The longer Labour sustain double digit poll leads over the Conservatives, the more people start to ponder seriously the prospect of Ed Miliband as Prime Minister. It is not inconceivable that that the current government could unravel so spectacularly that the Labour leader marches into an undefended Downing Street like Joshua into Jericho.
But between victory and defeat there lies the awkward prospect of continuing stalemate. (I’ve written before about the strategic deadlock underpinning Britain’s hung politics.) In the rather likely event that no party emerges from the next election with a majority, Miliband would need to find some accommodation with the Liberal Democrats to form a government, whether in coalition or a less formal “confidence and supply” arrangement for parliamentary votes.
Naturally, this scenario is getting more attention as relations between the Tories and the Lib Dems in the current coalition fray. Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, a highly respected observer of political and electoral trends, recently used an article in a think tank journal to counsel Labour to be a bit less beastly to Nick Clegg’s party on the grounds that they might need their friendship before too long. Jim Pickard on the FT’s Westminster blog today reports that high-level contacts between the two parties do exist, although for the time being conversations seem limited to discussion of single-issue tactical considerations: banking, House of Lords reform.
Besides, the main point of contact for Labour appears to be Vince Cable, whose nostalgic impulses towards a revival of the old “progressive alliance” are tolerated by Clegg’s office but not shared. There was an excellent analysis of the prospects for a Lib-Lab pact on last night’s edition of the Westminster Hour on BBC Radio 4. Well worth a listen. The conclusion seemed to be that most Labour MPs simply cannot get past their tribal loathing of the Lib Dems and visceral sense that Clegg’s decision to facilitate the installation of a Conservative Prime Minister was treasonous. The volumes of venom that have been sprayed over Lib Dem MPs in parliament seem to go beyond the usual antagonism of civilised politics. As one senior Lib Dem minister says of Labour: “They don’t mind the Tories because that’s part of the game, but they really hate us and want to destroy us.”
To be fair, that is not an impossible goal. Coalition has not worked out so well for the Lib Dems in terms of poll ratings - Ukip periodically challenge them for third place. That weakness is giving Labour ever more confidence to simply ignore Clegg. Senior figures in the party have concluded that the Lib Dem leader is essentially finished in Westminster. From a tactical perspective it might be more worth Miliband’s while trying to decapitate the third party in the hope of working with a more amenable successor. Even if Clegg survives, the Lib Dems will want to stay in government after the next election and will do whichever deal works best for them. In other words, the time to be nice to the Lib Dems is after polling day. Before then, the focus is on winning a majority. There is some rationality in that view but it overlooks the importance of culture in politics. Labour needs to wean itself off spite towards the Lib Dems, not simply because there might be a future coalition at stake but because wounded, petty, tribal insularity is generally an unattractive feature of politics that puts off swing voters. Conspicuous displays of pluralism will make people more likely to trust Labour. Paradoxically, it is possible that the nicer Miliband can be to the Lib Dems now, the less likely he is to need them after an election.