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The LibDem response to Tory “love bombing” should be to “love bomb” Cameron right back

September 29th, 2009 Posted in UK Politics by

david-cameron-and-cute-puppyAn interesting subtext of the conference season is how Labour and the LibDems intend to attack the Tories and eat into Cameron’s opinion poll lead.

The Labour approach is to claim that the Conservatives will slash frontline services, occasionally peppered with attempts to portray Cameron and Osbourne as detached, aloof, well-heeled toffs (by, for example, having Labour campaigners prance around Crewe and Nantwich in bowler hats).

The “official” LibDem line (i.e. Clegg’s) is to assert that Cameron is a phoney. The LibDems are “the real thing”, while the Tories are an insipid “fake change” alternative.

Chris Huhne toyed with an alternative strategy – but pulled back from labeling William Hague as a modern day, Munich-putsch organising skinhead in his keynote speech. Nevertheless, in Huhne’s widely reported clash on the Today programme with Eric Pickles, he relentlessly pursued the line that Cameron’s Tories haven’t changed and are essentially right-wing extremists.

I don’t think either Huhne’s or Clegg’s approach is likely to work.

The problem with Nick’s approach is two-fold.

Firstly, it suggests that the LibDems and the Tories are merely differently brands of a very similar product. We’re Coca Cola, they’re Pepsi. We’re Guinness, they’re Beamish. We’re M&S, they’re Mr Byrite.

I bang on relentlessly about the need for us to appeal to soft Tories, but I think we need to do this by offering a superior product not merely by arguing about brand superiority.

Secondly, the electorate don’t know enough about the LibDem product for them to be able to pick up these “real” and “fake” distinctions. If the LibDems were a fizzy drink, the public probably wouldn’t think of us as Coke, they’d think of us as Panda Cola. The makers of Panda Cola don’t advertise that they are “more real” than Coke (partly because – like the LibDems – they don’t have much of a budget to advertise at all).

Chris Huhne’s approach is also flawed. The voters might not be sold on Cameron, but they do believe he is a pretty moderate bloke who has decontaminated the Tory party.  “New Tories, New Danger” will be as ineffective in 2010 as the Blair red eyes advert was in 1997. Portraying Hague as a krypto-Nazi just doesn’t chime with where the public are and, anyway, isn’t remotely true.

So, my (risky) approach would be to love bomb the Tory leadership right back, in an attempt to open up clear daylight between Cameron’s frontbench and the more antediluvian elements of the Conservative party.

If Eric Pickles is attempting to seduce you on early morning radio, don’t shout down the microphone that he’s sitting there in a Gestapo outfit and an armband (apologies for the ghastly image that conjures up). Say how delighted you are that Eric and Dave are 100% fully committed to Britain’s ongoing membership of the European Union, but that you’re a mite concerned that this internationalist sentiment is not universally shared by his fellow MPs.

If the Tory leader has just been on television hugging a hoodie, explain how pleased you are that the Tory leader is embracing more liberal approaches to crime and punishment, but you hope he’s also weeding out the “flog ’em, hang ’em” wing of his party.

Support for Cameron amongst the electorate is wide, but shallow. This point is made endlessly by those arguing that the next election is still wide open. But enthusiasm for Cameron within his own party is pretty fragile too – amazingly so given their poll lead after a dozen years in the wilderness. Many think that splits and divisions will come to the surface within days (or even hours) of Cameron entering Downing Street. We’d be doing the electorate a great service by exposing these splits before polling day rather than waiting for them to naturally emerge afterwards.

8 Responses to “The LibDem response to Tory “love bombing” should be to “love bomb” Cameron right back”

  1. RobW Says:

    This is a very good post. I’ve spoken to a number of Tories and the only reason they support Cameron is he offers a chance of power. Nothing else.

  2. Liberal Neil Says:

    There’s a lot in what you say here.

    We also need to identify those issues where moderate Conservative supporters agree with us more than they agree with the Conservatives and highlight those. I’m pretty certian the £10K basic allowance will appeal strongly to a lot of soft Conservatives for example, as could a strong headline policy on the NHS.

  3. Neil Stockley Says:

    So, it’s liberal wedge politics then?

    This is an interesting post but I’d like to see more up to date research material on how “swing voters” see the Tories – the Populus conference polls and the Newsnight focus groups currently running may help here.

    Which brings me to my question: who are the “soft Tories” and how can the Lib Dems appeal to them? Why would they want to switch to the Lib Dems now, love bombing or no love bombing?

    I think there’s a potential problem that we might — all of us — have a tendency to confuse “swing” voters with “soft Tories”.

  4. Richard Says:

    “Say how delighted you are that Eric and Dave are 100% fully committed to Britain’s ongoing membership of the European Union, but that you’re a mite concerned that this internationalist sentiment is not universally shared by his fellow MPs.”

    Or by a vast chunk of the population for that matter. I think it unwise for the Lib Dems to take on the Tories over Europe unless they take a more Eurosceptic position.

  5. whelan Says:

    That’s not half risky.

    Essentially you are advocating that the Lib Dems repeat the same message which the Conservatives are trying to propagate. The Tories say, we have some mad old backbenchers but look at our progressive frontbench. The Lib Dems say, them Tories might have a progressive frontbench, but look at their mad backbenchers.

    As Joe Public, I ask, who makes the decisions in their party? Their fringe elements or the man leading the party? The media say, who do we report more? Isolated, outdated and powerless backbenchers, or the frontbench? In the ballot box, do I remember names like Kawczynski and Leigh, or Cameron and Hague?

  6. Mark Littlewood Says:

    @whelan. It’s not obvious to me that’s how the media narrative would play out.

    If you can remember back to the last Tory government – who got more coverage over the issue of the Maastricht Treaty? Conservative Cabinet ministers such as the Prime Minister or a ragbag of backbenchers such as Theresa Gorman, Christopher Gill and Richard Shepherd?

    I don’t think the public always ask who makes the decisions in the party – they also ask if the party is split. If an opinion poll of Tory party members showed, hypothetically, that 74% thought Cameron was too soft on crime, that’s a great news story about splits in the party – irrespective of the fact that these Tory members are not remotely powerful.

  7. whelan Says:

    I think you make the mistake of ignoring context. Maastricht was an issue which made the headlines because they were in Government, and lacked the positive media narrative. They don’t have to make the same difficult decisions at the moment, and there are not that many opportunities which Labour could conceivably manufacture to drive a wedge between the two wings. If there is any possible more relevant comparison it would be with Clause 4 and the rise of New Labour. But then you just need to remember how the public reacted to that.

    With regard to crime, if such a statistic existed it would be a fantastic news story. But you’ve just made it up. So I’m not going to dignify it with a proper response.

  8. Mark Littlewood Says:

    @whelan…you say “they don’t have to make the same difficult decisions at the moment”!

    I assume your statement is the driest of dry humour.

    If Ireland votes yes today, Cameron is between a rock and a hard place and large parts of the Tory party will go ape if he edges away from a referendum commitment.

    I completely fail to understand your point about crime. It’s a hypothesis. That’s why I used the word “hypothetically” just before giving it as an example. That’s not “making it up”. But it’s not fantastical. A poll of Tory members probably would have come up with a pretty negative result after his hug a hoodie speech.

    I find your last sentence rather pompous, to be honest. Trying to generate discussions whereby hypotheses ARE dignified with responses if what blogs like LV are all about.