As part of the FT’s expert election panel, our three contributors will occasionally be giving their thoughts on the big election news story of the day.
Today, we asked how do the Tories and Labour need to change their tactics and strategy mid-campaign. How do the parties cope with pressure for changes of tactics and how do you balance the need for a different tack with a need not to panic?
Miranda Green, former press secretary to Paddy Ashdown:
So far the Conservative attempt to eschew the nastiness that brands them as “the same old Tories” (their most vulnerable spot, say the focus groups) has left them with not much to say except to warn of the dangers of the current electoral system delivering perverse outcomes – the system that they alone now defend as suited to modern political needs. Even in a worst case scenario for the Lib Dems, ie the Cleggmania bubble bursting and back to a mid20s vote-share by polling day, the arguments for voting reform are strengthening all the time. If the Tories end up shut out of power yet again, their own people will start asking why the system is allowed to be so biased against them. Meanwhile, amazingly, Labour seems to have forgotten to tell people why they should vote Labour and just to be discussing future post-poll scenarios. None of this currently hurts Clegg at all.
In my view the dangers of a big clunking hug from Gordon are being a bit overstated, partly because Nick Clegg himself is not personally at all interested in the “let’s heal the historic divisions on the left” pleas coming from Labour, and partly because all this furore allows him to be the only leader actually setting out his stall to the voters, with the media, for once, having to report what he says.
On possible alliances post-poll, belated attempts to understand the nuances of Lib Dem internal dynamics can exaggerate divisions between social democrats and more free-market types (who include the leader) within the party. If there was a hung parliament and discussions on forming a government programme had to go to a Lib Dem special conference, it would all depend on enough of Clegg and Cable’s four priorities being in that programme to satisfy left-leaning delegates. A redistributive tax policy and a cross-party plan to tackle the deficit without killing the public services would allow Lib Dems to cohere rather than squabble – this election platform has already involved a lot of internal negotiations. And Clegg would be negotiating from a position of strength – he is right to point out that the others are starting to look “desperate”, but who knows where we will be after this week’s debate?
Charles Lewington, former press secretary to John Major:
Cleggmania will be having a morale-sapping effect on Tory HQ. There’s an old adage that you need to win seven of the 10 big issues of contention in any campaign but since last Friday, Cameron has struggled to get much of a message across – that’s six lost days out of 30. I assume this lies behind the decision to commission poster advertising with a core policy message (on welfare) that the party might otherwise have delivered for free on the evening news.
Gordon Brown’s warm embrace of Clegg will help Tory candidates position Liberal Democrats as friends of the discredited government in Labour-Tory marginals where the Liberals are a close third, which explains why Clegg is busy fending off the unwelcome advances. Labour’s lack of strategic clarity could be working to Tory advantage, certainly making it easier to associate Lib Dem policies (esp. on immigration, Europe and crime) with those of the outgoing government. However it remains to be seen whether any of these subtleties will work on the X-Factor generation of new younger voters.
Thursday’s debate presents more opportunities for Cameron to re-assume the mantle of change but nobody should assume that Clegg will do a Susan Boyle. The nervous breakdown might be ours!
Matthew Taylor, former director of policy, No 10:
The Conservatives and Labour have taken diametrically opposite approaches to the LibDem phenomenon. The Tories are emphasising policy differences while Labour (although there are dissenting voices) is extolling the virtues of a progressive alliance. The dangers are obvious. The Conservatives can be pushed to the right by an attack strategy that focuses on immigration, Europe and tax. As well as alienating the centre and those people who dislike adversarial politics, this could make Cameron look shallow and opportunistic – as if Cameron Conservatism was just a ploy. The danger for Labour is that they too look weak, happy with being third and staying in power as the consequence not of popular support but an electoral quirk. It is bizarre to see Labour spokespeople looking relaxed about what is set to be Labour’s worst general election performance in two generations.
One interesting dimension is the pressure put on campaign HQ by candidates. I would imagine that Labour candidates fighting the Lid Dems are incandescent about the presentation of Clegg as Labour’s bosom buddy. As a friend fighting a Lab/LibDem marginal council seat said to me ‘how can I tell voters not to go LibDem when your my leadership seems in love with them’?
How will this play out in tomorrow’s debate? The fulcrum may be Europe. On this issue, Brown may want to make common cause with Clegg, cementing the progressive alliance, by portraying Cameron as being extreme and naïve. On the other hand, Cameron may see this as an opportunity to portray himself as the outsider – the role so successfully adopted by Clegg last week. All in all, another fascinating 36 hours ahead.