The Lib-Lab pact, like moustaches and flared trousers, is something that seemed obvious in the late 1970s and never entirely went away.
For a generation, talk of an electoral alliance between successors to the old Liberal Party and Labour has been alternately ridiculous and fashionable. It is now entering the modish phase – the natural accessory to Westminster speculation about the survival of the current coalition. That chatter has gone up in pitch since Nick Clegg allowed his MPs to abstain in a parliamentary vote, called by Labour, on whether Jeremy Hunt should be referred to the independent adviser on ministerial standards over his intimate relations with News International. That retreat from coalition solidarity was a rebuke to the Prime Minister, who has declared Hunt’s behaviour impeccable.
The Lib Dem abstention was a permission rather than an endorsement of the opposition attack on Hunt, but that is enough, against a backdrop of recent Labour overtures, to excite Westminster gossip-mongers.
At the beginning of June, Steve Bassam, Labour’s chief whip in the House of Lords, wrote to Richard Newby, his Lib Dem counterpart, suggesting they “keep lines of communication open” with a view to what might happen after the next election. Around the same time, reports emerged of friendly telephone calls between Ed Miliband and Vince Cable, the Lib Dem Business Secretary.
Cable is the obvious target for cultivation by Labour. He bashes financial greed with a gusto that heartens the left. He has bona fides as a sworn antagonist of Rupert Murdoch. Labour is convinced he is envious of their rhetorical meanderings around the theme of “responsible capitalism”. One enthusiastic shadow cabinet minister recently told me: “We’re saying the things Vince wants to say but can’t.” In March, an attempt was made, through a mutual acquaintance, to persuade Cable to share a platform with Miliband at an event to discuss new models of corporate ownership. The idea was politely rebuffed.
There is a delusional component in Labour’s approach to the Lib Dems. The tendency is to think of them as a breakaway republic to be annexed. Clegg’s decision to form a government with the Tories was thus judged not as a rational calculation but a treasonous surrender to the enemy. Those Lib Dems who look unhappiest in the coalition are presumed to be more amenable to reintegration with the Progressive Motherland.
There are descendants of the old Social Democratic Party on the left of the Lib Dems who might be happier ideologically rehoused in Labour. Cable is not one of them. His criticism of the British economy derives from the urge to redeem classical liberal capitalism from the extreme, ultra-free market mania that inflated the deadly debt bubble. It contains no left-wing nostalgia. As one colleague of the Business Secretary puts it: “Just because Vince looks like he’s swallowing back his own sick when he stands next to Tories, it doesn’t mean he buys into the whole social democrat agenda.” The view in Clegg’s office is that a few calls between Ed and Vince, coupled with a patronising letter from a Lords whip, hardly amounts to a thaw. “If that is supposed to be seduction, they have a lot to learn about seduction,” says one senior aide.
The scale on which Lib Dems measure goodwill gestures from Labour begins with parliamentary support for House of Lords reform. Enough Tory MPs are opposed to Clegg’s plans that opposition votes might be needed to get it through the Commons. Miliband has yet to decide his position. The temptation to sit back and watch the coalition tear itself apart will be hard to resist.
There are many senior Labour figures who recognise the strategic advantage for the party in looking less consumed by hatred towards the Lib Dems. But there is also the assumption that, in the event of another hung parliament, Lib Dem partnership will be up for negotiation regardless of past relations. The appetite to stay in government will override old grudges.
Meanwhile, the two parties have entirely incompatible interpretations of what rapprochement would mean. For Labour it is the offer of an escape route from suicidal partnership with the Tories, implying absolution from the sin of abetting Cameron in the first place. But the Lib Dems don’t want redemption on Labour’s terms. They want help delivering their policies.
Labour still struggles with the idea that Lib Dems, however gloomy their electoral prospects, are as protective of their independent identity as any other party. The Tories now understand that better. In the early days of coalition, some Conservatives close to Cameron envisaged co-opting Clegg’s MPs to reinforce their own atrophied left flank. The plan was to hug the Lib Dems so close as to absorb them by political osmosis. It didn’t work. As the existential threat of intimacy with the Conservatives became clear, Clegg switched to a strategy of “differentiation”. “They were smart enough to see the crocodile at the end of our smile,” says one liberal-minded Tory MP.
Not that differentiation reversed the slide in Clegg’s popularity. The activists are getting nervous. According to one recent survey by the Liberal Democrat Voice website, a third of party members think there should be a change of leader before the next election. But despite heavy losses in council elections, collapsing membership and empty coffers, there is no organised dissent against Clegg.
The party is sustained by the momentum of that initial decision to join the coalition. The conviction holds that it is better to be defending choices made in government than to be written off as unable to make difficult choices at all. The hope (unsupported yet by evidence) is that voters will arrive at grudging admiration for the little party’s doughty resilience.
Putting such a strategic premium on a reputation for riding out tough times also means the Lib Dems, whatever fashionable chatter there might be to the contrary, are firmly attached to their current coalition partner; especially when the other crocodile can barely muster a smile.