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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.