John Curtice, the respected professor of politics, warned Labour last week that the party needed to “build bridges” with the Lib Dems given the likelihood of another hung parliament in 2015. Prof Curtice wrote in Juncture, the journal of the IPPR thinktank, that Mr Miliband should not “underestimate” the potential value of improving its relations with the Lib Dems.
“The quality of the relationship between the two parties could well prove crucial to Labour’s prospects of future power – before or after 2015,” he wrote.
This belies the fact that Labour and the Liberal Democrats are in contact at the highest level, according to senior figures in both camps.
Some Labour strategists are increasingly convinced that the party will have the largest number of seats at the next election but not necessarily enough for an outright majority.
As such they are keen for a rapprochement between the two parties ahead of 2015 in case there is a compelling argument for a new Labour-Lib Dem coalition in the next Parliament. “The lines of communication are now open,” said one senior Labour source.
Two years ago Mr Miliband was one of four Labour politicians negotiating with the Lib Dem leadership as it mulled which way to jump in forming a coalition, but his attitude was seen as hostile.
That tough attitude continued in the early days of his leadership, when he invited disgruntled Lib Dem activists to jump ship. “They seemed to spend the first year of opposition just kicking us,” said one senior Lib Dem aide.
Since then Labour has turned its guns more towards the Tories, the much larger party in the coalition.
A spokeswoman for Mr Cable, the business secretary, said he had met Mr Miliband twice since the general election and they had spoken “four or five times” on the phone. Mr Clegg had met the Labour leader twice and spoken on the phone “a couple of times”.
Mr Cable is seen as the most likely lynchpin between the two parties for the reason that he was a former Labour councillor in his youth.
But a source close to Mr Clegg said the Lib Dem leader said he was “relaxed” about Mr Cable’s conversations because he was “in favour of plural, grown-up politics” where MPs of different parties talked to each other.
Any Lib-Lab discussions were “not about 2015,” he said. Instead they were largely to discuss shared areas of interest such as the reform of party funding and the House of Lords.
A spokeswoman for Mr Cable said the conversations had been about issues including bank reforms. “Like other members of the Liberal Democrats, he has always been willing to talk to other politicians to discuss important areas of public policy,” she said.
Mutual suspicion still remains after Labour refused to help campaign for the “AV” alternative vote last year. The Lib Dems also believe Labour will wreck their hopes of a mostly elected House of Lords.
But the Lib Dems are facing increasing hostility from many rightwing Tory backbenchers who would prefer a Conservative-only administration. The row over the Beecroft report only emphasises the ideological differences between the two coalition partners.
Curtice, in his article, pointed out that one of the lessons of the coalition negotiations in 2010 was that preparation and prior contacts mattered.
“In 2010, the Conservatives were ready and willing to do a deal, while previous contact had given Cameron and Clegg reason to believe they could work together,” he said. “Labour, by contrast, was ill-prepared and internally divided on its willingness to strike a deal with the Liberal Democrats.”
Labour is downplaying the number and relevance of conversations between Miliband and Cable; but the party appears to be learning from the lessons of 2010.