Why Ed Miliband Should Be Grateful to the Lib Dems

By Behr, Rafael | New Statesman (1996), September 21, 2012 | Go to article overview

Why Ed Miliband Should Be Grateful to the Lib Dems


Behr, Rafael, New Statesman (1996)


Few sentiments pollute political judgement like the feeling of having been betrayed. Most Tory MPs worry about losing the next election but the level-headed ones recognise that David Cameron remains the strongest available candidate to lead them into that battle. For the minority that want an immediate change of leader, electoral calculation is subordinate to rage against the Prime Minister for conspiring to snuff out the flame of true Conservatism. Most voters have no idea what that means, just as they have no attachment to a venerable "Labour tradition" that Ed Miliband is always liable to be accused of traducing.

It is Liberal Democrat MPs who seem the least driven by puritanical notions of what their party is supposed to represent. Labour and Tories say that proves an innate lack of principle. Lib Dems prefer to see it as pragmatism, born of the obligation on a small party to compromise if it wants to see its policies enacted.

That could be an attractive trait. The public warms to a non-partisan spirit, as the coalition's rose-scented honeymoon showed. Compromise looks less appealing when cast as stitch-up or sell-out, which is what political tribalists smell in cross-party collaboration. Nick Clegg's misfortune is to have partnered with a party that is hostile to the idea that coalition should form part of the standard repertoire of British politics. Tories see it as a distasteful one-off episode; a toilet break at the policy service station on the road to Conservative hegemony.

Mutant cousin

The same problem would arise in an alliance with Labour. There is a strong feeling in the opposition ranks that Clegg's outfit, carrying both liberal and social-democrat DNA, is a mutant cousin of the real left. By installing Cameron in Downing Street, the Lib Dems completed, in Labour eyes, an arc of historical treachery.

The Labour leadership, calculating the probability that the next parliament will again be hung, takes a more nuanced view. In recent months, fragments of complicity with Vince Cable, Lib Dem Business Secretary, have surfaced: some text-message exchanges with Ed Miliband; a hint of tax policy proximity from Ed Balls. These overtures are tolerated by the Labour faithful only on the assumption that the motive is mischievous--to undermine Clegg and destabilise the coalition. (That is the interpretation in the Deputy Prime Minister's office. Clegg loyalists deride Cable's micro-flirtation with Labour and dismiss chatter about his leadership ambitions as naivety amplified by vanity.)

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Labour has to hate the coalition for locking it out of power but the arrangement has not been wholly disastrous for a party crawling unsteadily back from electoral mauling. It awarded Miliband a monopoly on opposition in Westminster. At first, shadow cabinet ministers belittled that boon, complaining that a media obsession with the novelty of coalition deprived them of an audience. Given how slow Miliband's policy formation has been, a lack of public scrutiny was not such a hindrance. No one was listening to Labour at the point when they had nothing much to say.

Then, as coalition relations soured and the intimacy of the early months threatened to dissolve Lib Dem identity, the party embarked on a strategy of "differentiation" that abetted Labour's attacks on Cameron. …

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