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We’d better watch out: Labour and the Lib Dems are discovering more areas of political overlap

By Peter Hoskin
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Here at ConHome, we’ve tended to mention the areas of political overlap between Labour and the Lib Dems. Indeed, Paul Goodman highlighted two such areas – pensioner benefits and the mansion tax – only last week.

But there are now so many examples, with new ones by the day, that a brief list in in order. Here goes:

1. The public finances in general. This is the Big One. As the excellent Lib Dem blogger Stephen Tall noted last week, Ed Balls’ recent speech on the economy did much to move Labour closer to Nick Clegg’s party. This was true in a general sense: with, at least rhetorically, more acknowledgement of austerity and its necessity. But also in the specifics: Balls’ call for increased capital spending, “financed by a temporary rise in borrowing”, recalled Vince Cable’s words on the matter.  

2. Wealth taxes. While Lib Dem MPs may not have fallen for Labour’s recent, mischievous vote to impose a mansion tax on all properties worth over £2 million, what matters is the policy itself. David Cameron and George Osborne have both spoken out against the proposal in strong, unequivocal terms, leaving it for Labour and the Lib Dems to unite over during the next election. And if the Lib Dems scratch out further wealth taxes for their manifesto – as is likely – you can bet it will be Labour, rather than the Tories, who line up with them.

3. Universal benefits. Consistently, since the beginning of the Coalition, Nick Clegg and his party have advocated withdrawing benefits from those higher up the income ladder. Sometimes, as with child benefit, the Tory leadership has agreed. But more often, as with Winter Fuel Allowance, they’ve been bound by the read-my-lips promises that David Cameron made before the election – and fought to leave the hand-outs in place. But what about Labour? Until recently, they seemed reluctant to dismantle the benefits sprawl that Gordon built. Yet that’s now changing. Not only is there Balls’s pledge to restrict Winter Fuel Allowance from the highest earners, but there’s also the possibility of more to come.

4. Decarbonisation targets. Ed Davey’s stated position on the Energy Bill is basically, “You should totally vote for it, you guys, it’s awesome” – but he previously made it clear that he wanted it to contain firmer provisions for decarbonising the electricity sector by 2030. And guess what? Labour yesterday confirmed that their manifesto will set a target for decarbonising the electricity sector by 2030. This is no small thing, this, given the extent to which Lib Dems see environmentalism as part of their political make-up.

5. Syria. The balance may have shifted, today, in favour of those who would prefer to help arm the rebels. And Clegg may not have ruled out that course of action entirely.  But we do know that the Lib Dem leader and Ed Miliband are united in their wariness of Cameron’s plan for Syria. This may not add up to much in the next few weeks and months, but it could become significant should the conflict, and British involvement with it, stretch on.

And these are just the ones that we can be sure about, with Ed Miliband’s policy-book as thin as it is. Chances are that more will emerge as more of Labour’s policies do likewise.

This wouldn’t matter as much were it not for the fracturing political and personal relations between the current Coalition partners. I once, er, drew a graph of the Lib Dems’ “differentiation strategy” for this Parliament. It had “Lib Dem identity” rising as time passed, and “Government unity and strength” falling – and there’s certainly been progress on the second count, at least. Barely any of the ideas for Tory-Lib Dem cooperation and concession that I suggested last year are now workable. Barely any of the rosy bonhomie of 2010 persists along Downing Street.

And, at the same time, as we know, relations have improved between Ed and Nick and Ed and Vince. This, as Andrew Adonis notes in his new book, is crucial for the building of coalitions. During the AV referendum, the “Yes” campaign was undermined by personal enmity between Miliband and Clegg. That probably wouldn’t happen now.

This isn’t to say that Labour and the Lib Dems will end up together. There are still plenty of areas of difference between them, particularly when it comes to civil liberties and public service reform. And there is still Nick Clegg, who, despite his increasing tetchiness in Coalition, remains spiritually in tune with the Cameroons. But the chances of LibLab cooperation are certainly higher than those days when Ed Miliband decried the Lib Dems as a “disgrace to the traditions of liberalism”.