I've just returned from a meeting of the Oxford University Labour Club, where Harriet Harman was speaking to students. The South London MP was elected deputy leader of her party last year in front of a surprised and dismayed conference hall, but whatever people think about Harman, she's a decent public speaker. She had a good rapport with the 40-strong audience, and although I couldn't find much to agree with in her talk, she at least managed to say it all without sending me to sleep, which is a start.
She spoke initially about immigration policy, but her main aim was actually to chivvy along the young Labour activists ahead of next week's crucial local elections. The latest YouGov poll with its apparent 18-point Tory lead hasn't gone down too well with the grassroots, and Harman wanted to tell them that the situation is far, far better than the facts suggest.
The more time I spend following politics, the more convinced I become that you can spin literally any story in any direction, if only you're brazen enough to keep a straight face whilst you do it. The Labour party in Oxford are campaigning against the minority Lib Dem administration because apparently, below-inflation rises in council tax are putting public services at threat. (And there was me thinking that Lib Dem councillors had simply delivered good value for money ...) Harperson was equally brazen with her spin today. I have no idea how she managed to convince a roomful of students that the economy was in rude health, and that an 18-point deficit in the polls was certain to translate into a clear victory and a 4th term in office at the next general election - but somehow she managed.
In the question and answers session, I asked her whether she'd feel more comfortable going into coalition with the Tories or with the Lib Dems, should there be a hung parliament next time round. I'm fed up of commentators asking this question relentlessly to the Lib Dems, but never putting the same question to the other two parties. I was quite keen to see what the Labour deputy leader would have to say on the subject.
I was actually quite surprised to get a straight answer: she prefers us. She feels we're ideologically closer to her, and wishes the Lib Dems would just join her party so that the combined political "left" could just get on with fighting the Tories.
That answer should be a serious warning to the odd few Lib Dems who fall into very much the same trap. The idea that we're part of a wider progressive movement in British politics, with the common aim of beating the Tories, is exactly the way the Labour Party top brass want us to feel. The real situation is very different - rather than forming a progressive alliance with Labour against the Tories, we need to seek to build a liberal alliance to battle against two authoritarian, instrusive and statist parties that are, in their different ways, just as bad as each other. Labour's commitment to social justice can't justify their invasive style of government; the fact that they share many of our ends can't justify their means.
I have to give the Labour Club members a mention. The students did give Harman a genuinely hard time, with tough, intelligent and analytical questions on the 10p tax band, party political funding, and especially the scandal of the Saudi arms deal. I was very impressed with the young woman who asked why on earth we were going to such great lengths to preserve good commercial relations with Saudi Arabia in spite of their atrocious record on human rights. I don't often go along to the Labour Club, but when I do, I'm usually very impressed by the standard of the debate there. Credit where credit is due.