The next coalition? Why Ed Miliband needs to get Nick Clegg's number

Former minister Peter Hain – a close ally of the Labour leader – tells Andrew Grice that his party must start making overtures to the Lib Dems
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A senior Labour MP has urged Ed Miliband to start preparing now for a possible coalition with the Liberal Democrats because it will be difficult for the party to win an overall majority in 2015.

In an interview with The Independent, the former Cabinet minister Peter Hain said Labour needs to build personal relationships with the Lib Dems well before the next election and talk about forming an “anti-Tory alliance” in the event of another hung parliament. “We need back channels and to exchange mobile phone numbers,” he said.

Mr Hain, a close ally of Mr Miliband, was an unofficial go-between with the Lib Dems when no party won an overall majority in 2010. He wants Labour to learn lessons from the frantic five-day period in which Nick Clegg’s party held talks with both the Conservatives and Labour but ended up joining David Cameron in coalition.

He is prepared to say in public what many Labour MPs are thinking privately – that it will be hard for Labour to win an overall majority in 2015. “I don’t think Cameron can win the next election,” he said. “He did not win in 2010; the Tories are a divided party, especially on Europe; they have damaged a lot of people and are seen as incompetent.”

Mr Hain added: “I think Labour will be the largest party [in terms of seats]. The question is whether we can win a majority. I will be fighting tooth and nail for that majority. It will be quite difficult for us to win a majority straight after a heavy defeat [in 2010]…We could do it with a relatively low percentage of the vote. I think we will get a minimum of 35 or 36 per cent [of the vote] and we could edge above that.”

Mr Hain believes the rise of the UK Independence Party will make it even harder for any party to win an overall majority in an era of multi-party politics. “The old two-party model is bust. It was at its height in 1951, when 97 per cent of people voted either Conservative or Labour. In 2010, only two out of three did. Since then, it has got worse. The Lib Dems will not for a generation be the reservoir for the anti-establishment protest vote. Ukip is hoovering up most of that.”

The former Work and Pensions Secretary predicted a hung parliament before the 2010 election but said senior Labour figures, unlike their Tory counterparts, did not prepare the ground for talks with the Lib Dems. “Labour was in denial. Most of the leadership thought we were going to lose and were astonished that the Tories didn’t win an overall majority,” he admitted.

Unlike Mr Cameron, Gordon Brown was not on good terms with Mr Clegg. “The lack of any personal relationship was a big problem,” said Mr Hain. “Gordon was a bit chippy.”

He added: “It is about personal trust and relationships. Ed Miliband is a very open person. People warm to him. He is very different to Gordon…It’s not a question of becoming best buddies. It is about deciding we are against the Tories being in power.”

The Lib Dems demanded that Mr Brown stand down in the unsuccessful Lib-Lab negotiations and Mr Hain believes Mr Clegg would be in the same boat in 2015. “It is not for Labour MPs to choose other parties’ leaders. But a majority of Lib Dems would have preferred an alliance with Labour last time and would do next time, probably with a new [Lib Dem] leader.”

He believes Labour is a more natural partner for the Lib Dems than the Tories, citing their joint approach to Europe, the Leveson report on press regulation and a mansion tax on homes worth more than £2m.

Senior Lib Dems insist that, as they did after the last election, they would talk first to the party with the most seats to respect the voters’ wishes. Mr Hain, who was president of the Young Liberals in the 1970s, admits that in 2010, the “parliamentary arithmetic” was against the “progressive alliance” he wants to see.

But he believes that a Lib-Lab deal would be the only realistic outcome in a 2015 hung parliament – even if the Tories are the largest party. “If Cameron loses another election, which I think he will, I don’t see he will have any credibility for a second term,” he said.

Mr Hain, an early backer for Mr Miliband for Labour leader after the party’s 2010 defeat, said: “Labour is very well placed to win the next election and be the biggest party. We are united – that is one of Ed’s biggest achievements. Labour-inclined voters are really angry about what the Government is doing. Ed is still quite unknown by the public. In the heat and exposure of a general election, people will get to like him.”