As the Liberal Democrats publish their manifesto today, the Labour Party’s first instinct will be to pick holes. Fair enough. There’s an election on, and Labour will only become the largest party by winning ex-Lib Dem voters.
But today it is also important to remember how much common ground there is between the two parties’ policy agendas. After all, on 8th May Ed Miliband’s route to Downing Street may well depend on Lib Dem MPs: like it or not, the Lib Dems could well be the ‘swing vote’ in any post-election negotiations.
The media have started to present the hung parliament scenarios in terms of two opposing blocs – Labour/SNP versus Conservative/Lib Dem. This helps the Conservatives, by giving the impression they will have a right to govern, if ‘their’ bloc is the larger. But as things stand the Lib Dems are in no one’s camp and Labour must resist any narrative that appears to push the smaller party into the arms of the Tories.
Instead Ed Miliband must be ready to reach out to the Lib Dems. That’s partly because the electoral arithmetic may not mean Labour can govern with SNP support alone. But even if it can, Lib Dem backing might be important to demonstrate a new government’s legitimacy and stability, particularly when it comes to English and Welsh legislation.
The Lib Dem campaign is framed around their traditional strategy of equidistance, but the reality is that the party is far closer to Labour than the Tories in policy terms. In February the Labour-affiliated Fabian Society and the liberal think tank CentreForum published Common Ground?, a report which identified 100 areas where the parties were in broad agreement and precious few where a deal looked hard. The analysis was based on the parties’ ‘pre-manifestos’ but almost all of it will stand when the final manifestos are compared.
Although a formal Labour/Lib Dem coalition may not be on the cards, Labour must take the Lib Dem manifesto seriously. It will contain many ideas that the party can support and it could pave the way for Labour’s return to power.
Highlights from the Fabian Society and Centre Forum analysis
Key areas of agreement
1. Fiscal rules which permit the government to borrow for investment
2. A mansion tax for properties over £2m
3. Decarbonising the power sector by 2030
4. Major devolution of power and money within England
5. More free childcare for children under 5
6. Greater control over free schools and academies
7. At least 200,000 new homes a year
8. Restrictions on access to some benefits for EU migrants but support for student migrants
9. A higher Minimum Wage with the Living Wage paid by government departments
10. Withdrawal of the Winter Fuel Payment from the richest pensioners
11. An elected House of Lords, based on PR
12. Votes at 16
Significant policy divergence
2. Social care funding*
3. Electoral reform for the House of Commons
4. Airport expansion
5. Royal Mail
6. 50p top rate of tax
7. An energy price freeze
8. Repeal of the Health and Social Care Act
* The Labour Party manifesto quietly dropped the party’s previous opposition to the coalition’s social care funding reforms
Common ground? An analysis of the Liberal Democrat and Labour Programmes by Andrew Harrop and Stephen Lee was published in February