Vince Cable and Danny Alexander's tug of war continues

After publicly disagreeing over the danger of a new housing bubble, the Lib Dem pair find themselves at odds over the end of the coalition.

The return of economic growth and Labour's fall in popularity has convinced the Lib Dems that there's little to be gained from an early exit from the coalition. The alternative of a confidence and supply deal with the Tories is viewed as the worst of all possible worlds. It would do nothing to placate those voters who despise them for propping up a Conservative government (indeed, this charge would have even more resonance), whilst antagonising those who believe they were right to enter coalition "in the national interest".

But during his day of dissent yesterday, Vince Cable used an evening fringe meeting to suggest that the coalition could break up before 2015. He said: "It's certainly possible. We are not at the stage of talking about that process. It is obviously a very sensitive one. It has got to be led by the leader. We have not yet had those conversations."

He later added on Newsnight that the position would be "collectively decided" closer to the election and that "all kinds of things are possible". But on Sky News this morning, Danny Alexander avoided such ambiguity in a calculated slap-down to Cable. He said:

This coalition will continue until the end of this Parliament as we promised for the very simple reason that we have a very big job to do - to clean up the economic mess that Labour left behind and entrench the recovery we are starting to see.

Vince was asked at a fringe meeting to speculate on a range of options. What I'm saying is that we have always made clear our firm intention is to make sure this coalition continues until the end.

We are not going to walk away from that job months or years before the end of the coalition government. We have big Lib Dem commitments to deliver.

lt's not the first time that Alexander and Cable, the party's two most senior economic spokesmen, have found themselves at odds during the Lib Dem conference.

After Cable warned that the government's Help To Buy scheme was in danger of creating a new housing bubble ("the danger lights have been flashing for some time") and suggested that its second phase should be limited to those regions where the market remains depressed, Alexander issued a stern rebuke, declaring that "We are a million miles away from a housing bubble in this country."

He added: "Right now the problem we face in the housing market is we are not building enough new homes and there are vast numbers of young people in work who could afford the monthly payments on their mortgage but simply can't afford the deposit they need to get a mortgage. The whole point of the second phase of the Help to Buy scheme is to help those people fulfil their aspirations and in doing so ensure there is more construction activity, that there are more new homes being built."

With these two clashes, the private tensions between Cable and Alexander, who many Lib Dems believe has been captured by George Osborne, are becoming increasingly public.

Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.