British politics changed yesterday. Can Labour change with it?

Anthony Painter

Coop

The Labour movement column

By Anthony Painter / @anthonypainter

The new Tory-Liberal Democratic coalition is planning to legislate for a referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote electoral system. It is also planning to legislate for a House of Lords elected on the basis of proportional representation. Labour had thirteen years in office and achieved neither.

Such are the paradoxes of the new political world we have entered. And, let’s be clear: what happened yesterday is staggering, astonishing, and bold. This is not an agreement of the opportunistic and the perfidious. It is an utterly mature agreement between two parties who have shown flexibility and imagination – with the odd wobble along the way – and it charts a new course in British political history. It is – to coin a phrase – a new politics.

Already, historical comparisons are being made between David Cameron and Robert Peel and repeal of the Corn Laws, Benjamin Disraeli and the Reform Act, or Stanley Baldwin and the elimination of Asquith’s Liberal Party. We’ll see. Credit where it’s due though, both David Cameron and Nick Clegg have shown courage and imagination over the last few days. Who would have gambled that the Conservatives would offer a referendum on AV or, indeed, that the Liberal Democrats would accept it even a few days ago?

Something more profound than a coalition was agreed yesterday, however. For the entire span of his leadership David Cameron has always sat rather oddly in his party. Emotionally, there are many – mainly on the right of the parliamentary Conservatives – who would prefer William Hague or David Davis as leader. So his leadership has been a marriage of convenience. This coalition frees David Cameron to give real meaning to progressive conservatism. Up until now it’s just been an idea and rhetoric. So it would have remained even if the Conservatives had enjoyed a small majority. Thus the coalition allows him to occupy the centre-ground and finish the work of detoxifying the Conservatives that he began in 2005.

There will be much to hearten progressives in this administration if rumours are to be believed: comprehensive banking reform, a premium for pupils in disadvantaged areas (though watch the detail!), putting an end to the accommodation of children in asylum centres and potentially the extension of more flexible and equal parental leave. There will also be issues of concern: redesigning Sure Start as a service for the less affluent only, and an immigration cap. And will the marriage tax allowance survive?

It will be a mixed bag, and Labour must be prepared to oppose clearly and passionately where it is right to but engage constructively where it is not. Already yesterday, there were MPs calling for the party to “attack, attack, attack.” It is difficult to imagine a more ineffective approach. It is exactly what led William Hague along the path that turned his entire election campaign in 2001 into a single issue fight to ‘save the pound.’ And it leads nowhere.

Just as the desperate attempt to conjure numbers from nowhere that would sustain a ‘Rainbow Alliance’ was an evasion, this oppositionalist approach is the same reflex at play. At some point, we are going to have to accept that we lost the election. We are going to have to begin the long and painful process of understanding why. We are now going to have to accept that far from a facing a weak and unstable government, we are facing a coalition in which both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have a vested interest in making work. Sure there will be disagreements, divisions, ambitions unmet, votes lost, but there is real chance that this coalition could endure – the aim is clearly that it is a five year arrangement. It will evolve in many unforeseen ways in that time.

The oppositionalist reflex is based on the notion that once the real business of public spending cuts begin, the hot breath of the electorate on the back of the coalition’s neck with induce panic and smash it apart. All Labour has to do is be a loud voice of opposition and, following another election, it will return to power with a glorious majority. Only, it probably won’t be like that at all.

And in some ways Labour’s task is greater than the Conservatives faced in 1997. While, in terms of seats, the party is in a much stronger position than the Conservatives were 13 years ago, it faces a more difficult challenge. It was obvious what the Conservatives had to do – detoxify and shift to the centre-ground. It just took them eight years to do it. Labour’s strategy, in this new political environment, is far from clear. If not reflexive opposition then what? Nobody has the answers yet. But there is no excuse for not being honest about where Labour is and then begin to ask the right questions.

Labour doesn’t know the nature of what it is contending with. It is in grave danger of looking like the old politics carping from the sidelines. Labour has time. The chances of an early election have dramatically receded (though events dear boy, events.) Too often in its recent past the party has been infected with a group-think where independence is seen as disloyalty, to question is treachery, and the party is viewed as a campaigning machine rather than a living breathing, pluralistic political movement. It has to learn the art of respectful disagreement amongst people of the same values once again.

It won’t be easy. It won’t be resolved by a new leader alone. Labour needs to be honest and in some ways brutal. It needs time. To rush the leadership election is madness, as Sunder Katwala argued today.

The party conference should be a hustings conference, not an election conference as the Conservatives did so successfully in 2005. And there should be a Deputy Leadership contest too. This is not just about the leadership, it’s about party renewal too – so a Deputy Leadership contest becomes necessary. And yes, there absolutely should be a female candidate in both the leadership and deputy leadership races, and Harriet Harman – with her record on equalities and increasing the diversity of our MPs in Parliament – should stand as a strong candidate in both.

Renewal starts now. No-one has a blueprint but let’s at least set the ground rules for an open and engaging discussion amongst friends and comrades. This new coalition will challenge us in fundamental ways. However, Labour values endure. If we do this the right way – by being open, democratic and responsible – then a new place for the Labour Party in this new political environment will be found.

Politics has changed. And the question now is quite simple. Can Labour change with it?

Anthony blogs at AnthonyPainter.co.uk.

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