Labour is targeting Tory voters and should not be thinking about a coalition after 2015, Michael Dugher tells Robert Philpot and Richard Angell
A leading member of Ed Miliband’s general election team has ridiculed suggestions that Labour is pursuing a ‘35 per cent strategy’ aimed solely at attracting the support of disenchanted Liberal Democrats, and made clear the party intends to target Tory voters.
In an interview with Progress, Michael Dugher also dismisses suggestions that Labour should prepare for possible coalition negotiations with the Liberals Democrats in the event of another hung parliament as ‘the politics of defeatism’.
The so-called 35 per cent strategy rests partly on the argument made by some on the left that the party can eke out a victory in 2015 by shoring up Labour’s core vote, trying to attract non-voters to the polls, and consolidating the support of Liberal Democrat voters who feel betrayed by Nick Clegg. Such a strategy, argue its proponents, would avoid Labour having to reach out to those who voted Tory in 2010 and could allow it to fight the election on a more leftwing programme. Critics argue that this could leave Miliband with only 35 per cent of the vote – enough, perhaps, to make Labour the largest party but not to secure a working parliamentary majority.
But Dugher, a vice-chair of the party responsible for political and campaign communications, hits back at this, arguing: ‘I’ve never seen any evidence of a 35 per cent strategy anywhere in the Labour party. I think there’s an occasional … lone gunman out on some lonely blogsite saying that the Labour party has a 35 per cent strategy and maybe they think that if they keep saying it often enough, it’ll be true. But it wasn’t true the first time they said it and it’s still not true now.’ Instead, the recently promoted shadow minister for the Cabinet Office says, ‘We’ve got a 106-seat strategy and in order to land those 106 seats you need in excess of 40 per cent’, a level not achieved since Tony Blair’s re-election in 2001. ‘That’s our strategy,’ he says. ‘Labour’s general election strategy is “target 106”. So this 35 per cent is a myth and it’s also mischief.’
Dugher goes on to warn against attempts to ‘compartmentalise voters’, calling it a ‘too-clever-by-half strategy’. ‘You can’t have “right, Wednesday let’s talk to pissed-off Lib Dems day” and then “Thursday, we’re going to target Tory switchers” … It won’t work,’ he argues. Instead, Dugher suggests the party needs ‘a vision for the whole of the country and that’s something that will have appeal for people who’ve voted Labour in the past, people who’ve never voted at all for anyone, first-time voters, people who have voted for numerous different parties, people who voted Tory last time, people who voted Lib Dem last time.’
Labour’s focus on the ‘cost of living crisis’, believes Dugher, provides an opportunity for it to have ‘one conversation’ with the voters. He cites figures from the Office for National Statistics which show that the fall in the hourly earnings of employees in Great Britain since the general election is highest and above the national average in three regions – the south-west, east Midlands and west Midlands – where the Tories hold a majority of the seats. ‘A cost of living campaign is a “One Nation” campaign,’ he argues. ‘Across the country families are struggling, including in regions where the Conservatives have the highest number of seats.’
Giving a hint at Labour’s likely message to those swing voters who switched from Labour to the Conservatives in 2010, Dugher accepts that many of them did so because they wanted to see change. David Cameron’s failure to deliver on that promise provides an opportunity for Labour to win them back. ‘There’s quite a huge amount of disappointment among those voters because they thought 2010 was supposed to be a “change election”,’ Dugher argues. ‘They thought Cameron was promising change, that he’d changed the Conservative party – look at what he was saying on the environment or about “we’re all in this together”, about the NHS or about childcare. This was a ‘changed’ Conservative party.’ The ‘compassionate Conservatism’ which the prime minister offered in opposition has been all but abandoned in government, believes Labour’s vice-chair. ‘Cameron seems to have dumped any pretence [of] being a party that is remotely interested in climate change or the National Health Service or what’s happening in childcare and looks more and more like an old Conservative politician really from the … Major era – which is his background – which is about cutting taxes for the wealthiest,’ he claims.
The appointment of Lynton Crosby as the Tories’ chief strategist, suggests Dugher, indicates that party intends to fight a campaign in 2015 modelled on those which it ran in 1992 and 2005. ‘They talk about rerunning the 1992 campaign,’ he says. ‘Does that basically mean they get the Daily Mail and some News International papers to make absurdly over-the-top personal attacks on Ed Miliband? That seems to me their basic strategy at the moment and to use huge scare tactics about what would happen with Labour and about blaming everything on the previous Labour government.’
Labour’s defeat in 1992 after a sustained media assault led to a conscious attempt when Blair became opposition leader to woo News International and improve the party’s news-management skills. As Gordon Brown’s chief political spokesman during much of his time as prime minister, Dugher is acutely conscious of the damage that a hostile media can inflict. But huge declines in newspaper readership lead him to believe the party needs to think anew about how it handles the press. ‘I think the lesson throughout all of that period is that you have got to rise above all of that,’ he says. ‘You can’t ignore the media but the politics that is about responding to today’s headline or tomorrow’s headlines will get you nowhere.’ Recalling the Sun’s famous front page after John Major was re-elected, Dugher argues: ‘There is no doubt in my mind [that] no one newspaper will be able to say, as the Sun did in 1992, “it was us wot won it”.’ Nonetheless, he believes that broadcast media has ‘still got primacy’. ‘Most people get their news in the same way that they did in 1992: through the TV … The [news at] six and ten are still really, really important,’ he suggests.
However, Dugher argues that, for Labour to capitalise on the disenchantment he believes many of those who switched to the Tories in 2010 feel, the party has got to show both that it has changed and that it can deliver the kind of change such voters were seeking in 2010. He holds up Labour’s shift on immigration as proof that the party is capable of doing so. ‘Our candidate for prime minister in 2010 referred to a working-class woman from the north of England as bigoted because she raised issues about immigration,’ the shadow Cabinet Office minister says. ‘Our candidate for prime minister in 2013 makes lots of speeches about immigration and has changed our policy on immigration. These are big, big changes that he’s making, learning the lessons of that 2010 defeat. And I think that is us being the change.’
But what about the charge that Labour still trails the Conservatives in the polls on critical attributes like the ability to take tough decisions? ‘Look at the tough decision we took on public sector pay. That didn’t go down well in every single corner of the Labour movement, I think it is fair to say,’ he responds, before listing a series of other examples: the party’s refusal to say it will renationalise Royal Mail or reverse the government’s changes to child benefit, its acceptance of the principle of the welfare cap, and pledge to end winter fuel payments for the richest five per cent of pensioners. ‘These are all really tough decisions. We weren’t saying this at the last election,’ Dugher argues. ‘No one can accuse us of not taking tough decisions.’
Labour’s vice-chair is, moreover, unperturbed by the fact that 2013 has seen the party’s lead over the Conservatives narrow substantially. ‘The polls will keep changing and it will be nip-and-tuck all the way until the election,’ he says. Miliband, Dugher notes, has ‘always said that the next election will be a very tight election’.
Despite accepting that 2015 might be a close result, Dugher labels suggestions that Labour might need to learn from its lack of preparation in the run-up to the 2010 general election for coalition negotiations with the Liberal Democrats as ‘complete defeatism’. Britain’s voting system, he believes, makes hung parliaments and coalitions a rarity. ‘There is no historical evidence that we are now into an era of coalition government because that is not, rightly, what our system produces. I think it was quite a unique experience and, for most people, not a happy one after 2010.’
Dugher, a long-time opponent of electoral reform and greater pluralism on the left, believes that the country’s experience of coalition government since 2010 makes one less likely after 2015. ‘The biggest blow to coalition government has happened in the last three and a half years once people have seen what coalition government is like: that horse-trading behind closed doors and the routine breaking of promises … I think people want to see strong and clear government that they can hold to account,’ he says. Is his point of principle such that he thinks a majority government – whatever its political persuasion – is always better than a coalition government? ‘As a point of principle,’ he laughs, ‘a majority Labour government is always better.’
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