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.

Special offer: get 12 issues of the New Statesman for just £5.99 plus a free copy of "Liberty in the Age of Terror" by A C Grayling.

David Clark is the editor of Shifting Grounds.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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.