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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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