Vince Cable settles his scores

Business Secretary takes aim at Steve Hilton, the Murdoch empire and Gordon Brown in his conference

Vince Cable's speech at the Lib Dem conference (read it in full here) felt like a settling of scores. The Business Secretary took aim at the Murdoch empire, Gordon Brown and even David Cameron's policy adviser Steve Hilton. Of the latter, who once proposed abolishing maternity leave, he declared: "What I will not do though is provide cover for ideological descendents of those who sent children up chimneys. Panic in financial markets won't be stopped by scrapping maternity rights."

His attack on the economic right continued. He derided the Lafferites who believe that cutting taxes on the rich will "miraculously" generate new revenue, and asked what "solar system" those who depicted his mansion tax as an attack on "ordinary middle class owners" were living in. But the biggest applause came when, in reference to News International, Cable spoke of his pride that "we never compromised ourselves in that company."

Yet while Cable threw plenty of red meat to the Lib Dem faithful, he combined this with a robust but distinctive defence of George Osborne's deficit reduction strategy. In pursuing fiscal contraction, the Lib Dems, he said, were "following in the footsteps of Stafford Cripps and Roy Jenkins in Britain and, abroad, the Canadian Liberals, Scandinavian Social Democrats and Clinton Democrats in the USA." In a swipe at messrs Balls and Miliband, he added: "They understood, unlike today's Labour Party - that the progressive agenda of centre left parties cannot be delivered by bankrupt Governments." The word that blows Cable's argument apart is "bankrupt". Britain was never on the "brink of bankruptcy" and debt as a percentage of GDP is still lower now than it was for most of the 20th century. Hardly ideal, but then as Cable himself argued: "[W]e now face a crisis that is the economic equivalent of war."

He was admirably frank about Britain's economic woes, insisting pace Cameron that there are no "sunny uplands", only "grey skies". Indeed, whether you favour Keynesian stimulus (as the NS does) or Hayekian austerity, the truth is that the UK faces a permanently reduced level of growth (the reason why the structural deficit is £12bn higher-than-expected).

In an attempt to distinguish himself from Osborne (who was not mentioned by name), Cable made repeated references to the government's "stimulus" programme and to the need for "fairness", what he called a "more responsible capitalism". And he put some red water between himself and Nick Clegg by vowing to reduce income inequality (a concept Clegg has suggested is outdated). But for all his undoubted sincerity, Cable is a member of a government that is presiding over anaemic growth and that is likely to leave office with poverty and inequality higher than when it entered. When the time comes to assess the coalition's record, Cable's progressive rheotric will offer scant comfort.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.