When I recently suggested on Twitter that in order to win the next election, Labour must appeal to voters who supported David Cameron’s Tories in 2010, I was deluged by comrades convulsed by what I actually think was genuine outrage, or at least indignation.
Now, being called a Blairite lickspittle doesn’t bother me in the slightest, in fact I consider it something of a badge of honour. But the fact is I’ve moved on from my misty-eyed devotion to our former Prime Minister and election-winning machine; there’s only one game in town these days if you’re a Labour politician, and that is putting all our effort into making sure Ed Miliband, the democratically-elected leader of our party, becomes Prime Minister at the next general election.
And because I’m fully committed to making that happen, I want to know what we’re going to offer those Tory voters to encourage them to come over to our side before polling day.
Yet if you read some of the musings of some on the British Left, you’d think that the idea of courting your opponents’ support is a purely Blairite strategy. We’re too pure in thought and deed these days to stoop to accepting the support of voters tainted by their past association with the Great Evil, apparently. One nationalist who claims to be a constituent of mine, expressed feigned astonishment at the very notion of trying to win the support of Tory voters, presumably seeing my Tweet as admission that Labour is, after all, a Tory Party by another name. I couldn’t even be bothered to respond by asking her whose voters her esteemed party leader, Alex Salmond, wooed in order to win the formerly safe Tory seat of Banff and Buchan in 1987.
The argument of some on the Left (some of them are even in the Labour Party! Sell-outs!) seems to be this: ignore the indisputable fact that every opposition leader in history who succeeded in reaching Number 10 – including Clem Attlee and Harold Wilson as well as Blair – had no choice but to target those who voted for the government last time round. However, next time round, for the first time ever, the election will be won by targeting non-voters, those “lost voters” who supported Labour in 1997 and who, since then, have stubbornly stayed at home on polling day, in protest at Blair’s arrogant and undemocratic insistence on implementing the manifesto on which he was elected, rather than establishing the full-throated socialist state for which the UK has never voted.
Because those who have, even on a single occasion, flirted with the Party Who Shall Not Be Named, are beyond the pale, it seems. Making a play for their support would taint us by association. Fortunately for the Tory Party, Margaret Thatcher had no such misgivings in her unashamed – and hugely successful – appeal to trade unionists, council house tenants and working class Labour voters in 1979 and beyond.
But merely to make the obvious and unavoidable point that Labour must win the support of Tory voters (and at Holyrood must win the support of nationalist voters) in order to win next time is to risk the condemnation of fellow party members. We don’t mind couching the argument in terms of a “two-party swing” – we’re used to that kind of language and we can pretend that the phrase doesn’t actually mean what it means. But just because Attlee and Wilson won votes from former Tory voters doesn’t mean we have to be honest about it and say it out loud, does it?
The “strategy” of targeting those who opted out of the democratic process ten years ago is so flawed that I cannot even write the word “strategy” without placing inverted commas around it, just to warn readers that I use it in a purely ironic sense. Because the defining characteristic of non-voters is this: they don’t vote (stop me if I’m going too fast here).
According to recent polls, there has already been a significant shift from the Tories directly to Labour. That’s a good thing, right? We’re not going to tell them, “What? You voted Tory in the past? Well, we’re not going to let you vote Labour, then – sod off!”
And it’s not an unintended consequence of Ed’s strategy – it’s the whole point. Those who voted for David Cameron in 2010 are not bad people. They had any number of reasons for making their decision about who to support, some reasonable, some not – just like the supporters of every other party, including our own. Voters are, on the whole, reasonable people who are open to persuasion. If we don’t persuade them of our case, they will not support us, which is what happened in 2010.
Come 2015 there will be a two-party swing, just as there has been at every election in our lifetimes. If that swing is three and a half per cent or more, we’ll equal or beat the Tory vote. If it’s less than three and a half, we won’t.
Now is not the time to try in vain to rewrite the political rules in order to preserve the purity of our socialist consciences. Now is the time to do what good oppositions do, and make a new appeal to the voters – particularly those voters who turned their backs on us two years ago and whose decision about who to support next time will decide the election.
That will be difficult for a lot of people in the party. Bo so what? When you lose as cataclysmically as we did in 2010, you’ve no right to expect the road back to government to be either easy or comfortable. In fact, if the road can be described as either, then you’re on the wrong one.
Tom Harris is MP for Glasgow South and a Shadow Defra Minister