There were, however, two other interesting findings last week from which we can draw more serious lessons.
The first was a poll published on Conservative Home that showed, for the first time, voting intentions in a contest between the Labour party and joint Tory-Lib Dem coalition candidates. The poll, which placed Labour on 45 per cent against the coalition’s 38 per cent, revealed that 83 per cent of Tory voters would support a joint candidate, but only 32 per cent of Liberal Democrat voters would do the same. The poll, which placed the joint coalition ticket down by nine per cent compared with the two parties standing separately, will do much to aid the the Tory right – currently reeling from suggestions that the coalition could become a permanent feature of British politics. It should also be a reminder to the Liberal Democrat leadership that while the public are pretty happy with the idea of parties working together in the national interest, the overwhelming majority of their voters do not want the Tories in government. However cosy the consensus between Cameron and Clegg, the coalition remains a creature of Westminster rather than a state of mind in the country.
This seeming lack of predictable tribalism among voters should also be taken on board by those attempting the argue their case for or against the Alternative Vote on the basis of presumed party advantaged and voting behaviours. There has been a tendency among supporters on both sides of the argument to make lazy assumptions about how voters may (or may not) choose to use their transfers, as if they were delegates on the floor of the National Union of Students’ conference in the 1970s, following a clear line from national organisers. One of the reasons I support AV is that it will require political parties to engage in a conversation with every voter in an attempt to garner first and second preferences. There should be no ‘no-go areas’ for Labour.
The other interesting finding last week came from the latest in a series of focus groups being conducted by Deborah Mattinson with swing voters in Harlow. Mattinson confirmed that while the voters were ‘angry and anxious’, their ‘ire was reserved for Clegg’ with David Cameron emerging ‘relatively unscathed’. This, combined with two polls over the weekend showing Labour enjoying a comfortable lead in Oldham East and Saddleworth, will come as good news to Debbie Abrahams and her campaign team as they seek to hold on to a super marginal seat in rather extraordinary circumstances. But this is not a strategy for winning the country.
Once the dust settles on the Oldham by-election – and hopefully Debbie Abrahams is sworn in as Labour’s newest member of parliament – Labour needs to turn its guns on the Tories and their leader. Our alternative vision for the country must be compelling enough to ensure that the millions of voters Labour has lost since 1997 are inspired to turn out and support us once more. But while many of these will be those who abstained or voted for smaller parties, including the Liberal Democrats, we should not pretend that we haven’t lost votes to the Tories as well.
If we’re to win back power and win big – particularly if the election is fought with AV – our strategy must be grounded in three realities: that voters are not as tribal as us; that the swing voters of places like Harlow are yet to be convinced that David Cameron is as bad as we think; and that we have yet to offer a sufficient alternative. Ed Miliband has enjoyed a more successful first 100 days than he is sometimes given credit for, but he faces quite a challenge to make progress in these areas in 2011.
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