With David Cameron away in Israel, it was left to Nick Clegg and Harriet Harman to duel it out at today’s PMQs. Harman, who has long urged Labour to maintain an aggressive stance towards the Lib Dems and to avoid any hint of coalition, seized the opportunity to attack Clegg over three of the issues that have done most to alienate his party’s left: the NHS reforms (most pertinently Jeremy Hunt’s “hospital closure clause”), the bedroom tax (opposed by party president Tim Farron) and the abolition of the 50p tax rate.
In response, Clegg turned his guns on Labour’s record in government. It was Labour, he declared, that “spent £250m on sweetheart deals for the private sector”, that left too many people on council house waiting lists, and that kept the top rate of tax at 40p (as opposed to the current 45p) for all but one month of its time in office. He branded them “the party of 40p, sweetheart deals in the NHS, the party of Fred Goodwin, and the party against apprenticeships.”
The problem with this line of attack is the extent to which Ed Miliband has distanced Labour from its past. He has declared that the last government got it wrong on banking, on housing, on tax and on privatisation. Given this, Clegg’s charges largely fell flat. In choosing to attack Labour from the left, he also failed to even attempt to justify the rightwards direction of the coalition.
None of Harman’s lines were particularly powerful or original. After Clegg’s paean to Britain in his spring conference speech she declared: “doesn’t he realise he might love Britain, but Britain does not love him back?” and ended: “They used to talk about two parties coming together in the national interest; now they’re two parties bound together by mutual terror of the electorate.”
But her strategy was a smart one. In order to win a majority in 2015, Labour needs to focus on retaining the support of the 25 per cent plus of 2010 Lib Dem voters who have defected (a swing larger than the cumulative increase in the Conservative vote between 1997 and 2010). The best way to do this is to continually remind those voters of the Conservative policies Clegg’s party has enabled in government (the NHS reforms, the bedroom tax, the abolition of the 50p rate) and of the Lib Dems’ rightwards drift, which alienate those who viewed them as a left-wing alternative to Labour. Today, she emphatically achieved that objective.