The next general election might be a good three years away, but that does not stop frequent speculation about what the next parliament might look like, and which way the Liberal Democrats would swing in the case of another hung parliament.
In the latest sign that Labour is thinking in exactly these terms, the party’s chief whip in the House of Lords, Lord Bassam, has written a letter to his Liberal Democrat counterpart, Lord Newby, urging him to meet with them more often. He wrote:
The last couple of years have been a bit bruising for your colleagues in this house, and no doubt they will be looking forward to a change of management to see if it brings some light relief.
. . .
I would keep a weather eye on the general election and thereafter. Your background as a flexible friend of other parties may come in handy. Keeping lines of communication open to the official opposition party might serve you well in the longer term.
It’s quite a leap for the man who tweeted in March: “I wouldn’t want to wake up & find I was a Lib Dem today & have the selling of NHS on my conscience when I know I could say No.”
Bassam’s overture to the Liberal Democrats is not particularly surprising in and of itself, as it follows reports that Vince Cable and Ed Miliband have been speaking on the phone, a sign of thawing relations.
However, the directness of the letter is striking. He goes on to urge Lib Dems to support Labour amendments, characterising them as “agonised souls trooping night after night into the Tory lobby to vote in favour of even more ghastly measures”. He also says that the party faces another three years of being “the Millwall of British politics”.
Direct, yes, but effective? That’s less certain. While Newby has declined to comment, the letter has not gone down well across the board. The Guardian quotes Lib Dem peer Lord Oakeshott as saying: “Sorry Steve, your charm offensive is all offensive and no charm. Calling us Millwall is not the way to build Lib-Lab co-operation on the red benches – if that’s really your goal.”
Indeed, no-one likes to be patronised, and Bassam’s characterisation of Lib Dems as the victims of coalition is damning with faint praise. But although several commentators have noted signs that Labour is relaxing its hostility to Nick Clegg’s party, it might be that they do not need to worry about the party not working with them. As our Liberal Democrat blogger Richard Morris wrote last month:
Does anyone really think after everything the Tories have thrown at us – including just the other week the Prime Minister telling his PPCs that he has effectively dealt with us – that the odd insulting speech or overture to our support would block us dealing with Labour?
Given that Bassam’s overture to support has apparently managed to be simultaneously insulting, Labour should hope that this is correct.