Labour’s unending spite towards the Lib Dems is self-defeating

Even if Miliband thinks Clegg is dead in the water he must remember that voters are unimpressed by p

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.
 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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