"We're not fickle, we just don't like you"
Liam Byrne and Bill Rammell chose yesterday to antagonise a few more floating voters and attack Jon Cruddas with an article in the Guardian calling for the continuation of the New Labour strategy of the politics of aspiration and targeting centrist voters in the 48 super marginals as the best way to win the next election.
A minor point is that I don't understand why they put this article in the Guardian, where its effect will be to antagonise Lib/Lab swing voters, rather than in a newspaper which is read by the people who are Labour/Tory swing voters, who would presumably be more receptive to it.
My bigger concern is that I don't see how we can win an overall majority at the next election with this strategy. The polling at the moment suggests that David Cameron will be more appealing to these centrist swing voters than Michael Howard, and Gordon Brown or John Reid less appealing than Tony Blair, and that also our more traditional supporters are less likely to go and vote. The assumption must presumably be that these voters are considering voting Tory or not bothering at the moment midway between elections, but that with a robust message on the economy, public services and crime they will come back to Labour when the next election comes.
David O'Leary adopted a similar analysis when manager of Aston Villa, calling Villa fans fickle when they expressed displeasure with his management. They responded with a large banner - "We're not fickle, we just don't like you". My worry is that this is the message that the voters are trying to give us at the moment and that if we don't pay attention, then we could end up suffering O'Leary's fate.
This isn't to say that Byrne and Rammell's call for a New Labour strategy at the next election is necessarily wrong - after all there are plenty of alternatives which would guarantee a much heavier defeat (I never understand why some people think it is left-wing or principled not to focus campaigning in the seats we need to form a government), and their strategy has the advantage of having won us three elections in a row. But we need to be having a discussion at the very least about what the plan B is - if it becomes clear than under our new leader the centrist voters are switching to the Tories in sufficient numbers to make the New Labour strategy unviable for electoral success, how can we respond by getting other support and rebuilding the Labour coalition in order to stay in power and win the next election.
I have two thoughts to contribute in a small way to this. Part of this must involve being able to squeeze Lib Dem support. The 2005 election wasn't like 2001 or 1997, where Labour and the Lib Dems were basically on the same side and tacitly co-operated - and it is not possible next time to assume that people who vote Lib Dem in Labour/Tory marginals will automatically come back to vote for us (at the moment many are as likely to switch to the party which is trying to squeeze the Lib Dems - the Tories). There are about 6-8,000 people in each of the supermarginals who voted Lib Dem last time, and in elections which might be decided by at most a few hundred votes, being able to cut into that could be the difference between winning and losing. Similarly, we could hold or even increase our own level of support in every single supermarginal, but if the Lib Dem voters switch to the Tories, and if the Tories vote Lib Dem in Lab/Lib marginals, then we could lose power. If you think that is unlikely, think about how many local Lib Dem/Tory coalitions there were in local councils in 1997, and compare that to how many there are now.
The other group of people who will, I think, be crucial are non-voters. In every supermarginal, the number of non-voters is at least comparable to, and often outnumbers, the entire Labour or Tory vote. Non-voters are disproportionately likely to be Labour supporters, and yet in some areas apparently the strategy is not even to canvass people if they didn't vote at the last election. It's one thing doing that a month before an election when resources are tight, but there is plenty of time to call on people before the next general election. A close election is a good motivation for people to go and vote anyway, but we need to have better arguments to persuade people who have never voted before, or only vote occasionally, that they should go and vote for us next time.
This is deliberately not a set of policy recommendations, because I do not know what narrative or which policies would persuade a non voter in Crawley or a Lib Dem in Dartford to vote for us next time. But I think that finding out and acting on that knowledge is likely to give us a better chance than hoping that we can win the next election by saying that the Lib Dems are soft on crime and trying to appeal more than David Cameron to people in Battersea who work in marketing.