Monday, April 19, 2010

Dealing with the Lib Dems

So the attacks from the Tories and their owner Rupert Murdoch on the Lib Dems have started - they are soft on crime, soft on defence, they want to give murderers the vote, give an amnesty to illegal immigrants and so on and so forth.

This is going to have two consequences - firstly, it will mean that some right-wing voters switch away from the Lib Dems, and secondly, some leftie voters will switch away from Labour to the Lib Dems. We've already seen this start to happen with recent opinion polls.

What is utterly baffling is that Labour's response is part complacently talking about coalitions with the Lib Dems and how much they agree with them, and part repeating these right-wing attacks.

It seems obvious to me that if Labour comes third in the popular vote, then that's it - they are out of government. It doesn't matter if the weirdnesses of the voting system mean that they end up with the most seats - people would have made it quite unambiguously clear that they don't want Labour in government. I absolutely shudder to think what would happen if they tried to do a deal with the Lib Dems and stagger on while presiding over the massive cuts to public spending of the kind that Clegg and Cable have repeatedly said that they want.

So the aim needs to be to win back people who used to support Labour but are now thinking about the Lib Dems, as well as to persuade wavering Tories to consider backing the Lib Dems. And to do this, Labour need to attack the Lib Dems from the left.

After all, my goodness, it is not as if there is any shortage of material. The Lib Dems are the only major party who want to cut spending on what they call the "sacred cow" of the NHS. They want to cut public spending by another £13 billion, but not to tell anyone until after the election where the axe will fall. They plan to give a tax cut to every single higher rate taxpayer, but to cut Labour's support for young unemployed people. Nick Clegg thinks that Thatcher was right about the trade unions, and across the country local Lib Dems are allied with the Tories and slashing public services and pay and conditions for low paid workers at this very moment. Their commitment to cleaning up politics is so great that they want to wait til after the election before deciding which party to do a deal with. They are the party of Europe who won't rule out putting the most Europhobic Tory leader ever into power, and the party of the environment who haven't ruled out working with the people who think that bringing back foxhunting and reducing women's rights to get an abortion are more important than tackling climate change.

Maybe all of this is what the British people want. But Labour should at least make sure people know about this before they go to vote. Some voters will be more likely to support the Lib Dems when they hear that they are anti-unions and support bigger spending cuts than the Tories, others will be repelled. The net effect will be to weaken the Tories and boost Labour.

The other reason that this is important is how it affects the future. If the only attacks coming from the Lib Dems are from the right, then they will be forced to shift to the right after the elections - potentially doing a deal with another party in exchange for dropping their support for an amnesty for migrants, or votes for prisoners, or alternatives to prison for young offenders or whatever.

In contrast, if Labour makes it clear that they will only work with the Lib Dems if they drop their plans for "savage cuts" to the NHS and other public services; support the guarantee of a job or training for all unemployed people rather than cut taxes for the wealthy; keep the Child Trust Fund which makes sure that people on low incomes have some wealth to start their adult life; and back Labour's plans to extend the "living wage" for low paid workers, then it forces the Lib Dems to choose their priorities - social justice and democratic reform together with Labour, or savage cuts and mass unemployment with the Tories.