Cameron still lacks a foreign policy vision

What kind of a power do we want to be? How do we achieve that ambition? Cameron is unsure.

Nato's mission in Libya looks like a foreign policy success for David Cameron, but that is not the same thing as having a successful foreign policy.

First, the obvious caveats: it is early days; the battle is not over, let alone the war. There are easily enough military and diplomatic traps ahead for the Libyan intervention to become a failure. The prime minister, the deputy prime minister, the foreign secretary and the defence secretary have all said as much. But for now, the politics of the situation are favouring Cameron. He took a big decision under considerable pressure and, after some nerve-wracking months, it appears to have paid off. "He definitely leapt before he looked," was how one senior Ministry of Defence official put it too me early on in the campaign. (The same source also said of the anti-Gaddafi rebels "the only good fighters among them are the al-Qaeda ones", a slightly wild allegation which should nonetheless be reason enough to put blind optimism for the future on hold.)

Libyans will decide whether they are better off in the long run for the UK's military partisanship in their insurrection-cum-civil war. The point is that, in the eyes of the British public, Cameron has effectively led a short war. There are usually political dividends to be drawn from that position.

But I suspect they will be limited in this case because, as with so much of Cameron's leadership, the good news story doesn't slot into a wider strategic narrative. It is worth remembering that the Conservatives came into power signalling reluctance to reshape the world - a la Blair - by military excursion. The new doctrine, as spelled out by William Hague in a series of speeches in July 2010, was a kind of bilateral mercantilism. The UK would continue to promote freedom and democracy around the globe, the foreign secretary said, but the main tool would be aggressive pursuit of trade interests. Overseas embassies would be reconfigured as pushy chambers of commerce.

Barely weeks before taking action in Libya, Cameron declared: "I am not a naive neocon who thinks you can drop democracy out of an aeroplane at 40,000ft." The fact that Cameron then decided to use British military assets against Gaddafi doesn't signal some visionary conversion to fanatical interventionism. Libya might be a one-off; Gaddafi might just have been low-hanging despotic fruit.

To get the maximum political advantage from the intervention, Cameron has to frame the episode in terms of his vision of Britain's role in the world - and it isn't clear that he has one. The project of expanding our national influence by trade is looking trickier as the global economy falters. As an ambition it is of a pair with George Osborne's hope of rebalancing the economy and driving growth through exports - which relies on a level of overseas demand for UK goods that has not yet materialised.

A big gap in Cameron's world view (at least the publicly known portion of it) is his sense of how Britain's position in the European Union will evolve as the single currency lurches ever onward in financial and institutional crisis. As I mentioned in my column this week, this omission is stirring dissent in the party. A lot of Tories see the eurozone crisis as an opportunity to start a wholesale renegotiation of Britain's EU deal, but there isn't much appetite for that at the top of the party. (This is partly because the leadership's view of all matters EU is coloured by their "modernising" crusade in opposition, so there is an association between public expressions of fierce euroscepticism and unelectability. Then, of course, there is the problem of the stubbornly Europhile Lib Dems.)

The Arab Spring; global economic turbulence; structural crisis at the heart of the European Union - three giant themes that raise profound questions about Britain's position in the world. What kind of a power do we want to be? How do we achieve that ambition? I don't get the impression that Cameron is any closer to having persuasive answers to those questions than he was when he moved into Downing Street last year.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.