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.