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Commentary 327 – August 2008
20 July 2008 (17:06:23)


There is no-one in the Liberal Democrats who knows for certain how to respond to a failing Labour government.

It is easy for the party to respond to a failing Tory one – it does what comes naturally and targets a slew of seats where it has a comfortable second place anyway and a substantial local base.

But there has never before been a Labour government on the ropes without the Liberals having been in an even worse state – think post-war meltdown (1951), a collapse into irrelevance (1970) and the backwash of the unpopular Lib-Lab pact and Thorpe scandal (1979).

For most of this year, the Lib Dem poll rating has hovered around 18%, a level that would, at this stage in a parliament, be no great cause for concern were the Tory and Labour ratings closer together.

But they aren’t. Labour is in such straits that its rating is not far above the Lib Dem one, while the Tories enjoy a huge lead.

That might mean that the Lib Dems stand to pick up a substantial number of Labour seats at the next general election – but at the same time lose many to the Tories if the relative positions of the parties stay where they are.

Two questions flow from that. Are there a sufficient number of winnable Labour seats? And can they be won while safeguarding existing seats from the Tories?

Again, the reverse situation gives little guide. In 1997, the Lib Dems had only a handful of seats vulnerable to Labour and could freely pillage from the Tories. Come 2010, there could be a handful of gains from Labour and large losses to the Tories.

Some will argue that the solution is to adopt poses that will appeal to Tory voters. But where do they think the Tory surge has come from? The Lib Dem poll rating has been more or less static, while the Tories have progressed as Labour has slumped.

Voters fed up with Labour are crossing over to the Tories because they do not see or hear anything that impresses them from the Lib Dems. Starting to appeal to these disillusioned Labour voters would seem not just the most straightforward way of both winning Labour seats and stemming the Tory poll lead but also politically a lot easier than courting hardened Tories.

Nick Clegg’s announcements in July on tax policy could be part of such an appeal, but only if he is careful about how this message is presented.

The party is trying to pitch its case as tax cuts for low and middle income earnings at the expense of the super rich and those who pollute.

One problem is presentational – the old policy of a higher tax rate for those who earn more than £100,000 a year was both simple to grasp and sent an easily understood signal about the party’s attitudes to fairness.

Regardless of its merits, the new tax policy is far more complex, and any proposition is liable to fail if grasping it depends on voters’ willingness to peruse abstruse financial detail.

The second problem is that the Lib Dems were successful a decade ago in convincing voters that more public spending raised from taxation was needed, in particular for schools.

That argument was won then and, unless Clegg stresses that he believes his new policy will help those on lower incomes and improve social justice, it is likely to be heard simply as ‘tax cuts’. Thanks in part to earlier Lib Dem campaigning successes, many voters will simply interpret that as meaning poorer public services.

A rather less awkward area in which the party can pitch its appeal is civil liberty.

This used to be a subject that obsessed liberals and bored everyone else – a bit like electoral reform. Not so now; alarm about Labour’s wish to turn Britain into a police state has now permeated the public.

Curiously, it was civil service carelessness with personal data that gave this issue salience and made voters think about why the government had the data in the first place and the uses to which it might be put.

There has been a visible shift in the public mood against ID cards, and the row over 42 days detention has contributed to a mood that questions Labour’s simplistic claim that those doing no wrong have nothing to fear.

Labour already has an out-of-control DNA database. It now proposes to snoop on every phone call, e-mail and internet search made by anyone in the country, a stance one would once only have expected from a dictatorship.

This all moves civil liberty from a theoretical debate to one that can be couched as ‘are you happy with the government knowing everything about you?’, ‘are you happy with the way that information might be used/lost?’ and ‘what about your privacy – who is watching you?’

The Lib Dems ought to be able to be both right and popular in being identified with civil liberty.

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