There’s a lot of nonsense talked about the Lib Dems. Intermittent stories about a UKIP surge into third and a Lib Dem collapse to below 10% at the election are symptomatic of an excitable Westminster bubble rather than the reality on the ground.
I write this not as a committed Lib Dem supporter, hoping for the best. Far from it, I’m lifelong Labour (boo, hiss) and even edit a Labour blog – Labour Uncut. But if Labour want to maximise their chances of becoming the government after the next election, it’s important that they take a realistic view of what will happen to the Lib Dems in 2015.
Despite the heartfelt wishes of many within Labour, there will be no return to the 1950s where Britain’s third party polls in single digits. Labour Uncut commissioned a slew of polling form YouGov in the run-up to conference season. One finding stood out with respect to the Lib Dems: out of the Lib Dems’ 2010 voters, 4 out of 5 intend to vote Lib Dem in 2015.
This is significant.
Voting is a habit – it’s easier to hold on to established supporters than win new ones. If 80% of 2010 Lib Dems are inclined to stick with the party, then converting these intentions into votes is not just possible, but likely, given even a moderately competent campaign. Translated into a poll result, this would place the Lib Dems on 18% at the next election. A drop from 23% in 2010, but not a step off the electoral precipice.
For Labour, where hopes of an outright majority barely flicker – certainly if the mood of the parliamentary party at Labour conference is anything to go by – the sense is that a deal will almost certainly need to be struck with the Lib Dems if Labour is to become the government.
Labour Uncut’s polling is clear on what Labour supporters think about this: Nick Clegg might be personally unpopular in the Labour family (69% of Labour supporters do not want a coalition that involves the deputy prime minister) but if pushed, where the alternative is a continuation of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, the tune changes – 50% back a Lab-Lib Dem coalition, even including Nick Clegg, with 41% against.
With Labour parliamentarians and supporters increasingly in alignment on the need, if not outright desirability, of coalition with the Lib Dems, thoughts have turned to what such a partnership might involve.
Two paths are open to Labour to work out the basis of such an engagement.
The first involves adopting some policies that specifically appeal to the Lib Dems which Labour would support, for example, Lords reform. There’s also talk of voting reform for non-Westminster elections. Let’s call it the flowers and chocolate approach, where Labour woos the Lib Dems.
This has the merit of being direct and offering a clear tangible win for the Lib Dems, legislation that Lib Dem politicians will be able to point to at the following election.
But the danger is that, by focusing exclusively on a narrow set of policies, baubles, to be given to the Lib Dems, a broader agreement on government policy is sacrificed, leaving the partnership vulnerable to the rebellious kicks of a junior coalition partner’s backbench that does not feel it has a full stake in delivering the government programme.
The second path involves, paradoxically, ignoring the Lib Dems. Well, not all Lib Dems, just the politicians and concentrating instead on the party’s voters, along with lost Labour voters and switchable Tory voters. Let’s call it the belle of the ball approach, putting Labour in a position to be wooed by the Lib Dems.
Focusing on the centre-ground, that electoral area where there is commonality between voters of all parties, offers the prospect of a wider policy programme that Lib Dems would find it difficult to oppose and attracted to supporting.
Within Labour it is fashionable to talk about the centre of British politics shifting left. But for all the knee-jerk popularity in polls of Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze policy, the underlying poll position hasn’t changed one iota. Labour retains a narrow, and over the past months, shrinking lead over the Tories.
Worse still, the underlying drivers of peoples’ voting choices are moving against Labour. According to polling by Lord Ashcroft on who is most trusted on the economy, a worrying 5 point lead in June for Cameron and Osborne over Miliband and Balls (38% to 33%), had expanded to catastrophic 23% deficit in September (51% to 28%).
In this context, Labour Uncut launched a book at Labour conference, ‘Labour’s manifesto uncut: how to win in 2015 and why’, which sets out an alternative Labour manifesto that targets the centre-ground.
It includes commitments to adhering to the current government’s spending and deficit reduction path and funding new progressive policy pledges through a mix of deeper cuts and targeted new revenue raising measures.
For example, to fund an increase in house-building of 50,000 a year – the amount needed on top of existing government plans and private sector provision to build 200,000 homes a year and hit the politically magical target of 1m new homes in a parliament – Uncut proposed a mansion tax on properties over £2m as well as removing the ring fences from Health and Education.
The removal of the ring fences is a tough choice but Uncut’s polling found that 49% of the public agreed with making some cuts to schools and NHS budgets to protect spending in other departments with 37% opposed. 49% of Lib Dem supporters backed the move while 40% opposed – even 37% of Labour supporters were supportive.
The book sets out a range of fully funded commitments including universal free pre-school childcare, increased personal allowances and 1m new jobs – all without raising income tax, VAT or putting a penny on the debt.
This route – a programme of broad cross-party appeal– is the alternative to just offering a few specific policies to the Lib Dems: appealing to the centrist voters of each party, rather than focusing on deals with the politicians.
It would provide a more secure basis for potential coalition government, binding truculent politicians within the constraints of party supporters’ opinion and has the merit of avoiding any sense of unattractive, back-room dealing between parties, before an election.
In his speech to Lib Dem conference, Nick Clegg talked of anchoring Britain in the centre ground. If Labour was already there it would be hard not to support its programme.
As the election draws nearer, there will be increasing speculation on the terms of a deal between the Lib Dems and Labour.
Clearly, in the event of a hung parliament, the pivotal factor will be which of Labour or the Conservatives are the larger party. But if it is Labour, then the prospects for stable government will have been much enhanced if Labour has run on a centrist programme and secured switchers from the Conservatives and Lib Dems, than just relying on a few signature policy concessions to the Lib Dem leadership.
* Atul Hatwal is editor of Labour Uncut. 'Labour’s manifesto uncut: how to win in 2015 and why' was launched at Labour's September 2013 conference in Brighton.