It has become a truism that there are not enough liberal voters to get Labour a majority at the next general election. That Labour need to recapture some of the socially conservative vote to win. That they need the ‘red wall’ seats back to give them even the slimmest chance of victory.
But for a period last year, however brief, the Lib Dems were as high as 24 per cent in the national polls. If Starmer can tap into this potential electorate I believe he can win, and Labour can become the biggest party in England and Wales – which would probably allow the party to govern.
It looks like the Lib Dems are willing to help. Over the weekend Layla Moran, the favourite in the Liberal Democrats’ leadership contest, said she was open to a Lib-Lab coalition and ruled out ever forming a government with Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. She intimated that her party would move to the left of Labour, and Starmer should be worried if the Lib Dems take this new ‘radical’ path. On the contrary, should the Lib Dems move leftward it would play perfectly to Starmer’s ambitions.
Amongst the many problems that Labour had in December, a big one was that the Tories were able to unite the Leave vote behind them while the Remain vote was scattered across Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP and the Greens. Due to this, a common trope has emerged on the centre-left suggesting that to get back into power, Labour needs to focus on cross-party allegiances with other ‘progressive’ parties. This is utterly mistaken and impractical. The way back to government for Labour is to rebuild a big tent of voters and at the very least crush the Lib Dems, and the SNP if possible (although the latter will be much more difficult). From what Layla Moran says, the Lib Dems will happily play along with this, not realising their mistake until it is too late.
A Labour strategy for dealing with the Lib Dems could work like this: Labour cuddles up to the new person at the helm of the Liberal Democrats. In the short term, this will raise eyebrows in Labour circles and give the left even more reason to grumble about Starmer. Keeping the Lib Dems onside for now makes sense, though. It is more MPs to gather together for any vote for a start. More than that, holding the Lib Dems tight will make them more and more indistinguishable from Labour for a key section of the electorate. It will make Lib Dem voters in the centre or on the left think, ‘What is the point of voting Lib Dem when what I want is to kick the Tories out of government and voting Labour is a much more effective way of achieving this at the next election?’. Meanwhile the Lib Dems’ own move leftward could be used by Starmer to paint himself as the centrist alternative to the Tories for rightward leaning people who either voted Lib Dem because of Brexit in 2019 or were going to vote Lib Dem before their disastrous campaign. After being cuddly with the Lib Dems throughout the remainder of this parliament, Labour would turn all their guns on the Lib Dems at the general election, targeting not only all of the seats they hold but their voters throughout the country.
This strategy has an added bonus: it would help Starmer get the left back on side come the next general election. Lib Dems still don’t grasp how deeply they are loathed by Labour activists. Throughout all of the internecine warfare within the Labour party over the past half a decade, the one thing that always reliably brought all sides together was a burning hatred of the Liberal Democrats. Defeating the Tories will always bring a subconscious ‘meh’ to any faction not in control of Labour; the chance to actually destroy the Liberal Democrats for good would be too huge an opportunity to spurn.
Blair won in England in every election he faced. Labour can win in the South under the right leader and set of political circumstances – the Lib Dems have stood in their way for a while. Boris should be warned that it could be very different next time. Labour seem prepared to finally achieve what they set out to do during the Ed Miliband years but never managed: to destroy the Lib Dems, potentially on the road to Number 10.