The Labour Party. Remember them?

There’s an excellent must-read post on the New Statesman site by Rafael Behr highlighting how Coalition politics is not only eclipsing the Labour party from the media spotlight, but also paralysing its leadership from engaging with internal debate.

First, he notes how both the Lib Dems and Tories are being given the freedom to differentiate their party’s policies from the Coalition’s programme:

The Conservative party does not like the 50p tax rate. That much is clear. It is just as clear that government policy is, for the time being, to retain the rate. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats support a “Mansion Tax”, although it is not government policy to introduce one. Both parties are in office, each accuses the other of hogging the agenda, neither gets its way all of the time. That is how coalition works. It is all quite obvious really.

He’s right. It’s all quite obvious (even if the media has often struggled with the concept).

Yet the Lib Dem / Conservative Coalition is exerting quite the opposite effect on Labour:

The Labour benches generally feel frozen with caution. The two Eds, Miliband and Balls, advance the party line in increments and then invite the party to toe it without a fraction of deviation. As a result, anything anyone in Labour says that might be decoded as new or interesting causes a sensation, which only reinforces the leadership’s fear of saying anything – or allowing underlings to say anything – egregious*.

Ironically, therefore, it’s the governing parties which feel free to explore new ideas through the creative tension of Coalition. In contrast, HM’s Official Opposition has become scared of its own shadow.

* I don’t actually think Rafael means ‘egregious’, a thing which is extraordinarily bad. I assume he meant ‘adventurous’ or similar.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • The interesting thing about this analysis is that it stops short of speculating why Labour might be feart of saying much at all. They’re sitting maybe slightly ahead of the Tories in the opinion polls, and with the looming disaster of the NHS bill, but Cameron’s increasing propensity for shooting himself in the hoof, they might be wondering if it’s even worth the bother of arguing against the government when they are proving adept at botching up the big issues. And of course the Lib Dems are just about finished, the arguments in coalition have alienated any appeal they might have to floating right wing voters, and they’ve lost the left forever. Down to an ever diminishing core support there is little chance they’ll ever be a political force to be reckoned with as they were in the runup to the 2010 general election.

  • Foregone Conclusion 3rd Mar '12 - 3:33pm

    They still seem to be taking council seats off us though. They don’t look irrelevant from where I’m standing.

  • Libs taking seats off Labour over the previous 10 years never stopped journalists asking “what is the POINT of the Lib Dems?”

    It’s only fair, in their new-found role as the UK’s fourth party, we started posing the question: what is the point of Labour?

  • Jen, would that be the fourth party that commands at least as much polling support as the Conservatives, possibly more, and four or five times as much as the Lib Dems?

  • Jen “It’s only fair, in their new-found role as the UK’s fourth party, we started posing the question: what is the point of Labour?”
    The only alternative government to the Tory one we have got right now.

  • Martin Pierce 3rd Mar '12 - 6:50pm

    Jen – I’m afraid Labour being the fourth party (I’m struggling with who is 2nd and who is 3rd…) is just wishful thinking. The opinion polls over the last 18 months have had them roughly neck and neck with the Tories. That compares with LDs in a range of 8-12%. By the way, if you check back the polls for the previous TWENTY years, you will find that only about 3 or 4 times were the LDs as low as 12. I think the point Stephen, and this article, makes however is different – which is that Labour is as it says, ‘scared of its own shadow’. However I don’t think it’s the Coalition which has caused this – I think it’s much more (a) the fact the 2 Eds don’t really have a big set of ideals or even policies – they rose to the top by being Gordon’s entourage, and (b) the fact that any party after 3 terms in office is exhausted while the new govt can both blame them for current situation, and at the same time pillory them for abandoning previous positions if they change policy. Look at the Tories after 97 – they were paralysed for the best part of two parliaments.

  • UK’s fourth party? I assume this means something else, because even with Labour’s limp opposition of late they are still neck and neck with the Tories in the polls, soon to be leading with the Tories toying with the NHS.

  • paul barker 3rd Mar '12 - 7:53pm

    Over the 3 months December, January & February there were 39 local contests in volving about 50,000 voters. The vote shares were –
    Con 36%
    Lab 22%
    LD 28%

    So we were the 2nd Party & Labour a poor third. These are voters actually voting, not being asked boring (to them) questions about how they might vote in an Election they dont have to think about for another 3 years.
    On Labour taking seats, over the last 5 weeks theres been 20 contests.
    Labour gained 1 seat from us, we gained 1 from them.
    We also lost 1 to Con & gained another 8 from Con & Indies.
    20 contests, LDs make Net gains of 7 seats. Not bad for a start.

  • Paul Barker

    I will repeat what I said in another thread that it is really a little bit ingenuous using this information without some caveats. I have looked through these contests on ADLC and there a significant number of LD/Con contests where you do quite well – whereas if there is a Labour/LD it is the opposite. These 39 contests will also include a significant number based on very local issues that will not be apparent in any analysis and cannot be in any way considered to be representative.

    If you use Parliamentary by-elections you can say that Labour will have a landslide as their average is well over 50% and the LD vote has been squeezed. This is of course a nonsense because they are not representative of the way the country would vote.

    The only way your numbers mean anything if they include the swings from previous elections and, probably, pre-2010 at that. I do not think that it is worth the effort though. The number of voters is irrelevant if they are a biased sample

    The regulated opinion polls will give a far closer view of VI and unfortunately the LD are far below the figure you use. In doing so you seem to suggest that everything is hunky-dory in LD world and you are going to beat Labour into third place at the next GE – I beg to differ and think the LD should be taking the current situation very seriously indeed

  • sorry meant to say ‘disingenuous’ in the first paragraph

  • paul barker 3rd Mar '12 - 10:24pm

    Well we will see in May. My point about polls is that they asking about something most voters dont think about, whereas with actual votes you have actual decisions. Asking people how they will think in 3 years is stupid, as pollsters admit. They keep saying that their polls shouldnt be used to predict future Elections, but no-one listens.
    You can compare Polls now with the same ones 5 years ago & that does suggest we are down, by about 5%, not 15%. As a prediction that isnt so far off what the Local contests say. LDs normally do better in Local than National Elections, typically around 4%. So while the Polls suggest we would get 19% in 2015, the Locals would “predict” 24%. 3 years in advance thats not a big difference.
    The collapse in LD support was temporary. May will probably see some LD seat losses but nothing like last years.

  • Paul Barker

    I am sorry but you seem to be making numbers up to suit your story – where is this 19% and 24% come from? Remember looking at historical mid-term polls for the LD is not comparable as you were not in Government with the Tories then.

    From the LD results you seem to be doing well in the Tory areas but much worse in Labour areas. The Parliamentary by-elections have gone badly and there are nowhere near the number of successes against Labour as there are against the Tories.

    I have always said that the danger is that you now become a party focused on attracting Tories instead what has seemed to be the policy from the last few elections of targeting liberal left-leaning voters in Labour areas and reaping the benefits of tactical voting in the Tory areas – the latter may still happen as there is no doubt most LD are a much better option than most Tories but the former is going to be much harder to regain.

    I still find your use of the council by-election data to be fundamentally flawed by the way:

    Looking at the ALDC website for 2012 based on principle council by-elections (totaling 19):

    LD 6 seats to defend, lost 4 whilst gaining 4 others (3 from the Tories, 1 from Labour9
    Con 8 seats to defend, lost 3 whilst gaining 3
    Labour 3 seats to defend, held 2 whilst gaining 4 others
    UKIP 3 seats to defend and lost both

    Now you could say that it is not surprising the Labour vote is low in these seats seeing that 17 out of the 20 were defended by other parties – also the LD have lost more to labour than gained. I am loathe to use these results as anything but indicative as I am not aware of local issues that could affect the result. You, however, seem to use the information with no caveats and analysis. Poor show!

  • Paul Barker

    I would be very interested in your prediction. What do you mean by losing a few seats in May? 10? 50? 100? 300?

    What would consider a good result and what would you consider a disaster?

  • Richard Swales 4th Mar '12 - 9:53am

    Labour are equal to the Tories in the polls, but this is a slightly different situation as we are in coalition. The Tories can expect to get tactical votes from (people who are still) our supporters and we can expect to get tactical votes from their supporters, to a far far greater extent than before when the Lib Dems were supposed to be Labour’s emergency back-up squad. If you count the polls together as Government versus Opposition then Labour are still a long way behind.

  • Richard Swales

    Don’t you think that is a bit of a simplistic view – have you any evidence that this has happen in reality? OE&S was an example of this but the loss of your votes to Labour outweighed the Tory collapse in what was the best of all worlds for you – a three way marginal.

    From the analysis I have seen there are not that many seats where you will benefit from Tory transfers to you when facing Labour. The biggest danger is that you lose the ’emergency back-up’ tactical voters from Labour in the seats where the Tories are running second to you (39 of the 57 I believe). Ashcroft has done some polling recently that presents a bleaker picture for the LD than you suggest

    I would also not trust your Coalition partners to be quite so supportive as you would want them to be. The Tories are usually a pretty ruthless political machine and will soon turn their back on you

  • Jayne Mansfield 4th Mar '12 - 11:54am

    Yes, I remember the Labour Party, or to be precise, the New Labour Party and I am pleased to say that I never voted for them .
    Unfortunately, they are now the the only opposition party that is likely to topple the government. Like it or not, the Liberal democrats are the government, so despite the fact that too many of the old faces hold prominent positions, I must console myself with the fact that Ed Milband did not vote for the Iraq war, was abstemious when claiming expenses and will hopefully take the Labour Party in a new direction, one that I can support.

    And before I hear that old chestnut about saving the economy, why didn’t anyone from the Conservative party or the Liberal Democratic Party mount a critique of New Labour’s handling of the economy before the crash? We can all be wise after the event.

  • Simon Shaw

    and I admitted my error.

    So instead of a personal attack (which if I did it would lead to certain moderation) can you play the ball and not the man please.

    Do you agree with Paul Barker’s conclusions from the data he has quoted?

  • David Allen 4th Mar '12 - 5:02pm

    Rafael Behr is right. Labour are marginally leading in the polls, despite an appallingly timid, defensive and indecisive approach to policy, and a leader who nobody thinks is able to lead.

    Doesn’t say much for the Coalition, does it?

  • Simon Shaw

    What is it with the personal attacks? I am in premed so not all comments get posted and I didn’t check to see if everything had been posted

    I don’t mind the rough and tumble of debate but you seem to take it that bit further.

    Why are you so aggressive ?

    Anyway, if you want to discuss then I am happy to do so

  • oops premed should read premed – there is an autocorrect on that I miss sometimes (you may argue I should be in premed!)

  • Richard Dean 4th Mar '12 - 5:59pm

    Premed? No, a lunatic asylum! 🙂 Did you see what you wrote “premed should read premed “. I just spent five minutes trying to work out what the difference was!

  • Richard Dean


    It should have read premod but I was spellchecked again (is this a verb?) and I thought I would incur the wrath of Mark if I added a correction to an (admittedly incompetent) correction

    My apologies!

  • Jayne Mansfield 4th Mar '12 - 7:24pm

    Did Vince Cable really do that, Dave Page?

    I must have missed that, as I don’t remember anyone mounting much of a critique of Labour spending. In fact, I was recently reminded that the Tories promised to match Labour spending .

    What did Dr. Cable say? I have always thought of him as a real ‘babe’, whose opinions when I heard them on programmes like Question Time, I absorbed wholesale.

    Old age can be a terrifying experience!

  • Simon Shaw

    I am sure that the poster you refer to is capable of replying himself and does not need you to jump to his defense.

    I apologise for any errors I made on that previous thread and I am not sure what happened to the post were I admitted a mistake.

    I am not the only one, however, to have made certain points that are erroneous and I am sure that you do not ask for the same justification from everyone. If you are saying that I was wrong to challenge the assertions of the poster above, can you tell me where I was wrong and whether you agree with what was posted?

    Your posts on this thread have all been focused on me and not on the topic of the thread – I would prefer you return to the subject in hand and point out, as you have done previously, if I have made incorrect assertions rather than the personalised attacks. You lose the moral high ground acting thus.

  • Stuart Mitchell 5th Mar '12 - 6:09pm

    Jayne: “Did Vince Cable really do that, Dave Page? …I don’t remember anyone mounting much of a critique of Labour spending.”

    Actually, the Lib Dems frequently criticsed Labour’s spending during the ’00s – but only because they thought Labour weren’t spending enough! The Lib Dem manifestoes of both 2001 and 2005 pledged to spend more than Labour. Even in 2010, the Lib Dems were proposing only to cut the structural deficit “at least as fast as Labour”. Recent Lib Dem criticism of Labour’s spending should be considered in that context.

    “In fact, I was recently reminded that the Tories promised to match Labour spending .”

    Yes, they only dropped this promise as late as November 2008. Reports from the time quote one Nick Clegg describing the Tories’ plan to cut spending as “economic madness”.

    I am unable to confirm whether this was the same Nick Clegg who is now the Deputy Prime Minister.

  • Stuart Mitchell 6th Mar '12 - 5:28pm

    Simon, I’m sure you know the difference between “faster than” and “at least as fast as”.

  • Jayne Mansfield 9th Mar '12 - 8:04am

    Now that Labour are starting to differentiate themselves by promising to repeal the NHS and Social Care bill, I am starting to remember them.

    As with many remembrances, I am starting to remember the good things and the really bad things are starting to fade. The truth is, that they are the only party that opposes the current government, so a vote for them at the next election is the only way someone like me can show my strength of opposition to the lies I was fed about the future of the NHS.

    I can’t say I trust them either, their last government gave me little reason to, but at least they didn’t punish the weak, the sick and the disabled in the way that this government is doing.

    The one issue, the health and social care bill is making me think about what I really believe in.

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