Let’s be quite honest: Labour has been flat-footed in it’s response to the recent poll surge by the Liberal Democrats. The national response has alternated between a dismissive shrug of the shoulders on one hand, or on the other rather desperate looking ‘love bombing’ of the kind tried by Alan Johnson and Lord Adonis recently. Gordon made a big mistake in the debate letting Nick Clegg off the hook, especially with regard to the economy and in his constant repetition of “I agree with Nick”, which furnished the Liberal Democrats with a ready-made slogan which they have gleefully tweeted and spread across the internet rapidly. Also, Gordon has now boxed himself into something of a corner: if he turns viciously on Clegg it will look opportunistic and, in another way, desperate.
The dismissive response is wrong and would badly misjudg the mood of the nation and the electorate which is febrile. It is neither convinced in sufficient numbers that Labour deserves a fourth term nor is it convinced by the official opposition all of which makes the territory ideal for the third party. So, while the ‘bounce’ may lose some of it’s edge, I’m afraid it’s here to stay and something Labour has to address if it wants to secure that fourth term. It’s all very well producing endless stats based on uniform national swing but that fails to factor in the possible loss of voters for Labour in Labour-Conservative marginals which could cost us seats in some cases. There is also the possibility that the new bounce for the Lib Dems will embolden people to turn to other smaller parties.
Aiming for a hung parliament, which is the unfortunate impression Brown gave in Thursday’s debate, sends out all the wrong signals to the electorate which, in its volatility, will respond positively to firm guidance and strong arguments, not plea bargaining. If a hung-parliament arises then, of course, ‘love bombing’ becomes appropriate but right now that is something for events yet to decide.
So, what do we do?
First, there has to be a recognition of the numerous fundamental similarities between Labour and Liberal Democrat voters; both, broadly speaking, have progressive aspirations which they feel are not met by conservatism, small and big C. This gives Labour an ‘in’ but on the other hand it also presents a challenge; it means that has to positively prove it’s a worthy vessel of those aspirations and discredit the Lib Dem claim that they are. One thing doesn’t work without the other; this is why the ‘love bombing’ strategy is so disastrously wrong-headed for an election campaign, all it does is legitimise the Lib Dems’ progressive credentials – the impact of which can be seen in the “I agree with Nick” fiasco. While some Liberal Democrat policies do have strong progressive intentions in some cases they are flawed by execution or method of delivery. The much-vaunted tax cut, for example, has it’s redistributive effect nullified by the cack-handed way the Lib Dems want to implement it and the attendant scrapping of things like the child trust fund. Behind the veneer of a principle of fairness (and a policy which sounds fair) lies the genesis of a policy which still puts more money in the hands of those higher up the income scale because it gives with one hand and takes away with the other.
Dismissing them as “ridiculous”, as Bob Ainsworth has, shows how the required strategic vision to deal with this challenge is desperately lacking. In dismissing them so, Ainsworth effectively dismisses large sections of the electorate in the same terms. Labour has two opposition parties that it needs to fight; if it gets this issue wrong then it could be a game-changer. Failing to get to grips with the Liberal Democrat surge, failing to take it seriously, could – and, if things don’t change, possibly will – cost Labour this election.