Clegg needs to radically change his approach to Labour

David Hall-Matthews, chair of the Social Liberal Forum, outlines four reasons why Nick Clegg needs to radically change his approach to Labour.

David Hall-Matthews is the chair of the Social Liberal Forum

Last week’s war of words between Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband over the abortive Yes2AV launch was self-destructive and unseemly. What were they thinking? With both men’s reputations dependent on a Yes vote, they cannot afford to let the campaign degenerate into a series of spats.

But while Mr Miliband must accept his share of responsibility for such childishness, Mr Clegg has been indulging in silly games like this for months. Every speech he makes is full of invective about Labour – to listen to Mr Clegg, you would think Labour were no different to the bad old days of Militant.

Of course it is true that Labour’s failure to fully accept responsibility for the economic mess is lamentable. The sight of a former city-slicker-turned-financial-deregulator like Ed Balls now claiming to espouse leftist economic views is hard to take.

On a human level, it is also understandable why Mr Clegg may not be inclined to let Labour off the hook, given the disgraceful way Labour MPs treat him during Deputy Prime Minister’s Questions. But that’s politics.

There are four pressing reasons why Mr Clegg needs to radically change his approach to Labour:

1) The pluralist politics Mr Clegg espouses only makes sense if mutual respect extends in all directions. Every time he makes a speech that portrays politics as a choice between “us” (the coalition) and “them” (Labour), it seems as though we have reverted to two-party tribalism.

The Lib Dems have always claimed to represent a meaningful alternative; it is time they started talking about that again.

2) Mr Clegg will never win any debate with David Cameron while the negotiations between the two assume the Conservatives have 80% of the votes in government, rather than 45% of the votes in parliament. Working together, the Lib Dems and Labour can defeat the Tories on a number of issues. What is more, on a great many issues – particularly health – public opinion is firmly with us.

If Mr Clegg wants to make a difference and not be remembered as the prime minister’s poodle, he needs to go into cabinet discussions from a position of strength, and that will be helped by warmer Labour relations.

3) Even the biggest Lib Dem supporters of a strategic Liberal-Conservative alliance would still want to win more concessions. The Lib Dems will be best placed to achieve what they want in the next government if they are able to do business with both sides. So Labour needs to be a potential ally.

4) On a tactical level, a change in tack from Mr Clegg would expose Labour’s divisions. For many Labour politicians, Miliband Jr stole the leadership election last year and they are remarkably happy to let their displeasure be known; Labour commentators such as John Rentoul and Dan Hodges are visceral in their dislike of the man – to a quite remarkable extent given how little time he has had in post.

The Lib Dems should be taking advantage of this. Instead of tarring all Labour politicians with the same brush, Mr Clegg should be welcoming the changes that Miliband is attempting to make, and highlighting how he faces internal opposition. That would do two things: remind voters that the Liberal Democrats are still a liberal party, not merely an adjunct of the Conservatives, and expose Labour’s contradictions.

By showing Mr Miliband a bit of love, Mr Clegg can distinguish himself from the Conservatives and strengthen his negotiating position in cabinet. All it requires is for him to try a little subtle diplomacy and to develop a thicker skin.

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