This is not the long-awaited progressive moment

The deal being touted in Westminster is a mirage that risks luring progressive politics into the wil

I have devoted a considerable part of my adult life to advocating and working towards a political realignment that would bring Labour and the Liberal Democrats together in a partnership of shared conviction. I worked for Robin Cook during Labour's first term as we strove to keep Lib-Lab co-operation and the prospect of electoral reform alive long after Tony Blair and many of those today calling for a "progressive alliance" had lost interest.

So, it is with great reluctance that I have to conclude that the deal now being touted in Westminster does not herald the arrival of the long-awaited "progressive moment". On the contrary, it is a mirage that risks luring progressive politics into the wilderness for a generation. With no doubt honourable intentions, Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg are leading their parties towards a doomed embrace, the only lasting result of which will be a new era of Conservative dominance and an end to any prospect of real change. They need to be brought to their senses before it is too late.

The vision of a new politics was conceived as a way of breathing life into British democracy by expanding electoral choice, weakening the grip of party elites, decentralising power and creating a more open, pluralistic and collaborative way of governing. The whole project now risks being discredited by the installation of a weak government, sustained on life support by endless rounds of tawdry deal-mongering and the self-interest of the politicians sitting in it.

Anyone who imagines that such a government could play midwife to a new democratic settlement is making a grave mistake. You can't fight corruption with con tricks.

The Conservatives' argument -- that they, as the largest minority party, have the right to govern -- is patently absurd. There is no reason why, in principle, smaller parties, jointly representing the clear majority of voters, should not join forces to claim a superior mandate.

 

A problem of numbers and discipline

The real problem is a practical one: Labour and the Liberal Democrats between them simply lack the MPs required to govern securely, and would become hostage to smaller parties of mercenary intent. This is to say nothing of how the awkward squads within the ranks of Labour and the Liberal Democrats might behave.

By any calculation, the whole "progressive alliance" idea is dependent on a constellation of forces that lacks both the numbers and the discipline to do what is needed in the interests of the country.

The Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and the Democratic Unionists are already licking their lips at the prospect of using their parliamentary leverage to extract concessions that would cushion voters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland from the difficult cuts we all know are necessary. Is England to be left to face the pain of deficit reduction on its own? If so, the Conservatives can be expected to ride back to power on a wave of popular revulsion at the next election, and to remain there for a very long time after that.

The nightmare scenario is that a progressive coalition takes power, only to reprise the terminal phase of the Callaghan government, with parliamentary votes squeezed through thanks to shabby interest-bargaining and dying MPs being dragged out of hospital and through the division lobbies.

Does anyone really imagine that the British people, having seen the unedifying chaos a hung parliament had brought about, would then vote for a new electoral system that promised to make it the permanent condition of our national politics? Or are we seriously contemplating the democratic outrage of Labour ratting on its manifesto commitment and changing the electoral system without a referendum? Let's remember that what followed Callaghan was 18 years of Conservative hegemony.

I hate to find myself in the company of knee-jerk Labour tribalists such as Jack Straw and David Blunkett, but on this they are right. Painful as it may be, genuine progressives need to face the truth and let go. If not, the real "moment" may never come.

David Clark is a freelance political writer and analyst. He served as special adviser on Europe to Robin Cook from 1997-2001.

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David Clark was Robin Cook’s special adviser at the Foreign Office 1997-2001.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.