The three-way tribal war in the Labour Party

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 29 May 2012 in Diary
Labour has recovered from the divisions of its leadership contest, but there are now three groups fighting over the party's future strategy

The Labour Party has – except for a few stragglers – largely got over the battles around the leadership. The result that was announced in the autumn of 2010 has finally been accepted in the spring of 2012 as Ed has had a good year and capitalised well on the government having a worse one.

This is probably a relief to all sides (again except for a tiny handful of stragglers). Not because those who supported other candidates, and particularly those who supported David feel they were wrong, but because that fight became first a proxy for – then a distraction from – the real argument that Labour are having now about strategy. This one is hotting up and while I fully expect it to be considerably less bitter than the leadership skirmishes, it will be no less divisive or decisive about the future direction of the party.

Interestingly, one reason this battle matters is because all parts of the Labour Party believe that we can win again in 2015, though few yet think that we will. There is no sense of knowing victory is in our grasp, and no complacency at all. If there were, these strategic arguments would matter less.  But there is a sense of the possibility of victory that is tantalisingly close: it’s how we might reach it that is exciting the various strands of strategists who offer their advice to Labour.

There seem to be three distinct strands of thought, which for shorthand, I will insultingly call the triangulaters, the mobilisers and progressive majoritarians.

The first real shot was fired recently from the Fabian Society in an interesting article by their relatively new General Secretary Andrew Harrop, in which he introduced the concept of Ed’s Converts – 2010 Lib Dem voters who were now overwhelmingly voting Labour, and who were – on the whole – more left than right-wing on a range of issues. This research could become the central text of the mobilisers who are generally arguing – as Ed Miliband has done since his leadership election – that Labour must look at how to win back the five million votes it lost since 1997, only 20% of which went to the Tories.

The triangulators have answered back in three articles in the most recent edition of Progress magazine. Caroline Flint progresses the traditional Southern Discomfort argument, tweaked for post-2010 circumstances; and Joan Ryan looks at the electoral math in both Lib Dem marginal seats and in Labour/Tory marginals arguing that a focus on Lib Dem votes alone will not be enough, and we have to also attract Tory switchers.

I naturally fall into the mobilisers camp. I want to believe that this strategy can and will work, because I think it gives a future Labour government more space, more licence, to behave in a more socially democratic way. I find some of Joan's arguments unconvincing. She argues that there are some Lib Dems who are not and probably never will be Labour voters. I agree completely, but that's surely at least equally true of the Tories. It also ignores the vast change in fortunes of the Liberal Democrats since 1997. But Joan's numbers are important, and serve as a stark warning to the mobilisers as to the challenges faced by Labour. It won’t be easy, and can’t come from false hopes and easy assumptions about Lib Dem voters.

Lib Dem switchers alone will not be enough. But does that have to mean fishing in the Tory pool? Some would argue no. That what really needs to happen is the re-engage those voters who supported us in 1997, but who drifted fully away from political engagement. Again, I want to be convinced by this, but I need more proof.

Finally there are the progressive majoritarians who believe the best outcome to be a Lab-Lib coalition. While this was quite a popular concept before the election, it has suffered two major set-backs in the formation of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition and subsequent rejection of AV. Robert Philpot, in his Progress article on the rise and potential fall of the Lib Dems points out the possibly fatal flaw that any rump of Lib Dems left is likely to be a very disparate bunch ranging from David Laws to Tim Farron. There are no guarantees that a post-2015 Liberal Democrat Party would see itself as a natural fit with Labour, even if Labour were to be the largest party after an election.

While, to put it mildly, progressive majoritarians and triangulators are not dead keen on each other, they probably have more common ground than they might think. Both, for example, believe that chasing the Lib Dem vote is a mistake for Labour. The progressive majoritarians and mobilisers come from a similar place in the party, but see a different emphasis on our relationship with the Lib Dems and their (former?) voters. The mobilisers think a notion of a progressive majority is naive while the progressive majoritarians are dismayed by the tribalism of the mobilisers.

What is needed from all sides is proof. The Fabians have started this, and Joan Ryan has come back with a different kind of analysis. Both sides need a lot more artillery in their armour. In the end, it would be wrong for Labour to reject votes from any grouping. The emphasis will be on the best ways of attracting enough groups to form a majority. The strategists will need to consider not just how to attract different voter groupings but what repels them. Building any electoral coalition is a delicate operation, and whoever Ed Miliband listens to he will end up feeling like a man carrying a precious Ming vase down a long and slippery corridor. The question is: which strategy will get the vase to the pedestal and Ed into No 10? 

Tags: Andrew Harrop, Caroline Flint, Ed Miliband, Joan Ryan, Labour Party

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