Until recently, it was not uncommon for senior Labour figures to openly speculate about the possibility of working with the Lib Dems in a future coalition. In my interview with him earlier this year, Ed Balls memorably revealed that Nick Clegg was no longer a barrier to an agreement between the two parties and said of the Deputy PM: “I understand totally why Nick Clegg made the decision that he made to go into coalition with the Conservatives at the time. I may not have liked it at the time, but I understood it. I also understood totally his decision to support a credible deficit reduction plan, because it was necessary in 2010. I think the decision to accelerate deficit reduction, compared to the plans they inherited – which was clearly not what Vince Cable wanted – I think that was a mistake . . . I can disagree with Nick Clegg on some of the things he did but I’ve no reason to doubt his integrity.”
Balls went on to attack the Lib Dems for their support for early spending cuts, the reduction in the top rate of tax and the bedroom tax, but his intervention irked those such as Harriet Harman who advocate a strategy of all-out war against Clegg’s party.
In Labour circles they distinguish between those who want to “crush” the Lib Dems and those who want to “accommodate” them. Heavily influenced by Andrew Adonis’s 5 Days in May, in which the Labour peer and former transport secretary warns his party that it must be better prepared for another hung parliament, some MPs are wary of of an unambiguously hostile approach to Clegg’s party. But with a year to go until the general election, it is now clear that the “crushers” have won.
Rather than love-bombing the Lib Dems, Labour has today simply been bombing them. It was Harman who led the charge, declaring that “The Lib Dems are a party of broken promises. Nick Clegg says they’re different from the Tories, but the truth is they’ve backed David Cameron all the way.
“From trebling tuition fees when they promised to abolish them, increasing VAT when they promised not to, backing the bedroom tax, cutting tax for millionaires and undermining the NHS, the Lib Dems are not a constraint on the Tories – they are their willing helpers.” Her words were followed by an infographic of a Lib Dem lottery card inviting users to “scratch the surface to reveal the truth”.
The attacks are, among other things, a sign that Labour is going all out for a majority. Were the party doubtful of victory, it would, with another hung parliament in mind, be adopting a far less hostile stance.
If Labour is to triumph, the most important task will be retaining the large group of voters it has won from Clegg’s party (think of it as Miliband’s firewall). With around 25 per cent of 2010 Lib Dems currently supporting Labour, the party can’t risk going soft on Clegg and handing them “permission” to return. In addition to those seats that Labour can hope to win directly from the Lib Dems, strategists point out that in 86 of the party’s 87 Tory targets, the Lib Dem vote share in 2010 was larger than the Conservatives majority. In 37, it is more than twice as large. Even if Clegg’s party partially recovers before 2015, Labour stands to make sweeping gains.
It is the Lib Dem collapse combined with the Ukip surge that means Labour can hope to achieve the rare feat of winning a majority after just one term in opposition. The party’s bombardment of Clegg and co. is further evidence that Miliband is determined to do so.