Working through the LabCon trick

We all know that the duopoly of Labour and Conservative parties is awful. We all know that this particular lot are awful. So again, the question arises: why are we, and other parties like the Greens, flat-lining in the polls?

I have a theory about part of the cause and a suggestion for what to do about it. It is that lovely thing, the UK’s dysfunctional electoral system. The system does not just attribute different values to different votes; it also distorts how people cast their votes. Voting for who you most want runs the risk of helping elect whom you least want.  First Past the Post not only accentuates this risk, it is such that the risk is far greater for parties outside the duopoly than for either member of that duopoly.

That puts non-duopoly parties in a fix.

Every time we attack the Conservatives we not only differentiate ourselves from the Conservatives but also Labour from Conservatives, and vice versa. We may offer a benefit to make the risk of voting for us worthwhile, but we also offer the same benefit, against a much lower risk, for voting Conservative/Labour. If we criticise the Conservatives, we bolster the “we must get rid of the Tories” narrative, and the lowest risk way of doing that is to vote Labour. If we attack Corbyn, we feed into the “stop Corbyn” narrative, and the lowest risk way of doing that is to vote Conservative. The duopoly maintains a system so arranged that anytime another party criticises either of the duopoly parties the electorate’s benefit in sticking with that duopoly increases.

It’s a LabCon trick.

We need to persuade the English and Welsh electorates (the LabCon trick no longer works in Scotland and NI) to be brave enough not to vote for one duopoly party for fear of the other. We may be able to do so if we stop criticising either and start criticising both.

We can certainly do so for their joint-enterprise calamities. They both bade for blood in Iraq; they both cheered on the “light-touch” (read: “inept”) regulation of the banks which so increased the pain of the action needed to stabilise public finances; and Corbyn and May have been hand-in-hand on Brexit.

We can also attack them jointly where they have been equally inept. They both neglected housing; and they both tinkered with education: academics for one, free schools from the other. While Conservatives may be the worst people to get the NHS out of its current crisis, do not forget Labour’s PFI: accounts manipulating deals which were the best way to get the NHS into the crisis in the first place.

However, can we attack the duopoly over things that look like the sole fault of one? Yes: it’s their electoral system that put the “other lot” there. Would the Conservatives, with the political diversity that would come with a reformed electoral system, be able to persist with Universal Credit in its current form, continue to impose cruel sanctions on benefits claimants, or be so blithe about the national shame of extensive dependency on food banks? No. Labour see periods of dominance of the Conservatives, and all that flows from that, as a price worth paying (by others) for the reward of a period of dominance (by them). The Labour and Conservative parties are in this together, a tacit agreement to preserve their alternating hold on power. They are in this together to reap the benefits; they can be in this together when it comes to apportioning blame.

Looked at this way a vote “to get rid of the Tories” or “stop Corbyn” is a vote for the duopoly to get rid of the duopoly: it’s nonsense. Let us get this across. Let us drop the very words “Labour”, “Conservative”, “May” and “Corbyn” from our campaigning vocabulary.

“LabCon have failed us.”

“Thanks to LabCon policies….”

“…is being endangered by the duopoly.”

Moreover, as I’ve only mentioned Brexit once, please don’t use the term “Conservative Hard Brexit”. It is a LabCon Calamitous Brexit, a Duopoly Disaster; and hopefully, the Death-throws of the Dysfunctional Duopoly.




* Tony Lloyd is a member in Lewisham Liberal Democrats, an accountant and so pro European that he insisted on the European national anthem at his wedding.

Read more by or more about or .
This entry was posted in News and Op-eds.


  • Michael Cole 22nd Aug '18 - 11:23am

    Tony Lloyd is right. We must make it clear that we are opposed to both parties to this cosy duopoly.

    The UK parliamentary system operates on the principle of ‘Buggins’ turn’ and is the main reason why we have we been governed so badly for so long.

    Many years ago David Penhaligon characterised each successive Con or Lab government as a ‘demolition job’ on the previous administration.

    Tony draws attention to the “dysfunctional electoral system”. We could of course actively campaign for STV – a distinctive LD policy.

  • Denis Mollison 22nd Aug '18 - 11:33am

    @Michael Cole – “We could of course actively campaign for STV – a distinctive LD policy.”

    Some of us are trying to: please join Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform or come to our stall at conference next month to discuss what we are and could be doing!

  • Denis Mollison 22nd Aug '18 - 11:43am

    … and of course I agree with Tony’s article. Here’s a link to an excellent piece on the problems FPTP causes (including `zigzag government’) by Ed Straw.

  • David Evershed 22nd Aug '18 - 11:51am

    Tony Lloyd is right.

    Campaigning against Conservative is telling people to vote Labour.

    Campaigning against Labour is telling people to vote Conservative.

    Instead we should adopt a positive approach and campaign for the Liberal Democrats and Liberal Democrat philosophy and policies, rather than running negative campaigns against other parties.

    We keep saying we want to run positive campaigns but they rapidly turn into what can become rather nasty negative campaigns.

  • Michael Cole 22nd Aug '18 - 11:53am

    I tried the link suggested by Denis Mollison – it was dysfunctional. I got the message:

    Page not Found
    Sorry, but either you have typed the wrong URL,
    or we’ve accidently deleted it.”

    By active campaigning I mean street stalls, as well as other means of communication.

    About a year ago I suggested street stalls to LDER as a way of engaging the public. I was told that this was not possible due to “… lack of resources”.

  • A little point on the preamble of this piece. It seems to me that though the labels on the jars are different, since Stormont was established Northern Ireland has bought into the LabCon trick more and more at each election.

  • i totally agree that to get anywhere the Lib Dems need a positive message of their own which is not (just) related to Brexit! Of course they are the victims of FPTP but having blown the chance to change it during the Coalition years, we are where we are.

    I spend a lot of time listening to people in cafes, shops etc as I am interested in what people’s concerns are outside their immediate day to day issues. For what’s is worth, here are the results of my anecdotal survey:-
    1. Housing – concern about the lack of affordability and availability for young people/families (whether rental or purchase)
    2. NHS – much appreciation for front line staff, less so for (highly paid) management and concern about being passed “from pillar to post” and waiting times
    3. Education – too many people getting “useless” degrees and not enough money put into apprencticeships/training for skills we need as a country
    4. Police – concern about rising crime and apparent disinterest of the Police in theft
    5. Concern about immigration in terms of pressure on housing waiting lists and also education in terms of children whose language at home is different to English. On the other hand, appreciation of staff “from overseas” in health and social care.
    6. Politicians are “only in it for themselves” and out of touch

    I find that everyone I know is bored to death with Brexit and has stopped listening to the arguments/propaganda (on both sides). Maybe this is why the Lib Dems are not resonating as this seems to be their main preoccupation?

    Anyway, just putting it n the table for whats it’s worth. I am an older voter who voted Remain and who has almost always voted Lib/Lib Dem for the past 45 years. I also live outside London, so the views/observations expressed here may reflect that

  • By joining a coalition with the Tories in 2010 the Lib Dems helped to sustain the Conservatives in power and perpetuate the two party system. This action helped to destroy the Lib Dem brand which took decades to build up. The Party’s credibility smashed to pieces among the electorate.

  • paul barker 22nd Aug '18 - 1:37pm

    I dont accept that we are “Flatlining” in The Polls. If we look at Polling averages, theres still movements both ways but the Trend is clearly an upward slope. I know its painfully slow for now but we are making progress.

  • 1. PR

    i am as enthusiastic for PR as the next Lib Dem. But we are unfortunately deluding ourselves if we think that it has any salience at all among the general public. In 1997 we didn’t campaign on PR at all – sure it was in the manifesto – whereas in 1992 we did – electoral reform was one of the five “Es”. The first thing a Lib Dem campaigner has to do is look at the areas people are concerned about – Brexit by far at the top but the economy, health, education, local issues etc. As has been said by people far more knowledgeable and wiser than me the first rule of campaigning is – “First find out what is on people’s minds and then deal with it.” – as outlined by @Richard.

    2. Being equidistant between Conservatives and Labour.

    There is an argument that we have to be equal critics of Labour and Conservatives to be successful. Again I would suggest that is not the case. Of our top 30 most marginal target seats – 4 are held by Labour, 3 are held by nationalist and 23 are held by Conservatives. We win the 23 held by Conservatives by the same strategy as in 97. Being close to Labour on things like NHS and education funding and saying “Labour can’t win here”. People there are suffering once again from NHS waiting lists, schools not having enough money etc. Can I suggest that the key to winning the 4 Labour seats which are mainly in university areas – as well as the Tory ones – is to back free university tuition.

    We should of course be strong critics of Labour on Brexit in particular. But there is a clear strategy to do well in Labour seats. Recruit to our cause as many Labour remainers as possible. Campaign hard against the Labour (most likely) council – and get councillors elected. Deliver “Labour let down” leaflets after the next general election as either they will be in Government or will fail to win.

    We should all – and this is directed more at myself than anyone else! – stop wittering on LDV and knock on the door of a Remainer – and perhaps especially get them to give money – as if they want to remain they have no-one else to turn to.

    3. Be distinctive

    Well yes – may be and I get the point. But in the mind of most of the public there was not much distinction between us and Labour in 1997. The public thought both of us wanted better funding for schools and hospitals and would kick the discredited Tories out.

  • By Tony Lloyd………………….We need to persuade the English and Welsh electorates (the LabCon trick no longer works in Scotland and NI) to be brave enough not to vote for one duopoly party for fear of the other. We may be able to do so if we stop criticising either and start criticising both…………………………..

    Strangely, things aren’t going too well for us in Scotland (only 4 Westminster MPs) and NI is a ‘basket case’.

    If anything LDV articles seem as anti-SNP as Lab/Con so there seems to be rather more going on than your assessment identifies.Still, I’m sure things can only get better. Oh!, wasn’t that the Labour mantra?

    BTW…paul barker, didn’t you also predict that, by 2015, we’d replace Labour as the main opposition party? How’s that going?

  • Simple message
    “We think a Labour government under Corbyn would be a disaster, but we know a Tory government under May is a disaster. As a country we deserve better”.

  • @Tony Lloyd

    The Labour Conservative duopoly has been around for around 80 years, yet there have been times when the Liberal Democrats (and Greens and UKIP) have been able to poll pretty well. The duopoly in itself is not the main cause, but of course it contributes

    I would guess a very big reason is the fact both Labour and Conservative have gone off to their respective loony fringes. Logic would dictate that this is when a moderate party like the Liberal Democrats would do well. But since there is this FPTP/duopoly, the centre-left/soft-Labour and centre-right/soft-Conservative are actually very much afraid of the BluKIP Conservative party and Marxist Corbyn respectively, that they stick with Labour and Conservative to alleviate that fear and not “take a risk” with the Lib Dems. Liberal Democrats have actually traditionally done well when both Labour and/or Conservative are closer to the centre ground. Soft Conservatives (as well as being weary of 18 years of the Conservative party which was appearing decrepit and engulfed with sleaze) were not too afraid of Tony Blair in 1997 and 2001, and so many cast their vote Lib Dem in the Lib-Con constituencies. Likewise, many soft-Labour voters were not too afraid of David Cameron, so felt comfortable voting Lib Dem in 2010.

    The other big reason (seldom considered) that the Liberal Democrats aren’t polling better since 2017 is the enormous loss of local on the ground campaigning infrastructure post May 2017. The party has lost hundreds of paid staff and local offices up and down the country which organised things locally. The paid staff kept the local party machines going, organised volunteers, took off distracting and menial tasks from activists and councillors letting them campaign, enabling the Liberal Democrats to communicate relevant messages locally up and down the country, as well as apply a focused and relentless squeeze message in Lib-Con and Lib-Lab constituencies come election time. This loss of campaign infrastructure has been difficult for many local parties (some of whom had become dependent on paid organisers), but some are re-learning and reorganising on a purely voluntary model, but it’s taking its time. But the fact is, many voters who used to hear from the Liberal Democrats regularly for 15 years, no longer do, except at election time.

  • Michael Cole 22nd Aug '18 - 8:03pm

    “Fighting Corruption”.

  • David Allen 22nd Aug '18 - 8:13pm

    Campaigning against the “Labservative” duopoly, as such, only works if we can effectively paint those two parties as closer to each other than to ourselves. It worked to some extent under Kennedy (who talked about “the two conservative parties”) because of our clearly different stance on Iraq. It isn’t likely to work so well when we claim to be in the centre, and of course, especially when we have worked hand-in-glove with people we shouldn’t have touched with a bargepole!

    There is, however, one facet of “Labservatism” we can legitimately have a go at. Both our major parties have become prisoners of a fairly small self-selected bunch of activists whose views are not representative of either their MPs or their voters. Corbyn and Rees-Mogg are both fringe-minority politicians with eccentric views, who represent their activist minorities, not the public as a whole.

    How can we best set ourselves apart from these problems, so that we’re not just condemning faults we ourselves share? One member one vote does in principle lay us equally open to activist takeover, and on the other hand, we don’t want to go back to centralised control either. Perhaps the idea of a supporters’ register, and even empowering supporters as well as members in determining our leadership and key ploicies, might do it?

  • Peter Hirst 23rd Aug '18 - 4:25pm

    Brilliant; of course the media is largely to blame for this duopoly. It makes their news programmes easier to design. Apart from altering the electoral system, we always in our messaging should prevent the knee jerk response of the recipients of it alternating between the two of them.

  • Peter Watson 24th Aug '18 - 1:24am

    @paul barker “I dont accept that we are “Flatlining” in The Polls … the Trend is clearly an upward slope”
    If you only look at the last 13 months, then yes. But the previous “upward slope” was longer, steeper and terminated at the 2017 general election, and the party’s current voting intention is less than it was 18 months ago.
    Look over the last three years … pretty flat, no trend.
    Look over the last seven years … nope, still pretty flat (if there is a trend, it’s a slight decline since 2011).
    It is not apparent that support for the party as reflected in polling and national elections has recovered from the depths to which it fell during Coalition. That is despite 3 years in Opposition, two changes of leader, and relentlessly pushing a policy of opposing Brexit which divides the other parties and is supported by around half of the electorate. Rather than looking for what might well be false hope in over-optimistic interpretations of polling and local council by-elections where the party can target resources from elsewhere in single seats, perhaps the party should fundamentally re-think its strategy.
    Otherwise, I suspect that the only thing that will improve the party’s prospects would be the Pyrrhic victory of being proved right after Brexit!

  • david pearce 24th Aug '18 - 7:30am

    For 50 years libs do well when the two main parties are doing badly. Yes, its the voting system. Yet libs did not insist upon changing it when they had a chance.

    Right now both parties are riding high over brexit, tory on leavers and labour on remainers. Remainers will not vote lib nor leavers UKIP because they know these parties are unlikely to win MPs or influence because of the system. The recent modest resurgence of libs (and UKIP) has followed the main parties wobbling over Brexit.

    And watch out! if the tories fall because they bring in a disastrous Brexit, libs are well positioned to pick up dissilusioned tory leavers turned remainers. But if the tories switch to remain, the libs will be back to tory light without the benefit they now have from being pro EU and centre right (yes, matters could now be worse).

    What tories switch to remain? Why just what have they done in the last 2 years that has not undermined brexit! Listen to them stand up and say they support Brexit, and then attack some aspect of it. Between them, the tory party has sought to prevent every possible way of leaving the EU.

  • Simon Banks 4th Nov '18 - 6:00pm

    Yes on the whole. We should stress issues that are distinctively ours and that show both the big parties opposed or foot-shuffling. However, Tony glosses over the fact that there is nothing inevitable about a two-party stranglehold on the vote. On the Commons, yes, to some extent, because the first-past-the-post system works heavily against a third party with support widely spread. The poijt at which our support is high enough to give us seats close to our proportion of the votes is very, very close to the point at which one of the other parties suffers a catastrophic loss of seats and severe underrepresentation.

    But in 1992-2010 inclusive, we polled 20% plus in general elections. That’s five successive elections before the coalition. In February 1974 the Liberal Party came very close to that and hit 30% in the polls before slipping. In 1997 and 2001, of course, the Party was seen as closer to Labour than the Tories. Being distinctive does not mean equidistance.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Alex B
    It was good to see two Lib Dem MPs raising highly pertinent matters relevant to their own constituents and the wider population, even if they were largely fobbe...
  • Simon R
    Since I wrote the above comment, the LibDem manifesto for London has been published ( so to be fair I...
  • Phil Wainewright
    Instead of restricting individual freedom, surely we should simply tax at 100% all profits made from nicotine addiction?...
  • James Moore
    @David Raw Temperance was about individuals voluntarily agreeing to give up alcohol, not the central state banning people from drinking it. At the end of ...
  • Peter Davies
    Either that is a completely unreasonable administrative fee with no relation to the cost of finding and emailing the data or the administration of our court sys...