Clegg helps Cameron change the subject

Lib Dem MPs have felt the power of trade union money on the ground and resent it just as much as the

There are few sights in politics less edifying than the House of Commons roused into a state of confected fury. (Actually, it is the sound more than the sight that is off-putting -- the braying roar of hundreds of MPs hurling theatrical fury at one another does not obviously signal constructive debate.) Parliament was at its noisy, shouty worst for yesterday's statement by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude on the "cash for access" scandal. In fairness, Maude himself started off pretty sedate, while Labour MPs went berserk. Ed Miliband was fairly even-tempered too but by then berserk was established as the backbench theme of the occasion and the Tories embraced it.

The arguments were predictable. Miliband insisted that the issue in question was David Cameron's judgement and demanded an independent public inquiry into the specific allegations that high-rolling donors have secured intimate soirees in Downing Street with their lavish contributions to party coffers. Maude hit back with scattergun blasts at Labour's failure in office to reform party funding and its current dependence on trade unions. This is pretty much how the argument will proceed from now on. Miliband wants to keep the focus as narrow as possible, ideally so some mud sticks to the Prime Minister; the Tories want to widen it out as quickly and as far as possible so the whole scandal is seen as somehow intrinsic to politics in general with no one party better or worse than the others.

Ultimately, I suspect the Tories will win this particular tug-of-war for two reasons.

First, much though Labour would like people to connect the current scandal to Tory sleaze of bygone days - the mid-Nineties, cash-for-questions etc. - the public are just as likely to recall Labour sleaze - cash for honours - which is more recent. As with the expenses scandal, the default judgement will be that "they're all the same".

Second, the Liberal Democrats will pull hard in the direction of generalising the issue rather than keeping the focus specifically on Cameron and Tory donors. Although the junior coalition party has an interest in keeping the Conservative brand toxic (so as to appear all the more vital as a moderating influence) , the real prize for Clegg and friends from all of this is serious progress on funding reform. The junior coalition party is broke and does not have a safety net of reliable donors in the way that the Tories can tap up their pet tycoons and Labour can fall back on the unions. Levelling the playing field is a matter of financial survival for the Lib Dems.

Also, crucially, although the left-leaning wing of the Lib Dems might be more appalled by the idea of fat cats wining and dining the Camerons, the party's MPs are much more focused on union money. At the last election, it was trade union war chests that funded a lot of vicious trench warfare in Labour-Lib Dem contests. That power is felt at least as keenly as the money that Lord Aschcroft feeds into Conservative target marginals, if not more so. The Lib Dems will gladly encourage the idea of equivalence between rich Tory financiers and the unions because, when it comes to being outspent in campaigns on the ground, there is ample resentment to go around.

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

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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.