Monday, 19 April 2010

Ball on the slates -what's Labour's response?

Labour's subliminal message to Lib Dem supporters in marginal seats

I don't know, you go away for one weekend and...

After suffering a technical and possibly existential crisis at that exact moment between the end of Thursday's election debate and my newspaper's deadline I decided I'd take a weekend away from politics.

Where did I end up? At Winston Churchill's House, Chartwell, in the Kent countryside with headlines pumping Nick Clegg as being almost as popular as the wartime Prime Minister.

(That's Churchill who went on to lose the following General Election, as George Jones, former Telegraph pol ed, reminded me this morning).

The last words I heard on Thursday night before tuning out were Andrew Neil's, declaring that we should ignore the polls for the next 48 hours as they would be all over the place.

Well, four days on Clegg is still almost as popular as Churchill and Labour are third in the share of the popular vote in the opinion polls. It's a big headache for Cameron too because he is now so last year. There's a New Change candidate in town now, and like a new brand of washing powder he's scooping up the market share.

Gordon Brown laughed off the Lib Dem roll at this morning's Labour press conference in London. "I have some experience of short honeymoons," he quipped. Truth is no one knows where this will end up.

By quirk of the constituency boundaries Labour would still emerge as the largest party in Parliament on today's polls even if it is third in the popular share of the vote.

In the current electoral system the Lib Dems with 30% of the vote can still only get between 60 and 80 MPs. If they did really well they would get up to and possibly over100 MPs and that looks like the outer limits.

But laughing off the Lib Dems won't quite do.If the Lib Dems are seen as the main anti-Tory party of 21st century British politics that provokes a bit of an existential crisis for the Labour party itself.

Let's deal with that philosophical point another time. In terms of vote Labour strategists doing the numbers over the weekend know that in the 15 or so Labour/Lib Dem marginals they could suffer if the Clegg balloon does not deflate in the next two debates.

The Tories could suffer very badly down there in the South West where they hoped to lawnmower the Lib Dems down to about 45 MPs. These assumptions are off for the time being.

The really interesting place is the 100 or so Labour- Tory marginals where for the last three elections Labour has relied on Lib Dem supporters to vote tactically and lend them a vote to keep the Tories out.

If that informal alliance begins to unravel in the marginals, presumably because Lib Dem supporters begin to believe their own propaganda and vote Lib Dem thinking they have a chance of power (they don't), then Labour could be in big trouble.

The result is that the Tories could win in the marginals, and win a majority, but it is a question of which of the two parties bleeds the most support to the Lib Dems. Just now it looks like for every two Tory votes going to the Lib Dems one Labour vote is going. All this three-way and four-way chess is something that the Scottish electorate is quite used to but it's a novel development at UK level.

It really is a case of small Lib Dem surge, bad for Tories, big Lib Dem wave bad for Labour. Labour have to start learning to surf, and learn very quickly, to ride the Lib Dem wave back into power. Somehow Lib Dems have to be persuaded to keep on voting Labour when their own party is at it's highest level of support ever. Tricky, but not as hard as what David Cameron has to do - appeal to people who want change when he looks like last year's change model.

Gordon Brown doesn't think it's going to be about looks in the end - it's about the economy stupid. That's why Labour majored on that at their press conference today, tomorrow and all of this week when GDP figures, unemployment and inflation figures are coming out.

You've got to admire Brown's doggedness, he looked quite confident today. He does not know the meaning of defeat. It reminded me of a quote I saw at the Churchill exhibition at Chartwell from one of his commanding officers in India along the lines of: "that fellow Churchill, I don't like him, but one day he'll be Prime Minister of England"

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