You can tell when one of the main two political parties are in full electioneering mode, for the very worst instincts come to the fore. In the Conservatives this is all too obvious; warnings of chaos and imminent apocalypse dominate the airwaves. It is all rather reminiscent of their “Hung Parliament Party” election broadcast of 2010, an advert that warned voters that should they back Nick Clegg the result would wreck the economy and paralyse government. The message now is much the same, though the success of the lib-con coalition (in terms of delivering a stable working government) means that they can’t simply air the same ad twice, forcing them instead to play up the threat of the various coalitions that might form around Labour.
But these tactics are generally what you’d expect from the Conservative Party. Labour, on the other hand, is rather more split upon its darker impulses. Under Tony Blair’s leadership, with braying support from the likes of David Blunkett, the party embraced an authoritarian approach to law and order. In many ways this was successful; it kept the Tories at bay by heading off any attempts to flank them from the right, and was a quick and easy way to drum up an easy vote or two. However, in the long run it deeply worried those in the party who were concerned about civil rights, driving many out of the arms of Labour for good.
It has been many years since Tony Blair left the scene, but this authoritarian streak has yet to leave the Labour Party. In recent leaflets Labour has been resorting to the old tactic of painting the Liberal Democrats as a party soft on crime for their policy on treating drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal one. Never mind just how backward and out-of-step with current thinking their criticisms are, it seems that this stance is a default one; a well of authoritarian scare-mongering that the Labour party cannot help but sup.
But whereas this tactic might have worked back in 1997, today it is likely to have the opposite effect. Liberalisation of drug laws used to be a policy only embraced by the hard-core of the Liberal Democrat party. Now it is conventional wisdom. Those soft lib dem voters are more likely to be sent back into the arms of the liberals by such scare-mongering than any other outcome Labour is hoping for.
It all reminds me of when I was living in the Windsor constituency in 2005. As you’d imagine, it’s a safe seat for the Conservatives, but still Adam Afriyie came knocking on my door, seeking my vote. Rather glad for the opportunity, I presented him with a Conservative leaflet that slammed the Lib Dems (their likely opponent) for their aim to legalise drugs. As it happened I’d been researching for a documentary about drug prohibition at the time and knew Lib Dem policy well; in fact I had written to them complaining that their policy didn’t go as far as legalisation.
“This is simply not true,” I told him, pointing to the outlandish claims. “Here you say that the Lib Dems would legalise Cannabis. That is not their policy.”
“But it is,” Afriyie persisted, “And if I can prove to you that the Liberal Democrats would legalise drugs, would that secure your vote for the Conservatives?”
Adam Afriyie, so caught up in his… well… conservative mentality, never once thought that his claims might backfire on him. It is this same lack of imagination undermining the Labour Party as it struggles to define itself. It seems to hark for the old days when it could safely rely on its liberal-left roots whilst presenting itself as authoritarian-right to grab swing voters.
Those days are long gone, the internet has put a stop to such tactics. The question is, will the Labour Party wake up to this fact in time to save itself?