Ed Miliband: Rallying call to 'lost' Lib Dem supporters

The Labour leader tells Andrew Grice he wants to create an alliance to represent Britain's 'progressive majority'

Exactly 30 years after the launch of the Limehouse Declaration which led to the historic Social Democratic Party (SDP) breakaway from Labour, Ed Miliband has revealed his own plan to break the mould of British politics again.

In an interview with The Independent, the Labour leader spoke of his ambition to make his party fit to be the "standard-bearer of Britain's progressive majority" which showed that it existed at last year's general election but still resulted in the election of a Conservative-led government.

Mr Miliband described Nick Clegg's decision to enter the Coalition as a "tragic choice" and a "mistake" but, unlike some Labour colleagues, he has moved on from demonising the Liberal Democrat leader as a "crypto-Conservative".

In fact, Mr Miliband had a secret meeting with Mr Clegg in the Deputy Prime Minister's Commons office last Thursday evening for almost an hour – coincidentally, just before his eyeball-to-eyeball with Ed Balls to see whether they could agree the terms under which he would replace Alan Johnson as shadow Chancellor.

Mr Clegg's response to Mr Miliband's overtures was wary and, while they didn't break the mould, they did break the ice. The Labour leader offered to co-operate on issues on which the two non-Tory parties still agree – such as the referendum on the alternative vote, House of Lords reform and party funding.

It was part of Mr Miliband's charm offensive as he seeks to woo both Liberal Democrat supporters and politicians. He insists this is not a cynical "poaching exercise" aimed at winning "a good day's headlines" as a Liberal Democrat MP defects to Labour. "It is about dialogue. We have to show some respect for their traditions because they are going through a difficult time," he said.

He believes that many Liberal Democrats are sceptical about both the Coalition and Labour. "They are a bit lost. They don't really know what to do but they don't want to undermine Clegg and they are in a difficult position. Some will wantto come over [to Labour] andsome won't."

Far from seeing the Coalition as a move towards a centre-right realignment, Mr Miliband views it as opportunity to recast the mould of centre-left politics. He believes that the "Gang of Four" who broke away from Labour in 1981 would not leave today's Labour Party. He has already had "a good chat" with the independent peer Lord (David) Owen, who has said he may come home and vote Labour at the next election, and will soon meet Baroness (Shirley) Williams, one of many Liberal Democrats whose instincts are much closer to Labour than the Tories.

"What happened in 1981 was a tragic moment for Labour. It kept us out of power for another 16 years. I think we now have a better chance than we have had for a generation of healing the split that cast a shadow over British politics for a long time," he said. "I feel that Labour politics now is much closer to the SDP's politics then than where the Liberal Democrats are now."

Mr Miliband admitted that Labour must take "some responsibility" for not translating the country's progressive majority into a progressive coalition last year. He conceded that Labour could not have produced a "stable government" by trying to patch together a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and smaller parties when the election resulted in a hung parliament. But he argued that many progressive voters who backed the Liberal Democrats feel betrayed because they did not vote for the big spending cuts that Mr Clegg has now endorsed. "They put their ambition before their tradition," he claimed.

The Labour leader said theformation of the Coalition has thrown party politics up into the air. "The kaleidoscope has been shaken more than at any time I can remember since the Limehouse Declaration," he said. "Nick Clegg has gone in with a right-wing government. That leaves the field open for us. We don't know where the Liberal Democrat experience will end. We have an opportunity – but only if we show we can change."

Mr Miliband said his support for the alternative vote (AV), on which he is ready to campaign alongside Mr Clegg, proves he believes in "pluralist politics". Labour MPs are split down the middle on electoral reform but Mr Miliband said he would work with anyone in the national interest.

He has softened (slightly) his line during the Labour leadership contest that Mr Clegg would have to stand aside for the two parties to do a deal if the next election ends in stalemate. "I have no animus against Nick Clegg personally. I think he made the wrong political choice. It is hard to see how he can become the voice of progressive politics, but let's see."

Yesterday's gloomy economic figures were good for Mr Miliband in two ways. Labour can argue that they vindicate its warning that the Coalition is cutting "too far, too fast". And they made his high-risk appointment of Mr Balls as shadow Chancellor look a safer bet, since it may be harder for the Tories and Liberal Democrats to attack his strong opposition to the cuts if their strategy is blown off course.

Mr Miliband does not deny that there has been tension in his relationship with Mr Balls in the past. But he is confident that both men will avoid a repeat of the bitter rivalry between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown which destabilised New Labour. Not all Labour folk are so optimistic, but Mr Miliband insists: "We have seen that movie before and had front row seats. We are determined that there will be no sequel. It was a formative experience for both of us. It is something we are absolutely determined to avoid and we will avoid."

Some Labour insiders worry that Mr Balls, as the architect of Mr Brown's economic strategy, is more reluctant than Mr Miliband to concede Labour's mistakes in power. "Humility is important," the party leader said. But he does not detect any lack of it in his new shadow Chancellor. "People are focused on the here and now and the future, not a retrospective examination of the Labour government. They want to know what will happen to their job, their livelihood, their sons and daughters livelihood in thecoming years."

What about his other previously tense relationship – with his brother David, whom he so narrowly beat for the Labour leadership? There was some good news for Ed Miliband yesterday when David, who declined to serve in the Shadow Cabinet, took one step back into the Labour fold by agreeing that his Obama-style "movement for change", under which Labour works closely with local communities, will formally affiliate to the party. It has secured funding from Lord Sainsbury of Turville, of the supermarket family. "He [David Miliband] is an incredibly talented person," Ed Miliband said. "I hope one day he comes back [into the Shadow Cabinet]. But he has got to make the right decisions for him and for his family."

Healing wounds – with the SDP, the Liberal Democrats, Mr Balls and now his brother – seems to be taking up rather a lot of Mr Miliband's time. And then there is the small matter of winning back the trust of those lost voters.

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