Wednesday 14 July 2010

Clegg would be barrier to future Lab-Lib coalition, says Denham

A future Labour-LibDem Coalition government is possible - but would depend on the LibDems ditching Nick Clegg as leader, shadow cabinet member John Denham tells the Fabian Review, in an interview with Mary Riddell which is reported in today's Independent newspaper.

Denham says that he expects the Coalition to last for a "considerable time", and that any future centre-left alliance would depend on significant changes in both the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties.

Denham is a long-standing Labour pluralist, who heads the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform and who will campaign in favour of a Yes vote in the Alternative Vote referendum in May. He was in favour of trying to secure a centre-left coalition in May. He suggests this did not happen, both because the "Clegg wing" of the LibDem preferred a Tory-led Coalition once the results were in, and because it became clear that Labour was not "in a psychological or emotional state" to make a Coalition work, as shown by the pubic interventions of John Reid and David Blunkett.

Here is a longer extract from the relevant part of the interview.

With so much at stake, from foreign policy to the economy, is Labour simply a self-indulgent sideshow, engaging in the navel-gazing of a protracted leadership fight? “No. We’re staking out our positions for where we need to be in 2014 or 2015. I think the Coalition is more likely than not to last .. for a considerable time, if not the whole five years. We will have to have a very compelling story to tell, which requires a long leadership race. By the way, I also think Harriet is doing a very good job. It’s not as if there’s a vacuum.”

There is however, a gaping hole where the prospect of a centre-left alliance promoted by Denham and others once resided. Is there any chance now of resurrecting such a dream? “The Lib Dems have ceded all right to say they are a progressive party. If we use the next months and years to address the parlous state of the Labour Party, and if, as a result, the LibDems change, that might open up possibilities.

Does he mean that the LibDems would first have to ditch Nick Clegg? “It would require a new leader and a new politics. The idea that the Lib Dems can do this now and then, in a few years, say they’d like to be friends with Labour when they are fundamentally unchanged is out of the question. Many people, including electoral reformers like me who always through there could be a centre left coalition with the Lib Dems, have to understand they have taken a historic position which puts them outside that game until they change profoundly.”

But Denham also has stinging criticism for Labour’s post-election role, and in particular for David Blunkett and John Reid, who talked down the chances of a Labour/Lib Dem deal. “Others wanted to do that deal. The Clegg part of the LibDems didn’t. But we weren’t in a psychological or emotional state to do it. [The issue wasn’t] what David Blunkett or John Reid said. The reality of that weekend was that the Tories and the LibDems were disciplined and Labour were all over the media. What that told you was that this was a party that couldn’t, however much it wanted it, pull it together and make that deal work.”

It sounds as if he lays heavy blame on his two old Cabinet colleagues for the failure of a LabLib deal. Was their conduct indefensible? “It wasn’t necessary. The cabinet had taken a unanimous decision to go into negotiations, and it was a shame we couldn’t rely on people in the wider party to respect that.”

Does Denham think his fissiparous party will rally behind the alternative vote that many regard as being an essential element in Labour’s revival? He discloses that, during a fierce battle between senior figures who favoured keeping first past the post and others advocating PR, Gordon Brown turned to him for advice in the middle of an electoral reform committee.

“Gordon said: ‘What do you think, John?’ and I told him some change was better than none. Labour duly settled on holding the referendum on AV that is now a point of LibDem dogma and the key goal holding the Coalition together.” For all his animus, Denham will be backing Clegg on an issue he sees as Labour’s “triumph” and urging Labour MPs to do likewise. This, he hints, may not be easy. “I wish the party was united, but that was not what the manifesto said. I will be working for a Yes vote.”

We will publish the full interview on the Fabian website today.

The Denham interview may be an example of how it can be controversial to state obvious truths in politics.

Much Labour opinion is focusing on attack the LibDems, accusing them of a betrayal in entering a Coalition with the Tories, or challenging their defence of regressive budget decisions such as the rise in VAT. Labour will of course seek an overall majority at the next General Election, requiring the equivalent of 67 gains in the House of Commons, but would be daft not to also think about Coalition strategies in the event of another Hung Parliament, when much psephological evidence suggests the 2010 outcome is unlikely to be a "one off" even if the electoral system remains.

While the LibDems are focused on making the current Coalition work, many LibDems who supported a Tory-LibDem Coalition felt it primarily reflected the political realities of the May 2010 result and negotiations, and so do not see the Coalition as a long-term merger. That elements in the leadership of both Coalition partners may favour such an outcome over time engenders more suspicion than enthusiasm in both Tory and LibDem ranks.

With Nick Clegg having demanded Gordon Brown's departure as a condition of talking to Labour in May, there would be some symmetry in Labour noting the need for new LibDem leadership for any Coalition to have credibility. But Clegg did not, of course, seek to dictate Labour personnel beyond the leadership. Nor would it make any sense for Labour to say that it could not work with leading Liberal Democrats such as Vince Cable and Chris Huhne who had been members of the current Coalition cabinet, but had not been its leading public face and advocate.

In any event, in this scenario, it may not be Labour that makes the point about Clegg's future. His own party may think that it would require new leadership - whether or not any deal with Labour is likely. The LibDems may think Clegg may also lack credibility in challenging and opposing David Cameron on the campaign trail if the parties were to fight antagonistic election campaign against each other.

So Nick Clegg's political fate is existentially dependent on the Coalition succeeding; that may yet prove somewhat more contingent for his party as a whole.

At this stage, this remains a premature and hypothetical discussion about future scenarios. Nick Clegg did well to take a very united party into a Tory-led Coalition. Relatively little LibDem concern about the economic direction of the Coalition has surfaced publicly, and even those with concerns about the depth, speed and nature of the budget's spending cuts are mostly emphasising policy gains elsewhere.

The party's opinion poll rating has fallen, despite the initial general popularity of the government, and it may face a very difficult campaign in the Scottish, Welsh and local elections in May 2011.

In a couple of years, a possible long-term divergence between the interests of Nick Clegg and his own party may become rather more salient. But the nature of Clegg's enthusiastic embrace of the shared values and approach which he and David Cameron share now make it difficult to imagine a credible scenario in which Clegg's party leadership could survive the end of the Coalition.

The Liberal Democrats have certainly shown a good deal more ruthlessness than Labour in moving to change leaders twice when their shadow cabinet and Parliamentary party have believed it is in the party's interests to do so.

1 comment:

Robert said...

But of course it's all words in five years time if labour is lucky enough to have a party, if as people believe and I do not we have another hung government, labour would be licking Clegg ass to get back in, this bravado of telling us we will demand, better be careful the liberals are not part of the Tory party by then.