No quarter to the LDs
Luke Pollard, who fought an excellent campaign as PPC for SW Devon, has an interesting post on labourlist today: http://www.labourlist.org/a-west-country-balancing-act-luke-pollard
He warns that
"in Labour’s haste to highlight Lib Dem errors and poor judgment let’s also be mindful that for many years the Liberal Democrats were the only party stopping the Tories sweeping the West county. This is important because an outright Tory majority might well be aided by gains west of Bristol.
Labour must find a careful balance between winning more votes and activists and letting the Tories in by the back door. If Cameron is indeed setting the Liberal Democrats up as scapegoats for the coalition’s progressive agenda then it will be in places like the West country where he hopes to complete the deal by winning Lib Dem seats.
Labour has our own fights in the West county and in many Tory/Lib Dem battleground seats frankly we can do little to influence the final outcome. Should that stop us from fighting and highlighting the Lib Dem’s betrayal of ordinary West country folk? Absolutely not. As far as I’m concerned they’re fair game but let’s remember for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction - and we might not always like the consequences."
I don't share his concerns about a Labour boost in the South West gifting current LD seats to the Tories.
This is for three reasons:
1) If we use the referendum next year to switch to Alternative Vote, all such "tactical" voting and campaigning becomes a thing of the past. All voters can use their first preference to vote with their heart for the party they really back, then use their second preference to vote tactically for say the LDs if the seat is an LD vs Con marginal. There is no possibility of the Tories winning seats on a split centre-left vote because AV requires every winner to have 50%+ of the votes cast, after transfers. Thus we'd get to see the real level of Labour support in rural southern seats, not the level after it has been depressed by Lib Dem tactical voting squeeze messages. In some seats it might turn out that the LDs are not even in second place once tactical voting is stripped out.
2) So what if the LDs do lose some seats to the Tories? Pre-Coalition anyone on the centre-left would clearly rationally prefer a Lib Dem MP to a Tory one but it is very difficult to see what the great advantage is, if they are signed up to a common five-year programme with a joint whips' office, which on the evidence of the last two months is positioned somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan. To be worthy of being lent tactical votes by Labour supporters, or of Labour backing off and not campaigning hard in their constituencies, Lib Dem MPs and PPCs need to actually vote in the Commons in a leftwing way. Voting for cuts and VAT rises on a scale Thatcher would have been embarrassed about leaves me unable to see why the presence of extra Lib Dem MPs in the Commons is in any meaningful way preferable to the presence of extra Tories.
3) The starting point for winning any seat is to believe your party has a right to challenge to win in that area. If we write-off the rural south as a no-go zone it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. You would never catch the Lib Dems looking at an area and saying "we don't belong there, it's a Con vs Lab fight". They find a ward or two where there is some demographic hope for them and work it like crazy until they get a toehold on a council, then build that into a wedge of council seats, then put out some barcharts saying they are in second place even when they are a weak third, and the next thing you know they are the actual challenger, have squeezed the third party, and won. We need to be just as ruthless and long-termist - but without the fibs in our barcharts.
Labour needs to use the LDs' realignment through the Coalition to occupy the centre-left territory they have vacated. We need to exploit the fact that voters in LD vs Con seats to longer have a meaningful political choice presented to them. We need to get over the cultural cringe that says there are no-go areas for us where we don't run council candidates and have only paper candidates in general elections.
This moment needs to be our equivalent of Howard Dean's 50 state strategy which was one of the building blocks of Obama's victory. It doesn't mean ditching ruthless targeting and focusing of resources on marginal seats when things get down to hard tacks in the run-up to the next election. It does mean using the early part of the electoral cycle to rebuild our organisation in all 650 seats, replicate the 1995 "Operation Toehold" when we seconded staff to help get a Labour Group of councillors on every council in the country, and prove we are the only truly national party. With a boundary review and possibly a new electoral system coming the list of marginal seats is being thrown up in the air. By getting stuck in to areas that are not in Labour's comfort zone but where there is an anti-Tory tradition that has been let down by the LDs, we might just create the kind of unexpected long-shot gains that were so pleasing in 1997 - or lay the groundwork for gaining those seats Lib Dem style over several elections.