Rennard: as Lib Dems squirm it's good news for Labour

Anything that damages Nick Clegg is a boost for Ed Miliband as polls continue to back Labour

Column LAST UPDATED AT 08:46 ON Tue 21 Jan 2014

LABOUR'S top two women - deputy leader Harriet Harman and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper - showed no compunction yesterday about intruding into Lib Dem grief over the alleged sexist behaviour of Lord Rennard.

They were no doubt motivated by their long-standing and passionate commitment to promoting the role of women and fighting sexism at Westminster. But they will also have been aware that anything that damages Nick Clegg is likely to be a political bonus for Labour.

Harriet Harman accused Nick Clegg of a “cop out” in being prepared to allow Rennard back onto the Lib Dem policy committee in return for an apology to his women accusers - that was before the regional parties committee of decided at the eleventh hour to suspend the peer's party membership.

Harman said: “Nick Clegg must get off the fence otherwise it will send out a signal to any woman who suffers sexual harassment that she needn't bother to complain."

Yvette Cooper's point was about the wider implications of the accusations against Rennard, described yesterday as the party's election mastermind. “It's really about whether there is respect for women at top of the party,” she said.

Labour’s current lead in the polls, averaging around six per cent, rests on two factors: Ukip’s inroads into the Tory vote and the switch of Lib Dem voters to Labour. Currently, the Lib Dems are as low as eight per cent, trailing Ukip.

They face humiliation in the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election, just called for February 13, and the European elections in May.

And if Ed Miliband can hang onto the Lib Dem converts until the 2015 general election, he has every reason to believe he is heading to Downing Street.

The problem for the Lib Dems, of course, is that the one person they might draft in to lead a recovery is Lord Rennard, the architect of so many by-election triumphs in the 1970s and 80s and of the party's major gains in the general elections of 1997, 2001 and 2005 – and they've just flung him out of the party.

Tory hopes that the Labour leader's most recent policy announcement – to cap the market share of high street banks - would backfire have been disappointed. They argued that the proposal - which did indeed wipe millions off the value of Lloyds and RBS on Friday - would turn out to be a voter loser. 

But a YouGov poll for the Sunday Times showed that nearly three in five voters (57 per cent) back Miliband’s market share cap.  

A cap on bankers' bonuses, also proposed by Miliband, is even more popular. The Labour leader wants to restrict bonuses to 100 per cent of salary. This is supported by 67 per cent of voters and opposed by only 19 per cent. The idea is even supported by 50 per cent of Conservative voters, and opposed by only 27 per cent. 

Also, the decision by Chancellor George Osborne to back a hike in the national minimum wage was presented as an attempt to overshadow Miliband’s bank reform speech. 

In reality, the Chancellor was doing little more than catching up with firmly established public opinion. The previous week's YouGov poll for the Sunday Times showed at least half of voters from all four main parties support a "substantial increase" in the minimum wage.

So, Osborne has removed one Labour campaign issue - but he has a way to go to blunt Miliband’s constant refrain about a “cost of living crisis”.

The more recent YouGov survey found that on the issue of the national economy there is optimism – 36 per cent of people think things are better than a year ago, 24 per cent worse. And that was before today's good news about the IMF "raising its outlook" for UK growth.

But when asked about their own family finances, only 14 per cent think they are better off than a year ago, while 39 per cent think they are worse off. Looking to  the year ahead, only 17 per cent think their own household’s finances will get better, while 37 per cent think they’ll get worse.

The challenge for the Tories in the year ahead is to persuade the electorate that what's good for the nation is good for them and their families. Osborne's move on the minimum wage is a sure sign that they now understand this is their big task. ·