In June 2010 many would have said Labour was going to spend a long time in opposition. The Labour government that presided over the trip to the IMF and the recessions of the 1970s left such a legacy of distrust that Labour stayed out of government until 1997. The Conservative government that entered the Exchange Rate Mechanism leading to the recession of the early 1990s has kept the Conservatives from a majority ever since. Surely, many thought, presiding over the huge boom and bust of the last decade and presiding over bank bankruptcies that no-one had seen before in the UK, would mean something similar for Labour?
Yet Labour is now regularly 10% or more ahead in opinion polls, just two years after their bad defeat in 2010. They can thank the Lib Dems for that.
It has been traditional for Conservatives and many in the media to be dismissive of Ed Miliband. I have always advised colleagues to take him seriously and not to underestimate him. His campaign over Murdoch led to the Leveson enquiry which will do damage to the Coalition with the media. His wish to change perceptions of Labour’s approach to immigration is a necessary part of his journey to reconnect with lost Labour voters. Mr Balls has associated them with a growth agenda, which is shrewd political positioning given the state of the world economy.
However, the main reason he is riding high in the polls is that a large number of Lib Dem voters have defected in despair over the Coaltion. The Lib Dems as an opposition party always faced two ways. In Labour seats they posed as the more “left wing” alternative. They gently chided Labour for failing to spend enough public money, for failing to regulate enough, for failing to take up left liberal causes. They made some progress with Labour voters who disliked Blair’s third way spray paint to have some Tory colour. In Conservative seats they posed as Tories with a conscience, as a milder version of Conservative commonsense. They aimed to be to the bigger government side of the Conservatives, but not too far away. Their one principled stand in both areas was on the EU, where they were always the more EU party. It was one of the main reasons they always came a poor third.
Dr Cable’s strange decision to invent and back a scheme for tuition fees was probably the main trigger for the departure of a large number of Lib Dem voters to Labour, early in the life of the government. The fact that they joined the party that first invented and introduced tuition fees was an irony lost on them. This has given depleted Labour a additional natural bloc of around 10% of the vote. It is the main change that has happened. It has more to do with the Lib Dems than with Labour, but it is a potentially tranformative shift in UK politics.
This would not matter so much to David Cameron’s Conservatives, if the Conservative vote was holding. There should be a good 40% plus body of Conservative votes to counter the newly united “left”. However, UKIP is busy trying to split the Conservative vote for the reasons many have often produced on this site. In the 1980s and 1990s there were Conservative governments partly because Labour and Lib Dems were fighting over the big state vote,whilst the smaller state anti EU vote was united.
Mr Osborne’s political strategy work has to deal with both these problems. Can Conservatives attract the wandering Labour and Lib Dem votes as they hope.? There is no evidence that Mr Hague is about to demand the new relationship with the EU that the Eurosceptics want. He does not wish to respind to the UKIP tactics.