Conservative MP and former climate change minister Greg Barker. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian.
Show Hide image

Greg Barker: Tories must not "dance off to the right"

Conservative MP and former climate change minister says his party must "relentlessly" pursue modernisation. 

For this week's Conservative conference edition of the New Statesman, I interviewed Greg Barker, Conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle, former climate change minister (he accompanied David Cameron to the Arctic Circle in 2006) and ultra-moderniser. You can read the piece in full here, but here are some of the highlights. 

Tories must not "dance off to right" and must "relentlessly" pursue modernisation

Confronted by the threat of Ukip, Barker warned that the Tories must occupy "the centre ground of British politics, rather than dancing off to the right" and that they must "relentlessy" pursue modernisation. 

He told me: "I worry that there are people who would like to drop the modernisation agenda and that want to take us closer to a Ukip set of policies. But I think you have to be relentlessly pursuing and making the case of why we should be forward looking, not backward looking, of why the future of the Conservative Party as an election-winning machine, as well as in terms of the best for the electorate, depends on us occupying the centre ground of British politics, rather than dancing off to the right

"However real the immediate threat may be from Ukip, what voters respect in the long-term is authenticity in their political parties and I think we are authentically centre-right, best at offering a future which is driven by an optimistic outlook on the UK’s potential, rather than trying to drag us back to the 1950s."

Of Douglas Carswell's defection, he said: "I thought it was treacherous. If he’s happier in Ukip, well that’s the best place for him."

Lib Dem Ed Davey is "a bit right-wing for me"

Declaring himself to be "unashamedly pro-alition", Barker told me that the partnership with the Lib Dems had been "a remarkable success". 

He said that he had had "a very good relationship" with Energy Secretary Ed Davey, adding in a remark that will do the Lib Dem no favours:  he is "a bit right-wing for me". "He’s rather laissez-faire. I would favour slightly more radical market interventions. The same is probably true of Chris Huhne [Davey’s predecessor as energy secretary]."

Tories "musn't obsess about Europe"

In response to calls from some Tory MPs for David Cameron to declare his willingess to campaign for EU withdrawal, Barker told me that the party "musn't obsess about Europe" and urged recalcitrant backbenchers to "rally round David, stop obsessing about every dot and comma in our negotiating position and actually give him the space and time to get the deal for Britain". 

He added: "I am not one of those politicians who lies awake in the middle of the night worrying about Brussels. The way that David Cameron has handled Europe is superlative. For a Tory prime minister to try and navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of different wings on the Tory Party on this a very, very difficult task, and I think he’s done it extraordinarily well. Now, it needs people to bite their lips, give him space, get behind him, and give him that negotiating space."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.