Opinion: What is worrying Labour and the Tories? Part 1

Amidst all the concerns which Liberal Democrats have about future electoral prospects, particularly after the local election and AV referendum results, it would be easy to think that everything in the garden is rosy for Labour and Tories who both made substantial gains in the local elections – it is not.

What’s worrying Labour?

For all the spectacular gains which Labour made in the Northern cities and industrial towns – mostly from the Liberal Democrats – in Parliamentary terms this would amount to, at best, less than a handful of MPs. In Liverpool, Hull and Newcastle the Liberal Democrats do not have MPs to start with. Only in Manchester Withington would the local election results have made Labour confident of winning. Where Labour needed to make gains from the Tories in the Midlands and particularly the South progress was much more limited. The constituency boundary changes will just make matters worse.

And then there is Scotland. Not only were the election results poor in Scotland. which if repeated in a Westminster election would make a Parliamentary majority very unlikely. But they also highlighted a problem which really worries Labour – in a presidential style campaign about who will be the best leader of the country how would Ed Miliband fare against David Cameron? In Scotland despite pre campaign opinion poll leads over the SNP when voters decided whether they wanted a respected SNP Leader or a lacklustre Labour Leader to be First Minister they chose the SNP.

But as worrying long term is how Labour are defining themselves to the public. Whilst there is some sympathy with the view that the Government are cutting too deep too fast Labour’s seeming opposition to every cut supports the view that they are deficit deniers. This does not help restore their economic credibility. From public service reform to welfare reform whilst in practice Labour might not have done much that was different from the Government the appearance of being oppositionist risks them being seen as vacating the centre ground, even if in reality they are not.

There is also, as yet, no clear vision of what Labour’s alternative might be. A lot of attention is being focused on Maurice Glasman’s “Blue Labour” ideas. At best this could be an alternative to a top down vision of the state and public services. But at worst it could be a backwater of nostalgia for a past world with little relevance to the future.

It might help to shore up the core vote, piling up the votes in rock solid Labour seats, but do little to appeal to Middle England. By being vocally conservative, with illiberal stances on crime and immigration, it could put off those attracted to a more pluralist, liberal approach to politics, many of whom have, at least temporarily, “come back” to Labour from the Liberal Democrats.

Chris Nicholson is Director, CentreForum.

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9 Comments

  • coldcomfort 25th May '11 - 4:38pm

    The problem for all voters who are not rock solid Tory is that they don’t know where to go. Prior to the General Election they thought it was the LibDems. Clearly the Lib Dem Leadership has NOT so far convinced them that this was a correct decision. As Chris Nicholson expertly points out Labour has so far been an unconvincing new home for those who are worried that the LibDems have sacrificed principle for power. The current strength of the Tories is that no such worries have ever bothered them. Power has always been the only goal in town. It is not surprising that Labour has been unconvincing because for most of the time between 1997 & 2010 the fractious coalition between Brownites & Blairites followed Tory policies & doesn’t seem overly troubled either by tiresome issues such as facts & principles.

    That there is a powerful & large ‘church’ of the centre left is amply evidenced by the successes of groups like 38degrees, Unlock Democracy etc etc. The Lib Dems have not really sacrificed principle for power, and, for many, including those in or close to Government, power has not been an altogether pleasurable experience. The challenge for the LibDem leadership is to convince people that, to use a phrase from a certain person detested by most Lib Dems, ‘There was no alternative’ and that they are doing their very best against all the odds, to put those principles into Government policy, with some success but obviously not total success.

    We shouldn’t underestimate the power of the forces against the LibDems & the rest of the centre left. The Tory Right is highly influential in the corridors of power, is well financed and experienced in applying pressure on Governments. It is aided & abetted by a media, especially a print media, [ they call themselves Newspapers - I couldn't possibly comment] which is almost universally hostile & unscrupulous. Witness the Daily Telegraph reprimand over the Vince Cable sting. What matters a slap on the wrist when you have done such damage to such a figure? The right can scarcely believe its luck when some ex-prominent figures in the Labour movement also come out & support them.

  • Kevin Colwill 25th May '11 - 5:03pm

    A cliché, perhaps, but one worth repeating. From a broad left perspective Labour won too many seats in ’97 and the Tories too few in 2010.

    Another cliché…”events, dear boy, events”. Face it folks, none of us have crystal balls (oh, er, misses!) and we don’t know what’s around the corner. But I’ll give you it don’t look good. I think the other parties would be very happy to swap problems with the Tories.

  • Some good points here, but also more comfort for Labour than the Lib Dems. Much is being made about the lack of policies. I think they actually have the right idea in going for a blank sheet of paper. I probably won’t think the resulting policies are all good ideas, but when you get an electoral spanking it is quite correct to take a step back and not to rush out knee jerk policies. Remember this is a 5 year plan for them, or is it ??

    Personally I’m not sure that the general public votes for a set of policies more than against another. For example were Blair’s ideas the key to his 1997 success or was it the tired Tory government of Major..

    In Scotland I think it is worth considering whether their vote held and it was mainly a Lib Dem failure that led to the SNP rise. It would be hoped that if Clegg follows through with his words on a more robust coalition that the link with the Tories will not be as destructive at the next General Election as it was earlier this month. A return to equidistance on most issues would help the position in Scotland. I have many Scottish friends from my time in the forces. The anti-Tory feeling in some sections of society will have caused movement away from the Lib Dems.

    Overall I would rather Labour were happy then the Tories, and that is not because I am a Labour Troll, more that a strong Labour keeps the Tories in the coalition. If this falls too soon the Lib Dems will be hugely harmed. If the Tories feel they can get a working majority I feel the pressurr fromsome quarters for an election will force Cameron to “engineer” a breakdown.

    Finally, I would remind people that the cuts have yet to bite. In the main we are talking about abstracts at this point. From now onwards the real pain will start. May 2012 will be the true test.

  • I don’t have any particular animosity towards Ed Milliband who seems a pretty decent guy. But his ideas about what Labour is for, and its “new national mission” as set out in the Guardian on Saturday – helping the ‘squeezed middle’, tackling inequality, and making sure that ‘generational progress’ is maintained – just demonstrate how Labour is floundering around in search of a new narrative, because that surely isn’t it. Of course there needs to be a respectable (i.e. non-extremist) repository for disaffected voters, of whom there are many at the moment, but it is not really sufficient for the opposition simply to oppose, because the economic situation is too serious for that to be a responsible position to take. Vince Cable’s analysis, also in Saturday’s Guardian, was infinitely more interesting and penetrating than anything Ed Milliband had to say.

  • What we will see and I believe are starting to see is a return to defined two party politics in England and Wales. The Lib Dems will lose the majority of their seats to Labour in the North and Urban centres while the Tories will gain in the South West. The move back to two party politics will see single party government in 2015 but at present how the economy does is likely to determine which party gets that majority. It will take the Lib Dems about 15 years to get back a presence in parliament.

  • paul barker 25th May '11 - 9:14pm

    On Labour & The Cuts, Peter Watt wrote an excellent peice on “Labour uncut” arguing for them to just accept the Coalition plans & get on with talking about the Future. Hes had some support but not enough yet to make real change.
    On the “Return to 2 Party Politics” thesis, the 2 Party Vote declined steadily from 1951 to 2010. Maybe that trend has gone into sudden & permanent reverse but I want to see a bit more evidence than one batch of Elections.

  • Three observations -

    1) I’d agree that Ed M is no more than a good egg. The sort I’d have a pint with, but not vote in as PM. But to be honest, he doesn’t look weaker than any of the other party leaders now. I don’t think any of them look all that appealing. In fact (and I accept this is a minority view) I think Ed M did pretty well out of the AV referendum.

    2) Scotland was an (unusual) example of a PR system punishing a party where their vote share held. I don’t know that the SNP could necessarily rely on it happening again. Maybe they could?

    3) ‘By being vocally conservative, with illiberal stances on crime and immigration, it could put off those attracted to a more pluralist, liberal approach to politics, many of whom have, at least temporarily, “come back” to Labour from the Liberal Democrats.’ With the greatest of respect (and I do mean that) – doesn’t this kind of assume that a ‘liberal stance’ on crime and immigration is popular, and for that matter A Good Thing?

    I don’t think that a sceptical line on crime and immigration per se makes someone opposed to a plural approach to politics. Those are not mutually exclusive are they? Would any Lib Dem think an immigration amnesty would be a good policy choice now? Perhaps more interestingly, is there a possibility that the talkboards get more wound up on civil liberty than those who do not write on them?

    Interesting article though, for what it’s worth.

  • Paul Kennedy 25th May '11 - 11:53pm

    Duncan, I agree that the SNP won primarily by stealing our policies and our voters (after half our MPs appeared to have abandoned them by breaking their pledges on tuition fees) rather than taking votes from Labour. However, I don’t see how Labour’s Scottish result can be described as PR punishing a party whose vote held firm. It was the constituency seats where the SNP did best. Under the first-past-the-non-existent-post system we use in Westminster the SNP would have ended up with nearly three-quarters of the seats in Scotland.

    If Labour really are starting to compete with the Tories to become the Nasty Party, that is no reason for us to join them. However, we are certainly not soft on crime or immigration: we just want to focus more on crime prevention than expensive and arbitrary incarceration of those offenders who are not a danger to society and can be punished more effectively in the community. And thanks to Labour’s lax controls we reputedly have nearly a million illegal immigrants. Are we going to deport them all? Won’t just that drive them further underground?

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