On-form Darling accuses Lib Dems of acting as Tories’ “human shield”

Former Chancellor fast emerging as key opposition figure.

Alistair Darling, not a man given to hyperbole, is on top form defending his economic legacy and attacking what he sees as ideological cuts from the Tory-led coalition. He has been a regular on the airwaves at a time when Labour lacks leadership. And this passionate piece in the Observer was a model Keynesian take-down of the government's fiscal plans.

Now, following Ed Miliband's description of Nick Clegg as a "crypto-Tory", Darling has accused the Lib Dems of acting as a "human shield" covering the Tories' controversial programme of cuts.

Darling writes in today's London Evening Standard:

When George Osborne says the UK is "on the road to ruin" he is trashing this country's reputation to justify the cuts and tax rises he's always wanted.

He talks a lot about tax rises and cuts. He never has much to say about growth. So the test of the Budget will be whether his plans ensure growth. And crucially, if it is fair.

Britain is slowly emerging from recession. Europe, our biggest trading partner, is struggling to maintain growth with many countries in recession or not far off it. Our economy is this year largely being supported by government spending, as the independent Office for Budget Responsibility has said. We cannot afford to do anything to undermine that growth. Indeed, we should be supporting it.

Borrowing has risen because tax revenues fell when the financial crisis hit in 2008. We and every other developed country did the same: we used public spending to stop our economy tipping from recession into depression. It worked.

Remember, the Tories supported our spending plans right up to 2008.

Of course, borrowing has to come down as our economy recovers. That is why I wanted to cut it by half over a four-year period. It would have been tough but I wanted to avoid damaging our economy whilst it was still in a fragile state.

The Tories have painted an apocalyptic picture of public finances and claim high borrowing is to be found here and nowhere else. That, as they know, is nonsense. They are using this as an excuse to do what they have always wanted to do -- have a real go at the public sector.

It is essential that we maintain growth. Without it, the deficit will never come down, as we have seen in Japan.

The Tories often quote Canada. The truth is the Canadians got their borrowing down on the back of a growing US economy. And it is nonsense, too, to suggest that if you cut public spending the private sector will take its place automatically.

And remember the Lib Dems' "VAT bombshell"? Judging by the last few weeks, they will be voting for a Tory Budget and acting as their human shield.

Darling is setting the tone for the new opposition. As Alastair Campbell has said, it is time for the Labour leadership candidates to follow suit.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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The Tory-DUP deal has left Scotland and Wales seething

It is quite something to threaten the Northern Irish peace process and set the various nations of the UK at loggerheads with merely one act.

Politics in the UK is rarely quite this crude, or this blatant. The deal agreed between the Conservatives and Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party has – finally – been delivered. But both the deal and much of the opposition to it come with barely even the pretence of principled behaviour.

The Conservatives are looking to shore up their parliamentary and broader political position after a nightmare month. The DUP deal gives the Tories some parliamentary security, and some political breathing space. It is not yet clear what they as a party will do with this – whether, for instance, there will be an attempt to seek new leadership for the party now that the immediate parliamentary position has been secured.

But while some stability has been achieved, the deal does not provide the Tories with much additional strength. Indeed, the DUP deal emphasises their weakness. To finalise the agreement the government has had to throw money at Northern Ireland and align with a deeply socially conservative political force. At a stroke, the last of what remained of the entire Cameron project – the Conservative’s rebuilt reputation as the better party for the economy and fiscal stability, and their development as a much more socially inclusive and liberal party – has been thrown overboard.

Read more: Theresa May's magic money tree is growing in Northern Ireland

For the DUP, the reasoning behind the deal is as obvious as it is for the Conservatives. The DUP has maximised the leverage that the parliamentary arithmetic gives it. As a socially conservative and unionist party, it has absolutely no wish to see Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street. But it has kept the Conservatives waiting, and used the current position to get as good a deal as possible. Why should we expect it to do anything else? Still, it is hardly seemly for votes to be bought quite so blatantly.

The politics behind much of the criticism of the deal has been equally obvious. Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones – representing not only the Labour party, but also a nation whose relative needs are at least as great as those of the six counties – abandoned his normally restrained tone to describe the deal as a "bung" for Northern Ireland. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was also sharply critical of the deal’s lack of concern for financial fairness across the UK. In doing so, she rather blithely ignored the fact that the Barnett Formula, out of which Scotland has long done rather well, never had much to do with fairness anyway. But we could hardly expect the Scottish National Party First Minister to do anything but criticise both the Conservatives and the current functioning of the UK.

Beyond the depressingly predictable short-term politics, the long-term consequences of the Tory-DUP deal are much less foreseeable. It is quite something to threaten the integrity of the Northern Irish peace process and set the various nations of the UK at loggerheads with merely one act. Perhaps everything will work out OK. But it is concerning that, for the current government, short-term political survival appears all-important, even at potential cost to the long-term stability and integrity of the state.

But one thing is clear. The political unity of the UK is breaking down. British party politics is in retreat, possibly even existential decay. This not to say that political parties as a whole are in decline. But the political ties that bind across the UK are.

The DUP deal comes after the second general election in a row where four different parties have come first in the four nations of the UK, something which had never happened before 2015. But perhaps even more significantly, the 2017 election was one where the campaigns across the four nations were perhaps less connected than ever before.

Of course, Northern Ireland’s party and electoral politics have long been largely separate from those on the mainland. But Ulster Unionist MPs long took the Tory whip at Westminster. Even after that practice ceased in the 1970s, some vestigial links between the parties remained, while there were also loose ties between the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Labour. But in 2017, both these Northern Irish parties had their last Commons representation eliminated.

In Scotland, 2017 saw the SNP lose some ground; the main unionist parties are, it seems, back in the game. But even to stage their partial comeback, the unionist parties had to fight – albeit with some success – on the SNP’s turf, focusing the general election campaign in Scotland heavily around the issue of a potential second independence referendum.

Even in Wales, Labour’s 26th successive general election victory was achieved in a very different way to the previous 25. The party campaigned almost exclusively as Welsh Labour. The main face and voice of the campaign was Carwyn Jones, with Jeremy Corbyn almost invisible in official campaign materials. Immediately post-election, Conservatives responded to their failure by calling for the creation of a clear Welsh Conservative leader.

Read more: Did Carwyn Jones win Wales for Labour  - or Jeremy Corbyn?

Yet these four increasingly separate political arenas still exist within one state. The UK was always an odd entity: what James Mitchell astutely termed a "state of unions", with the minority nations grafted on in distinct and even contradictory ways to the English core. The politics of the four nations are drifting apart, yet circumstances will still sometimes mean that they have to intersect. In the current instance, the parliamentary arithmetic means the Tories having to work with a party that celebrates a form of "Britishness" viewed increasingly with baffled incomprehension, if not outright revulsion, by the majority of Conservatives, even, on the British mainland. In turn, the Tories and other parties, as well as the news-media, are having to deal with sudden relevance of a party whose concerns and traditions they understand very little of.

Expect more of this incomprehension, not less, in the post-2017 general election world. 

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

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