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.


At 10:14 pm , Anonymous Lee Griffin said...

I expected a little better, though I assume elections mean we're all ready to hide a little bit of our integrity.

1) NHS. Lib Dems want to reinvest any savings in the NHS back in to health. Far from the cuts to the NHS you're presenting it as, it's a redistribution of money from strategy and management to the front line.

2) £13bn Let's not treat people like idiots. I have yet to see any evidence that the people need the full costings of the recovery. It is my belief that people want to know that the thinking behind recovery makes sense...I think that is ultimately what lies behind the Lib Dem bounce, it doesn't matter that they are (sensibly) not spelling out everything before they've had the chance to properly carry out a spending review, the fact they've made a start is enough.

Which of course brings me on to why this point is so ludicrous, Labour sit there with full knowledge and integral understanding yet have made barely a scratch on explaining how they'll cut the deficit. Similarly, though with less information, the Tories have sated figures but haven't actually tied them to any kind of specific cut or saving.

3) Well done for choosing a very narrow aspect of the Lib Dem tax plan. Yes, they do plan to cut the taxes of the highest earners, but they also then wish to tax them (as a group) more heavily to the tune of £1bn for a redistribution of finances from the top of the wealth scale to the bottom (in the employed population). The reality is a long way from any hint of a tax cut for the rich. Severe restrictions on bankers bonuses, anyone?

4) Cut for support to unemployed. I'm afraid this is new to me, you'll have to point out which policy you're misrepresenting here.

5) Nick on Thatcher. He didn't say Thatcher was right, he said he understood the significance. There is a difference. He also condemned Thatcher for her actions and the poverty that it spread, the ill-morals that came with the inequality of the nation.

6) Local politics: Fair game, I'm sure there are plenty of anecdotes in all party directions. I can't defend individual instances of any.

7) It is ideologically consistent to not presume to tell people that they're voting for a coalition of any sort if the Lib Dems are willing to join in coalition with either party. It is the stance of "vote for who you want" not "vote for who you think will win", which is long over due in our politics.

8) Lib Dem policy on Europe doesn't matter when it comes to the constitution of the UK government. You presume to say that if the public vote for a hung parliament that the Lib Dems should instantly force us in to either a) a quick and costly second election or b) enduring a minority government. What tosh.

9) See above for more against your hypothetical sky gazing.

10) The dredging of the bottom of the barrel. Yes Lib Dems have different policies on how to help the unemployed, and have different ideas on what is useful (~£1k when you're 18 versus a long term good education) to young people. Presenting it as if the Lib Dems are just taking away from the poor and the disadvantaged without having their own different plans just feels...well...desperate.

At 11:45 pm , Anonymous Ben said...

I can't help but think, however one attacks them, that if these polls are even anything like what happens in two and a bit weeks, that Labour has to walk out of government. If we try to stay and do a deal with a resurgent Liberal Party from third place then they will grow stronger over the Parliament, and we will grow weaker. The only chance is to carve out a USP as the opposition party and hope to pick up support as the cuts bite. (Low? Sure, but the survival of the party as a major political force is at stake.)

At 1:06 am , Anonymous snowflake5 said...

I agree with Ben.

It's difficult for Labour to attack the Lib Dems when most of their surge is down to pure emotion (i.e. it's impervious to reason). Remember William Hague trying to attack Blair during Diana's funeral - just making the attempt put him in a worse position.

Secondly I don't think Labour will go into coalition with the LibDems if we are in third place - we'll have lost the election decisively, we should bow out gracefully and let the LibDems team up with the Tories (and that won't last more than a year).

Coalitions can be tricky. When Germany's SPD went into a grand coalition with Merkel's CDU, it was as equals, they both had the same number of representatives. But in the subsequent election Merkel trounced the SPD even though they were both running on the same record. She got all the credit for steering them through the recession even though the SPD did all the work in the finance ministry.

In coalitions, one party always obliterates the other. My hope is that if there is a coalition it's Lib-Con - Clegg's rockstar status will probably obliterate Cameron and the Cons. And hopefully the electorate will turn to us in relief when they throw in the towel and call another election.

But we should definitely stay out of a coalition in case we are the ones who get obliterated (we're the tired 13-year-old govt and the LibDems are the fresh new hope, they'd end up replacing us).

People shouldn't panic because this isn't the only election we are going to have this year. At the next election we can discuss policy as people will have calmed down by then.

At 8:33 am , Blogger donpaskini said...

Ben/Snowflake - definitely agree that if we end up 3rd then we should not be in government or involved in any coalitions. But I don't think it is certain that we end up 3rd, and we should at least make an effort to maximise our vote over the next couple of weeks.

Lee - Thanks for taking the time to comment thoughtfully as ever, but I really don't think there is anything lacking in integrity about criticising the Liberal Democrats for the policies that they support.

On the NHS, they aren't just planning to reallocate within the budget. Vince Cable said that it "doesn't make sense" to cut other areas of spending but to protect health, and unlike Labour and the Tories, there is no commitment by the Lib Dems to maintain or increase NHS spending.

If Labour or the Tories talked about the NHS being a "sacred cow" and that its funding should not be protected, the Lib Dems would be the first to criticise them.

This is particularly important when the Lib Dems are also saying that they want another £13 billion of spending cuts, but haven't decided where these are going to fall. I've got no idea, and I suspect you haven't either, about where the Lib Dems would cut, particularly as they have already raised taxes and cut lots of other items of spending.

On cutting taxes for the rich/support for the unemployed - Labour's jobs guarantee includes the offer of a job, 25 hours per week on the minimum wage for unemployed people. The Lib Dems haven't got this guarantee in their manifesto, but instead are planning to offer apprenticeships for £55/week.

(I reckon that if I took the names of the parties away and said that one party was planning to give a tax cut to millionaires and £55/week for young unemployed people, and the other was planning to create 100,000 jobs at the minimum wage or above for young unemployed people, you would agree that the second was a better option).

It strikes me as not unreasonable to suggest that rather than spending £17bn on a tax cut for everyone, it would be better to spend £2bn to help people get jobs and £15bn on a tax cut for all but the top 10%.

On Thatcher and the unions, Clegg and Cable keep on comparing the bankers to trade unions as vested interests. It is hardly an isolated example of their anti-union rhetoric. And it is all very well bemoaning the effects of Thatcherism, but they "recognise the necessity" of the actions which created this inequality.

On the points about coalitions, we will have to agree to disagree, but I don't see what is so outrageous about pointing out that there is a risk that if people vote Lib Dem, they will end up doing a deal with the Tories, and that this will have negative consequences on issues such as Europe, climate change, women's rights and so on.

Now this might not persuade you to vote Labour rather than Lib Dem (it is not intended to!), but I can't see anything there which is lacking in integrity - it is a matter of highlighting different political priorities, rather than personal attacks, demonising vulnerable people or any of the other campaigning techniques which are all too common from all parties.

At 9:05 am , Anonymous Daniel Blaney said...

i think this is probably the best blog post you have ever written

At 3:37 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lee, I think I can clear up (4) Cut for support to unemployed.

The key is the word "support", which is unspeak for the sort of thing discussed here - to wit, hiring private companies to harass unemployed people off the dole and into other categories of poverty e.g. "training", "economic inactivity" or workfare.

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