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Labour has a choice - cosy up to the Lib Dems, or attack the coalition

Ed Miliband can't have his yellow cake and eat it.

There are times when even I feel sorry for Ed Miliband. Since his election as Labour leader, he’s followed a clear, if misguided, strategy of love-bombing the Liberal Democrats. He backed them on AV. He’s embraced all sorts of madcap, tree-hugging causes such as the Occupy movement, the St Paul’s protest and 38 Degrees. He’s wooed them with love letters, videos and even started dropping Vince Cable the odd risqué text.

And he’s been widely praised, with many in Labour’s ranks welcoming his new liberalism, and the new members and boost in the polls that have accompanied it. But then Ed made a mistake. A couple of weeks ago, he began floating the prospect of leveraging this strategy into some sort of Lab-Lib coalition.

Suddenly, the new Bobby Kennedy has found himself caricatured as the new Ramsay MacDonald. Or even worse, the new Tony Blair. “I don’t think we should fall into that trap,” Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison told the Telegraph. “We will not do what we did in 1997, which is that we were so pleased to get into power we let them [the Labour leadership] do anything.”

“A Lab-Lib coalition is a nonstarter,” intoned the ultraloyalist LabourList website. “A huge proportion of Labour supporters find the notion of going into coalition with the Lib Dems a fairly gruesome thought.”

So what would Labour members prefer? Another five gruesome years of a Tory-Liberal coalition?

Once again, the Labour left is learning the hard way that it can’t have its cake and nationalise it. For the past two years, Miliband has been press-ganging every Lib Dem he can find into the service of the people’s party; he’s been cheered all the way by unions and radical young Labour Turks. Then the moment he talks of taking that operation to its logical confusion, they cry foul.

All of a sudden, Prentis and others have woken up to the prospect of “a kind of right-wing coalition with Labour and the Liberal Democrats, maybe to the exclusion of the unions”. No shit, Sherlock. What did you think was going to happen when Miliband, at your insistence, started ditching policies that could make Labour attractive to Tory voters and began courting disaffected Lib Dems?

We can work it out

Labour has a choice. Either it tries to make inroads into Cameron’s support, which means making some unpalatable choices on law and order, immigration, welfare and the economy (and thereby giving itself the best chance of an overall majority). Or it can come over all lefty and liberal, and try and hoover up Nick Clegg’s refugees while in the process making coalition the most likely of the best-case outcomes. If the latter happens, Dave, right near the top of Vince Cable’s coalition shopping list will be party funding reform.

What does the Labour left really want Miliband to do? Storm No 10 on the back of a new general strike, platitudes about the squeezed middle and a bit of how’s your father? Miliband has been pursuing a Lib Dem first strategy. And, until recently, that was the left’s strategy as well. If they now don’t like it, that’s fine. But they’d better stop moaning and say what they do want him to do. Fast.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?