It seems that Ed Miliband's party is so short on policy ideas that it is now appealing to the Liberal Democrats for help.
Ed yesterday offered the Lib Dems the opportunity to participate in Labour's policy review. He claimed that "the kaleidoscope of British politics has been shaken and I don't think the pieces have properly settled...[we want to] draw up areas where our policy reviews can be informed by submissions and ideas of Liberal Democrats who want to contribute." Ed highlighted areas that are obviously important to many Lib Dem members, including social mobility, the economy and what he termed "the way we do politics".
He's trying hard to be taken seriously as a non-tribalist, keen on helping to forge the "new politics". But his motives were laid bare when, moving away from the premise of mutual collaboration, he claimed that many Lib Dem members were "ashamed" of the coalition and that the Lib Dems were split between centre and left. No-one could be left in any doubt about Ed's intentions when he issued an invite to "work with us against the direction in which this government is taking Britain."
The first thing to say is that, from a tactical point of view, it's likely to be more effective than his leadership election approach of bashing the Lib Dems at every opportunity. People want to see co-operative politics and, to be honest, there are many Lib Dems who are more broadly in tune with Labour's thinking than the Conservatives'. Opportunities for collaboration should not be flippantly dismissed - unless of course they're simply part of a party political game aimed at undermining the coalition.
Of course Ed will present any unwillingness to co-operate with him as evidence of our party drifting rightwards and away from the "new politics". He would also present any signs of willing collaboration as evidence of divisions within both the Liberal Democrats and the coalition.
If Ed Miliband genuinely wishes to be taken seriously as someone who buys into the "new politics" of cross-party co-operation, he would be well advised to avoid these grand gestures (sorry, cheap publicity stunts) which appear shallow and cynical. I think he's on the right lines tactically in softening his approach towards our own party - especially with the Scottish Parliamentary elections in 2011 - but he needs to find alternative means of reaching out to Lib Dems than simply making scathing statements about a government in which Lib Dems are ministers. He needs to develop understandings based on experience and progressive ideas rather than merely attempting to cynically undermine the coalition with such overtly partisan gameplaying.
Senior Lib Dems Simon Hughes and Tim Farron were quick to respond to Ed Miliband's appeal. Simon Hughes, presumably interpreting Ed's statement as an overture to disaffected members and activists, urged Lib Dems to "stay with us because progressives are needed more now than ever in the history of the party." Party President-elect Tim Farron helpfully argued that Lib Dems "continuing the work...[of] fixing Labour's economic mess, taking millions of people out of income tax and reforming British politics...is far more attractive to Liberal Democrats than helping Ed Miliband's increasingly desperate attempts to work out what he actually stands for."
Unhelpfully however, Tim also added a stab at Labour who he accused of "sucking up to Rupert Murdoch and George Bush - why would any progressive even give them a second glance?"
I don't really understand why someone as capable as Tim Farron has to resort to the tactics of Tommy Sheridan, someone else who was keen to identify Labour with Murdoch to score cheap points. It also invites counter accusations that as a party we've been keen to "suck up" to a Tory Party which is connected to a host of other individuals many liberals would find unsavoury. And, put simply, it's not very sensible for the Party President to indulge in such divisive rhetoric when the opinion pools suggest that, after the forthcoming Scottish Parliamentary elections, Liberal Democrats may very well be "giving Labour a second glance" and working out a progressive plan for government.
This situation highlights how Westminster-centric both Ed Miliband and Tim Farron can be. They are so focused on the coalition in London (one defending it, one attempting to undermine it) that the broader realities of UK politics have passed them by. If Ed wants to genuinely develop a more collaborative politics and forge a new government whose policies can throw down a challenge to the direction of the Cameron-led administration, he should look no further than Holyrood and be looking to cultivate positive relationships between his own party and ours in Scotland. Similarly, if Tim Farron wants to increase Lib Dem influence he should recognise that the best way to do this is to ensure we are in a strong position to enter government in Holyrood and have developed the necessary understandings with the likely largest party ahead of the election. Unnecessary hostility will simply provide unwelcome obstacles that will have to be negotiated at a later stage.