seem to have spent the last month or so monopolising the media and the Labour blogosphere with this one issue. To be fair, there are some sensible arguments on both sides, such as this one from Anthony Painter, a fine analytical piece from normblog and a lot of lowest-common-denominator ones. Also there is the delightful “meh2AV” campaign for those who, like Uncut’s own Mike Dugher, feel that it’s been a complete waste of time.

Any change to the constitution is important. Fair enough. And we got the referendum that we, after all, asked for (although, as various people recently observed, it is remarkable how we have gone from all supporting AV as a manifesto commitment, to split down the middle in less than a year). And the referendum is now upon us, so we have to make up our minds, and vote or campaign according to what we decide. So far, so good.

A note of caution: outside political circles and the metropolitan media, this issue is hardly dominating people’s thoughts. They have more mundane concerns: getting their way through the month with a sluggish economy and some nasty public service cuts.

But we Labour folk, on the other hand, are working ourselves up into a frenzy. We’re so excited about it that we’re happily knocking chunks out of each other. Every other article is making personal attacks on figures from the other campaign.

And, in all the excitement, we have forgotten something rather obvious.

Of the three parties, which party stands to be hurt most by AV in-fighting? Ours, of course.

Why? The answer is history; and the make-up of our parties.

First, since the general election, while we’ve made mistakes in a number of areas, we have, happily, not fallen into the usual trap of Labour in opposition: fighting each other instead of the Tories. Robust debates have been had, and rightly so. But we haven’t been fracturing, factionalising, as is our wont.

Until now, that is.

Second, Cameron has all Tories who count exclusively on the side of the No campaign. It might as well be a three-line whip. If you don’t agree, check out the Tory Yes campaign here. Bless them. Not a single name you’ve ever heard of.  And for the Lib Dems, of course, it is sacrilege to talk against AV, despite their pre-election dismissal of the same. But we, in contrast, are split down the middle.

Cameron must surely be smiling a Cheshire cat grin every time he sees Labour attacking each other in the media, while he quietly gets on with his own campaign. Ah, but he should be worried, we say. If the vote goes against him, he’ll be in trouble…won’t he?

Well, let’s look at the possible outcomes. If No wins, Cameron has three gold bars in a row. Ker-ching! Lib Dems all but destroyed, although they would probably hang on for a while. The jackpot: ditch the Lib Dems whenever the polls start to come back in his favour, and govern alone in 2015.

If Yes wins, he’s got a lower payout, but still a payout. He may be a bit disappointed to think that he might have to stick with his Liberal sidekick a little longer. But there’s a silver lining: the Lib Dem vote could well be decimated in spite of the lift that AV will give them, because they are Cameron’s lightning conductor for policy failure and, coupled with the various betrayals of their voter base, Clegg has become highly unpopular as a result. So Cameron might still be able to win alone. And if not, there are worse things than carrying on as is. For a start, he still has his lightning conductor. Not the best outcome, but not that bad, either.

Is he really that worried about the referendum, then? Probably not. Of course, we could win in 2015, that’s the ideal outcome and the misery scenario for Cameron. But that’s a different argument, only marginally dependent of the outcome of the referendum. It would only have mattered in the case that we were to win with a very slender majority. And how likely is that win now looking?

Labour spent the first six months since the election on the leadership election (i.e. doing nothing politically useful); and has spent the last six months providing a too-subtle – that is, a bit muddled – message on cuts and the economy, on which it has so far lost the argument (let’s hope that it’s genuinely still possible to win it, long shot though that may seem).

Thanks to AV, it has also now spent, in addition, a couple of months fighting with itself, and worse, possibly opening fissures which may could lead to a more serious fracturing, always the lurking historical danger.

So, friends and colleagues: Cameron is unlikely to be quaking in his boots over AV. And the relatively modest changes that AV might bring versus the status quo may seem very important right now, but they are really not issues worth us killing each other over. Vote Yes. Vote No. Campaign for either if you feel strongly about it. But please, in these final days, let’s keep it a robust debate on the issues. Let’s stop being personal. As the wise Paul Richards put it the other day,

“After 5 May, remember Labour folk in #yestoAV and #no2AV all have to make friends. No space for recriminations and feuds”.

Because there is one person who is really benefiting from all of this, and he currently occupies 10 Downing Street. We should be wary of anything which might unintentionally help him prolong his stay.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.

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14 Responses to “Cameron: I’m loving your election campaign, Labour”

  1. Robert says:

    I think it’s been a complete waste of time as well, most of the people I talk to just say who cares and thats how I feel, if it was so great then why did Labour not bring it in, but then again why did labour not do a lot of things it was to busy getting ready to make the leader a millionaire.

    I will be voting at the local elections Plaid has the best AM in my area, so i will be voting Plaid, in the hope we get another Coalition government, otherwise our Welsh labour would follow it’s English mates in becoming a purple flag flying New labour. But I shall not be wasting my time voting for AV

  2. Simon says:

    To say that the party has spent the last two months “fighting with itself” is absurd. Yes, there has been some forthright discussion on AV but you treat the debates in the media and the blogging world as if they are synonymous with the party as a whole. Many local parties are focusing on the council elections and fielding lots of new candidates and for the vast majority, the debate over AV is proportionate and good-natured. The national media never pay much attention to council elections anyway, so nothing has changed there.

    (As an aside, I don’t know where you derive the assertion that Labour has “so far lost the argument” on cuts and the economy. Most recent polling suggests we have won the argument on “too far too fast” and that many more voters blame the government for council cuts than their local councils, despite the propaganda coming from DCLG. I’m sure you can cherry-pick other polls which give a more mixed picture, but cherry-picking is what it would be.)

  3. hobson says:

    Thought-provoking post, but unless I’m missing something there’s little sign of animosity between the Labour Yes and Labour No campaigns.

    It’s true that Labour is the only party divided over AV but when senior figures have different opinions and still manage to behave like adults it actually looks quite impressive. By contrast, the Tories and (in particular) the Lib Dems are busy having temper tantrums.

  4. Rob Marchant says:

    @Simon: not so absurd, I’d say. Look at some of the article titles to your right and you can see the strength of feeling on both sides. I agree that on the ground the picture is different – many are rightly focusing on what matters – returning Labour councillors. Also our “elder statesmen” seem to have been universally condemned for daring to have an opinion (on both sides of the argument) e.g. John Reid, Alan Johnson, Peter Mandelson, Margaret Beckett. Well, I hope you’re right and we end up all being friends again.

    Anyway, here your point is at least arguable. On the economic argument, I think it’s not – most people are reconciled to the idea that some cuts are necessary, whether we like it or not. Our making of the economic case has been too confused and too late. I did an Uncut piece about it here. The media largely take the same view, although that you can take with more of a pinch of salt.

    @hobson: well, there are some people behaving like adults and some less so. I think the main impression we are giving is one of division, polite or otherwise, and policy muddle. The fact that our councils are fighting the Tory cuts, for example, further implies that we are against all cuts, when in fact the national position is quite different (“not so far, so fast”).

    The Tories and Lib Dems may be having tantrums with each other, but that’s all part of the theatre to differentiate themselves from each other, as many have observed: it’s to staunch the bleeding that both will suffer. Believe me, after the elections they’ll be back to a much more harmonious front. We, on the other hand, need to be careful that we don’t let opposition become an excuse for indiscipline and division. The historical precedents in this area are not good…

  5. Richard says:

    Crickey Rob, either you wrote this in haste or critical analysis abilities have completely failed you. Gapping holes in your thinking here.

  6. Richard says:

    “The fact that our councils are fighting the Tory cuts, for example, further implies that we are against all cuts, when in fact the national position is quite different.”

    No they’re not. Have you even seen what position Labour councils are adopting in their leaflets and on the doorstep?

  7. Simon says:

    “On the economic argument, I think it’s not – most people are reconciled to the idea that some cuts are necessary, whether we like it or not.”

    But our line isn’t that no cuts are necessary, it’s “too far, too fast”. There are other indicators where we are weaker (such as on economic competence) and there is still much work to be done, but in the present context I don’t accept the argument is lost.

  8. matthew bond says:

    The Labour row over AV has been broadly good natured. Any time there’s debate some folk get bruised but no bones have been broken in this one.

    Putting aside the impact of the rows, at the heart of the issue there is the question of how treat opportunistic elites like the Liberal Democrats and Green Party who squat on our territory. I’ve supported Labour opposition to AV because I think it stands up to those who’d like to benefit from Labour’s hard work delivering progressive solutions in the face of vicious Tory opposition. Most No supporters seem to get this intuitively. We might be wrong but it’s useful for the Labour Party and British democracy if we air our views and debate them with comrades. After all you’re not going to get rational discussion from most Lib Dems or Tories.

    In sum, I think the Labour debate over AV has been healthy, rigorous and, fun. No need to get worried.

  9. Rob Marchant says:

    @Richard, you’ll have to help me here, I’m not sure what you’re talking about at all. Maybe the message is varying across the country but, for example, my friends at Islington Labour say on the website front page “Islington United Against The Cuts”. Not criticising them for doing so, but that comes across as a quite different message from the national one. What message do you honestly think the public is receiving at local level? (Clue: it’s not “the cuts are ok but not this far, this fast”.) Subtle messages do not, on the whole, tend to work well with electorates.

    @Simon, you are right, I should have been a little clearer in my wording: most people are swallowing that the *Tory speed and depth of cuts* are necessary, not just “some cuts”. Wrongly, but there you go. And we are – rightly – fighting the Tory message, but it is a rearguard action. On economic competence, it takes years to build (especially for a party of the left), but you can lose it in a flash. We did, I’m afraid.

    @Matthew: no problem with the debating, it’s the style of the debate. I am arguing simply against the personal attacks, or “The Yessers this”, “the Noers that”. Of course there have been many people who have behaved perfectly well on all of this.

    As Steve Richards says: “Roy Jenkins observed famously in relation to the young Mr Blair that he was carrying a fragile vase across a crowded room. One move out of place and the vase would smash into a thousand pieces.” Historically we have a great tendency to fracture and divide, which is all I am urging people not to do. If they manage not to, great. But that would be the exception, rather than the rule.

  10. Rob Marchant says:

    Btw, for an example of what I’m talking about, check out Charles Clarke’s piece today at LabourList: It’s basically a personal attack on Cameron (which is fine) and on former Cabinet colleague John Reid (which, frankly, is not). I like Charles both personally and politically, but this is not helping anyone.

  11. Simon says:

    “I should have been a little clearer in my wording: most people are swallowing that the *Tory speed and depth of cuts* are necessary, not just “some cuts”. Wrongly, but there you go. And we are – rightly – fighting the Tory message, but it is a rearguard action.”

    I don’t accept that. Most of the economic questions in recent polling suggest that the public are closer to our message of “too far, too fast” than the Tories’ message that the speed and depth of cuts are necessary. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily translate into greater confidence in our economic platform (such as it is) but we do, after all, have a lead in virtually all recent polls, and perceptions around the economy do have something to do with this.

  12. Rob Marchant says:

    @Simon: I can see we’re not going to agree on this. Suffice it it to say that “perceptions around the economy do have somend thing to do with this” is an opinion, and one I can’t see any evidence for. How do you know that’s the case? Here’s an alternative explanation: that (obviously) the public is annoyed with the coalition about the cuts. With a cuts program, ANY government (including us if we’d been elected) would be massively unpopular. It would be incredibly surprising were it otherwise. That’s a more plausible reason, not because they trust us over the Tories (they clearly don’t).

    However, when the hurt is gone, the Tories will recover, without a doubt. Honestly, I wish it were otherwise. And that’s if you take the polls as a good indicator of approval of a specific policy in the first place, which they’re often not.

  13. Simon says:

    I’m not suggesting we are more trusted than the Tories on the economy, just that our current message of “too far, too fast” is closer to public sentiment than the Tories’, and that’s (partly) why we have a lead. I’m not sure how coherent it is both to claim that the public accept the Tories’ argument on the scale and pace of cuts, and that the Tories are suffering in the polls because of annoyance with the cuts. Surely the latter has implications for the former?

    I’m aware that polls are not always reliable for policy approval, but there are no other indicators (apart from economic behaviour in some cases) which are any more reliable, which is why I’m still struggling with the assertion that most support the Tories’ approach to the cuts. To use your phrase, this isn’t something I can see any evidence for.

    And I’m afraid “when the hurt is gone, the Tories will recover” sounds to me like a bit of received wisdom, from the same people who brought us the Tories’ “inevitable” overall majority in 2010, and the generally persistent overestimation of David Cameron which has prevailed in political circles since 2005. Firstly, most of our poll increase since May 2010 has come from Lib Dem switchers, while the Tories are only a shade below where they were then (if that), so it’s not clear what position they would naturally be ‘recovering’ to. Secondly, the statement makes assumptions about economic ‘hurt’ correlating directly with the cuts. While the cuts certainly do hurt, the more damaging hurt in the longer term will be to do with stagnant real wages, job insecurity and increases in the cost of living. These are not issues the Tories plan to do much about, indeed they rather make a virtue of their importance to the modern economy. There’s lots of ground there for Labour to exploit, and talk of inevitable Tory recovery is prematurely defeatist.

  14. paul barker says:

    Milliband has the power to stop the squabbling & win the campaign for YES. If the YES campaign held a press conference with Milliband flanked by Farage & Lucas on one side & Clegg on the other that would get massive publicity. Milliband would look like a Statesman & the NO campaign would look petty.

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