I’ve already said what I think about Labour’s decision to target Lib Dem-held constituencies at the expense of Tory-held ones, so I won’t repeat myself here. This article looks at the bigger picture, and how the Labour’s Lib Dem obsession for the past five years ultimately backfired on them.
It is striking how the Labour Party opted to define itself in opposition to the Lib Dems over the last few years, rather than the Tories. The ultimate expression of that was the “EdStone”, a fairly explicit response to Nick Clegg’s broken tuition fee pledge and “no more broken promises” position in 2010. More precisely however, the EdStone was a failed attempt to get Labour out of a hole of its own making.
The main lesson of the Clegg’s 2010 campaign should have been that politicians claim the moral high ground over trust at their own peril. Any party which has been in power for any amount of time knows that not all promises can be kept, even with the best of intentions. After all, I’m a member of the generation of students who was told by their NUS president, a certain Jim Murphy, that we had to drop our support for student grants to help ensure Labour stood by it’s promise not to introduce tuition fees. In the event, Labour – and Jim Murphy MP – did no such thing. More recently in folk memory was of course the notorious Iraq dodgy dossier, and more recent still, the country was still reeling from the 2009 expenses scandal.
The risk that politicians take when they explicitly attempt to taint their opponents with dishonesty is that they end up getting tarred by the same brush. Clegg could get away with it to a limited extent in 2010 because he was a relatively unknown and seen as an outsider. He didn’t need his opponents to do much work making him look shifty after the tuition fees debacle, but Labour went for it like a dog with a bone, even producing their own re-edit of the original Clegg zombie apocalypse PEB.
Did this damage Clegg and the Lib Dems? Undoubtedly. But it didn’t give voters a single reason to support Labour; in fact it reminded them why they abandoned Labour in the first place. Every time Labour focused on this issue, they ceded ground to the Greens, UKIP and SNP who didn’t fit the public’s perception of the politician mold. And as a consequence, they found themselves in a vicious circle, having to up the stakes every time they made an issue out of it. That they ended up having such a problem with trust that they felt they had to engrave their election promises literally in stone for people to believe them should have been a lightbulb moment; when you reach that stage, the truth is that you’ve already lost.
As has been expressed to me on and off the record by numerous Labour activists over the last few years, one of their key objectives over the last few years was to wipe out the Lib Dems, and thus revert back to two party politics. The Tories were keen to see the same thing happen, and so we have seen several examples over the last few years where they have actively colluded to undermine the third party. Miliband himself, to be fair, did briefly put himself above all that during the AV referendum, but lacked the authority to restrain most of his party from signing up with the Tories. They did it again during the attempts to reform the House of Lords. I’ve upset many Lib Dems arguing that they have to accept their own share of the blame for this failure, but that wasn’t to suggest that Labour weren’t also shortsighted.
The attacks were repeated and personal, at one point producing a highly glossy election broadcast in the run up to the European Elections to brand Clegg as the “un-credible shrinking man“. And again, it was extremely effective.
Labour may have been successful in wiping out the Lib Dems, but as we are now all too aware, the attempt to revert to two-party politics went absolutely nowhere. Anyone with any awareness of political and social trends in the UK over the past 50 years could have predicted that would happen. When Labour should have been worried about the Tories, all they seemed capable of focusing on was the Lib Dems and their so-called “betrayal”. It smacks of all-too Old Labour bullying, and like all playground bullies, it revealed a distinct lack of self-confidence and deference to the even “bigger boys”. While he was busy hitting Clegg over the head at every opportunity, Miliband was letting Cameron set the terms of the debate. For all this talk of the Conservatives being stuffed by members of the upper classes, whenever they were in the room Labour couldn’t tug its collective forelock hard enough.
I don’t actually believe, or even particularly make sense of, the idea that Miliband failed because he wasn’t “Blairite” enough. Blair fought his first election campaign when the Tories’ economic reputation was in tatters due to events he could not claim credit for; Miliband faced a party which was, putting to one side how for a moment, steering the country through an economic recovery. Arguing that Miliband should have both taken more responsibility for Labour’s economic mismanagement and claimed more credit for the golden age of Blair, the First Lord of the Treasury who deregulated the City spent money like water during an economic boom which any Keynsian would tell you should have been tackling the national debt, is simply rubbish. Surely they aren’t suggesting that Blair was so weak that he daren’t stand up to Gordon Brown?
But one thing Blair understood was that to govern, he needed to take seats off the Tories and not sweat the small stuff. It is hard to believe he would have achieved the 179 majority he had done if he’d spent so much time and energy trying to stop the Lib Dems from making their own breakthrough, citing the ancestral hatred borne out of the 1983 “betrayal” of the SDP.
If Labour had taken twelve more seats from the Tories instead of the twelve they took from the Lib Dems last week, Cameron would have been denied a majority. More than that however, if it had focused on the Tories over the last five years and not allowed itself to have become obsessed with the notion of restoring a two party hegemony, it would have done better still.
History consistently tells us that the right has always done better out of the two party system than the left, yet this is a lesson that Labour have stubbornly refused to learn. If Labour is serious about coming out of this slump it now finds itself in, it will have to correct this mistake. Membership in the Greens, UKIP, SNP and now, apparently, the Lib Dems, is surging. Like it or not, the smaller parties aren’t going to be going anywhere. It is time they evolved or stepped aside.