In the early months of the coalition, Labour figures frequently lamented the two-against-one dynamic that allowed the Tories and the Lib Dems to pin the blame for the financial crisis on them. The argument that it was overspending by the last government that “got us into this mess” gained credibility by being made by both parties.
In recent days, it has felt as if this dynamic has been reversed. Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander have sounded like opposition politicians as they have accused the Tories of planning to “inflict unnecessary pain” on the country (Alexander) and of “kidding” voters over the feasibility of their deficit reduction plan (Clegg). After the Autumn Statement, and just five months away from the election, the Lib Dems are seeking to differentiate themselves from the Conservatives in two respects: their willingness to impose tax rises on the wealthy to eliminate the remainder of the deficit, rather than cuts alone, and their preparedness to borrow for investment. Both of these stances are shared by Labour, which has also pledged to introduce a mansion tax on properties above £2m and has left room for deficit-funded capital spending.
Although there are differences with Ed Miliband’s party too – the Lib Dems would follow the Tories in eliminating the structural current deficit by 2017-18, rather than by “the end of the next parliament” – Clegg is focusing on distinguishing his party from the Conservatives. There is a specific psephological reason for this. Of the Lib Dems’ 56 seats, the Conservatives are in second place in 37. To hold on to these constituencies, the party needs to focus on winning tactical votes from left-leaning Labour and Green supporters (as it has done in the past). By talking up the dangers of a future Tory government, it hopes to persuade progressive voters that the safest option is to vote Lib Dem.
There are two important ways in which this helps Labour. The first is that the party’s positions gain greater credibility by being supported by the Lib Dems. It is harder for the Tories to dismiss Labour’s economic stances as nonsense when they are endorsed by the people they have been in government with for more than four years. When the Conservatives refuse to introduce any further tax rises on the wealthy and reject calls to borrow to invest in housing, they look like the odd ones out. Moderate Tory MPs have long complained that the Lib Dems have “retoxified” their brand by taking credit for the “nice” things the government has done and blaming them for the “nasty” things.
The second is that the Lib Dems’ attacks on their coalition partners expose them to the charge of hypocrisy and inconsistency (one swiftly made by George Osborne yesterday). When Clegg’s party complains about the “unncessary pain” planned by the Conservatives, Labour will remind voters that they supported the bedroom tax, the tripling of tuition fees and the top-down reorganisation of the NHS. If the Tories are as nasty as the Lib Dems suggest, why vote for the people who have sat in cabinet with them since 2010?
It is this argument that troubles Lib Dems such as Jeremy Browne, who argue that Clegg has made a dangerous error by distancing the Lib Dems from the government (for instance through his absence at last week’s Autumn Statement). Rather than attacking the Tories, they argue that the party should devote more time to claiming credit for the coalition’s achievements. Browne told the Huffington Post that the “biggest danger for the Lib Dems is having one foot in government, and one foot out” and warned against moving from “being a party of protest to a party of protest-in-government.” It is notable that, far from recovering in the polls, the Lib Dems have lost further support since embarking on “aggressive differentiation” from the Tories. Based on the results so far, Labour should hope that it long continues.