First and foremost a massive congratulations to the 800 new Labour councillors. You have a tough job to do and this government is going to make it harder and harder. Just keep remembering who elected you and why and you’ll be fine.
However, despite a provably decent result in England and Wales, knives that were never fully sheathed are out and slashing away at the leadership. Suddenly the Labour right wing have remembered about the existence of Scotland. Ed’s under attack and he needs to be really careful in how he responds.
I’ve said before and I’ll say again: Labour are not going to rerun the leadership elections. We’re just not that suicidal. But if Ed doesn’t calm some of the frayed nerves in the Party, we’ll continue to fight each other rather than the Tories. It will all be done in the name of helping the Party back to victory of course, but will remain a tactic of division and derision to squash those of us who don’t think a neoliberal economic agenda is the best route to either electoral or governing success.
At the moment the air battle in Labour’s internal division is being fought over which voters we are trying to attract – former Labour to Lib Dem switchers or current soft Tory voters. There are dangers in appealing too strongly to one at the expense of the other, but also dangers in trying too much to be all things to all people, leaving a sense of a lack of definition. We need to keep appealing to both but with quite different, but complimentary messages. The Labour leavers have largely – to the extent that they are largely going to be – been convinced to leave their current Lib Dem affiliation (this post is true only in England. I don’t know Scottish politics well enough to comment on the very different issues there). Not all of them have been attracted to Labour, but that is because (rightly) we do not yet have a full policy offering with which to attract them. What we have not yet managed with real numbers is to convince those who are soft Tories to abandon them in any large numbers. The Tories are not yet disastrous enough and memories of disastrous Labour are just too fresh in the minds of these voters. Knocking the legs out from the electoral credibility of the Lib Dems was important for the first group of people. Now the Eds need to keep a focus on the “Too far too fast” message – which polling indicates is taking hold – but start to highlight the damages this is doing as it takes hold – not just the potential for damage people don’t yet see. So I’d like – now the Lib Dems are proved to be something of an irrelevance as an electoral force – a laser-like focus on the Tories. Their errors forced and unforced and the pernicious effects of their policies on most levels of society.
I’ve seen the same polling Ed has and I recognise the dangers of appealing to a Centre-right audience through centre right policies at the risk of alienating the large groups of people who left New Labour over just such triangulation. But you can take the fight to the right without tacking to the right. Labour can talk about the economy without bowing to unpopular corporatism and about crime without bowing to unpopular statism. We have solutions we believe in, that we can fight for on solid ground against the Tories. We won’t beat them by saying “yeah, your mostly right, but we’re nicer because we aren’t Tories”. We have to be more aggressive in taking the fight to them and sidelining the Lib Dems.
Having said all this, I understand but don’t really share the frustration of Dan Hodges and his anonymous backbencher when they stand aghast at Ed choosing to go after the Lib Dems in this Sunday’s Observer. At first glance the message does seem to be unbalanced, too Lib Dem focused at a time when Ed really does need to be taking the fight to the Tories. I think though that in his own way, that’s just what Ed is doing. He’s playing coalition politics and making sure that if the Lib Dems bring down Tory policy, Ed and our Party get our fair Lion’s share of the credit. But Ed has now got to turn his fire more continually on the Tories. But having set that up, Ed must now recognise that if it ever went away, two party politics is back and we have to play accordingly. Also rather more galling, Ed is going to have to be more strategic with how he treats his dissenters inside the Party (probably sometimes at the expense of actually achieving external victories, but sadly, that’s the nature of Party politics). Giving them some of what they’re seeking, but going on a full frontal attack on the Tories might just be the right thing to do for both strategies – internal and external.