Beating the Lib Dems II
David Osler has a piece on the recent by-election in Camden, in which the Lib Dems won in a ward which used to be a safe Labour area. David's explanation is that New Labour policies - specifically Iraq, foundation hospitals and city academies - are driving former Labour voters away from the party. He calls for the Party to reconnect with the many, not the few, and who could disagree.
It would have been truly remarkable if Labour had won the by-election, it was a ward where the Lib Dems came first and second in May, they ran their standard campaign pretty intensively, and the council which they run is still in a honeymoon period (it is very hard to lose support in six months from taking power because it is possible to put off difficult decisions, do the popular things easily, and new councillors have the chance to get around and meet people). The next election in 2010 will be very different, and much harder for the Lib Dems.
There are two different traps to avoid to win back Kentish Town and many other similar wards by 2010. The first is that all that is needed is for the Labour Party to change its policies and shift to the left. That might help, particularly at the next General Election when the choice can be portrayed as one between a Labour government and a Tory government, but unless the local activity happens, the Lib Dems and Greens can entrench themselves.
While local activity is important, the argument of Luke Akehurst and others that well organised local parties can buck any kind of national trend is also a trap. There are a significant number of voters who are simply uninterested in local issues, and make their minds up on national issues. They used to vote Labour locally as well as nationally to show their opposition to the Tory government, and no longer vote for us, instead mainly voting Lib Dem or Green. They generally think that Labour is 'no different from the Tories' or 'too right-wing', and are interested in issues like the environment, organic food, civil liberties/ID cards, top-up fees. They are much more interested in social issues than economic issues - they aren't, for example, influenced in which way to vote by which party would do more to tackle poverty. Although not a massive proportion of the overall electorate, the number of places where this group is electorally significant is growing and includes Brighton, Oxford, Lewisham, Cambridge, Norwich, Manchester, Islington...
The cloud on the horizon for the Lib Dems is the rise of the Green Party. Many Lib Dem activists can be quickly reduced to incoherent fury when retelling stories of campaigning against the Greens. It's easy to see why. Having carefully positioned themselves as the 'nice party' which cares about the environment and is against nasty authoritatian New Labour, the Lib Dems find themselves up against a party which has an image of being even more nice and fluffy, which cares about the environment so much that they put it in their name, which definitely isn't authoritarian, and which can appeal to people who think Labour is now too right-wing and also to some Tories who like the countryside and don't like new buildings anywhere near them. Especially when the Lib Dems get into power locally and start having to make difficult decisions, the Greens are very well placed to do to them exactly what the Lib Dems did to Labour or the Tories with pavement politics and opposing any unpopular decisions.
In the medium term, the rise of the Greens at the expense of the Lib Dems is good for politics in this country, because the Greens actually have a set of beliefs which they stand for. But Labour mustn't abandon people who might vote Labour, Lib Dem or Green, nor think that a shift to the left in terms of economic policy would do anything to attract these voters. At the very minimum, any Labour candidate in an area where these votes will be decisive needs to be able to demonstrate that they are 'on the side' of voters like these - independent-minded, not New Labour, with a track record of caring about and campaigning for the environment, anti-war, anti-ID cards and tuition fees and also with a clear message about why they disagree with the government about these things but are still Labour. It's difficult, but not impossible.