This article is from the July issue of Total Politics
Sometime in the mid-1980s, when Margaret Thatcher’s grip on power was so steely it seemed to have been welded there, I remember reading an article about the prospect of a political alliance between Labour and the Liberals.
Written more in hope than anticipation, it advanced the then-fashionable theory that Labour could never again hope to win a parliamentary majority.
The only chance was a grand alliance between Neil Kinnock and Paddy Ashdown, one that, apparently, was much less far-fetched than it sounded. According to the author’s – whose identity I’ve sadly forgotten – thesis: “If Paddy Ashdown, Charles Kennedy, Neil Kinnock and John Smith found themselves on a sunny Tuscan hillside, sharing a couple of bottles of red, there would be much they would agree on.”
Sadly, this Tuscan summit never came to pass – political mortality finally catching up with Mrs Thatcher, and Tony Blair doing the rest. But a couple of decades on, thoughts are once again turning to sunlit hillsides and warm glasses of Chianti. The grand Lab-Lib alliance is back on the political agenda.
Ever since his election as leader, Ed Miliband has been courting the Lib Dems. Actually, he hasn’t so much courted them as strutted across the dancefloor and declared: “Get your coat, love, you’ve scored.”
In the first months after his victory there were speeches, videos, letters, all appealing to the disillusioned Liberal masses to leap aboard his new political bandwagon. And, by and large, it was successful, as Nick Clegg’s polls went into free-fall and Labour HQ collapsed under the weight of new applications for Labour Party membership.
Then, it seemed like a straightforward, if audacious, political smash-and-grab raid. Get as many Lib Dem votes in the bank before spinning the getaway car around and starting to case Cameron’s joint. But that hasn’t happened. Ed has continued to work the Liberal left flank while studiously ignoring calls to start pitching to discontented Conservatives.
At first I thought this was just tactical: take the easy pickings offered by Clegg’s internal and external unpopularity. I also though it was pretty lazy politics, Ed playing safe and going with the leftward grain of Labour thinking. But it’s clear there’s a broader strategy behind it.
For one thing, despite Labour’s local election boost, the feeling within the Miliband camp is that a Labour majority at the next election remains a very tall order indeed. The cat Peter Hain let out of the bag earlier in the year, when he said, “I think, actually, that it’s going to be very hard for any party to win an outright majority at the next election… But I think we can be the biggest party,” is still purring soundly on the sofa of the Labour leader’s Norman Shaw office.
Then there was the revelation earlier in the month that the business secretary Vince Cable is now in “regular touch” with Miliband. That’s a relatively new, and significant, backchannel, given that in 2010 Miliband was calling for Cable’s sacking over his News International intervention. But a lot of water has flowed under a lot of bridges since.
Miliband’s game plan is pretty clear. He’s looking to hoover up as many Lib Dem switchers as possible this side of the election, but he’s also giving himself the political space to reach out to them if that election sees him fall short of outright victory. And by doing it in an increasingly public way, he’s also hoping to stir up a bit of bother for Clegg in the meantime.
The problem is that not everyone in Miliband’s party is as enamored with this strategy as he is. A couple of weeks ago Progress published an article from former minister Joan Ryan, warning of “the hidden majority myth”.
“The reason this notion of only targeting former Liberal Democrat voters is so attractive is because it speaks to our political comfort zone,” she argued, “and allows us to indulge in the idea that the reason we lost the last election was because we were not Labour enough.” And Ryan’s is not an isolated voice.
There are also a number of practical policy obstacles. Labour’s relationship with the unions, sacrosanct to many in the party, is anathema to many Lib Dems.
There is also strong anti-European sentiment building up on the Labour left again, which does not sit easily with Lib Dem thinking. And there remain questions over constitutional reform, in particular what price, post the AV debacle, the Lib Dems will seek to exact from any future Lib-Lab coalition.
But coalition talk is on the agenda. And if Ed Miliband, Vince Cable, Chuka Umunna and David Laws were to find themselves on a Tuscan hillside, they’d probably get on like a house on fire.
What Ed Balls and Nick Clegg would make of that cosy gathering is another question. But no longer just an academic one.
Dan Hodges is a Labour commentator