Saturday, June 07, 2008

Should the Lib Dems love bomb David Cameron?

There was an important article on this week, written by Mike Smithson. He discussed the problems the Liberal Democrats have had campaigning against the Conservatives ever since David Cameron became leader and suggested a way forward for the party.

He writes:
in the two and a half years since Cameron became Tory leader the Lib Dems have gone through three leaders themselves and still do not have effective rhetoric for dealing with NuCon. What do they say about a party that has surged in the polls and now looks as though it will form the next government?
Smithson suggests that the rhetoric used in the "We're Off to a Great Start" e-mail we all received from Nick Clegg a few days ago does not cut the mustard:
Our message of building a fairer society through lower taxes and a better deal for hard-working families is being very well received. Many people are already telling us that we have more substantial policies for local people than David Cameron's Conservatives, who aren't even bothering to spell out what they stand for.
As Smithson says, "It just appears so limp." And the need for us to find an answer to Cameron is all the stronger in Henley, as we are in a clear second place to the Conservatives there.

When looking at Cameron there are two important things to bear in mind. The first is that, particularly after a decade of Labour government when it is becoming increasingly hard to persuade people they should pay more tax, an environmentally aware, socially liberal Conservative Party would be attractive to many people, perhaps in particular the sort of people who vote Liberal Democrat. The Polly Toynbee argument that all we need is more public money spent on the the things of which she approves will no longer do.

The second is that the commitment to these policies among the Conservatives is shallow even amongst Cameron's circle, and large parts of the Conservative Party hate them.

So what is Smithson's alternative? He writes:

My view, which I have argued here before, is for for Clegg and others in the leadership to go with the grain of public opinion and accept that Cameron is sincere in his desire to change his party. The big question then to raise repeatedly whether the wider Conservative party would allow the leadership to follow the path it is setting out. Attack the Tory party not its leader.

When Cameron does something that is broadly “liberal”, like say the stance on gay partnerships, then Clegg ought to be praising him - a move that could accentuate divisions between the leadership and the wider Tory party.

This makes sense to me. Nick Clegg's current Mr Angry, plague on both your houses act in the Commons will soon pale and there is a need for more light and shade in his performance.

So he could welcome Cameron's husky hugging trip but express regret that Conservative taxation policies pay no attention to the environment. He can welcome Carmeron's opposition to the scrapping of the 10p tax band and then point out that the Tories have no policies in place to help the lower paid. He can welcome the fresh thinking from the Tories in education, and then point out that every time Michael Gove opens his mouth he call for more state intervention.

I recall Simon Carr, the Independent sketchwriter, urging this strategy upon the Tories when Tony Blair was prime minister. Simply say how much they agree with the reforms he is pushing through and then sit back and enjoy the fury on the Labour back-benches.

It is harder to implement such a strategy when you are the third party worrying about the second party, and it is hard to see quite how it would translate into a by-election campaign in Henley.

But we Lib Dems badly need some new ideas when it comes to tackling the Tories, and Smithson's idea offers an interesting avenue to explore.


Anonymous said...

In Ireland in one election in which it was clear that Fianna Fail were going to be the largest party but need a coalition partner, the Progressive Democrats (a liberal(ish) centre-right party)did well by arguing that only they could keep Fianna Fail honest. Didn't work as a long term strategy though - done to two TDs now.

Anonymous said...

David Cameron love bombed Lib Dems, and it seems he succeeded in persuading some Lib Dem supporters to his side, so maybe Mike Smithson's idea could be worth to try. If any luck, Lib Dems could deepen the internal divisions of the Conservative Party.

asquith said...

Brilliant post.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post...i totally agree with attacking the body of the Tory Party....Cameron is an isolated voice in the wider Parliamentry party and his rhetoric is already showing signs of concession to what we know is mainstream, reactionary and bigoted Conservative the ball not the man...

Anonymous said...

When one imagines a Cameron government, one naturally envisages rebellious right-wing backbenchers causing him a major headache, and Cameron actually lacking the authority to put such rebellions down.

As with Blair in 1997, the rest of the Conservative party is, in truth, only staying silent because they know Cameron's their best hope of getting into government; as soon as he's in, they'll let rip. The trick is to goad them into exploding beforehand.

Anonymous said...

The inherent danger with this strategy is, you give the voter an incentive to "cut out the middleman" and go straight to the Tories.

To most voters the leader IS the party; make Cameron seem "a decent bloke" and you make the Tories into the same.

Personally, I think the Daily Mail has it right about Cameron:

Jonathan Calder said...

So what do you recommend, Tabman? An "anti-toff" campaign based on Labour's in Crewe, but (here's the twist) led by an old boy of Westminster?