Sunday 19 September 2010

Evan Harris sets out what the LibDem left want from Clegg (if he's listening)

Dr Evan Harris has an interesting commentary in Monday's Guardian, which the newspaper previews in a news report, describing Harris' intervention as a nuanced 'gentle criticism', and running some long quotes from it.

Setting out what "the Lib Dem left want from Nick Clegg", Evan Harris warned his leader not to get too comfortable.

"We must make sure that we are in a position to dock with the Labour party if the parliamentary numbers work and there is relevant policy overlap. Regardless of what a wounded Labour party is saying now," he said.

"Our leader has done a good job for the party and in government, but he has made one major error. Talk of 'fair cuts'. Cuts in public spending of the scale needed (or at least envisaged) are never going to be truly fair or progressive … it is fundamentally wrong to claim the cuts will be fair.

"The government claimed that the budget was progressive in that it hit the rich more than the poor. It did not.

"The majority of the members and activists in the party, in rural and urban areas, in the north and the south, are and remain anti-conservative in their political outlook and philosophy. The party respects and admires Nick Clegg but he does not have a blank cheque."

Here's the full piece in The Guardian.

Interest in keeping open the ability to "dock with the Labour party" in future was evident at today's CentreForum/Fabian fringe, reported earlier.

Harris piece chimes with what one significant strand of party opinion has been saying this weekend. His problem may be that Nick Clegg appears very keen to be seen to be more in leading than listening mode at his first party conference as deputy PM. The leader emphasied stress in his conference Q & A today and across his weekend press interviews (see Patrick Wintour's analysis and Andrew Sparrow's live-blog) that Clegg does not accept the recurring theme of many contributions from party delegates and most non-fronbench parliamentarians - accentuate the differences, to ensure the LibDems retain their distinctiveness and independence within Coalition. The leader believes this risks being self-defeating, because it risks undermining winning public acceptance for the idea of Coalition being good government. (His critics would no doubt respond that it is the essence of both Coalition politics and pluralism). There isn't a LibDem "split" or "revolt" this week but, beyond confirmation that the party will jealously protect its electoral independence from any Cameron hustings embrace, that argument about the politics of being a junior coalition partner is probably the defining theme of the week.

Harris made his point about the problem of a 'fair cuts' rhetoric at a LibDemVoice fringe earlier today, as reported by co-panellist Will Straw on Left Foot Forward.

There are two separate issues here. One is about the budget changes. The frontbench continues to challenge the IFS' argument about the Coalition's tax and benefit changes. (Harris is right to warn that politicians don't usually win arguments with the IFS, as the government's excellent new choice to head the OBR, the IFS director Robert Chote might gently advise).

On the impact of spending cuts on public services, the evidence very clearly shows that Harris is right, as shown by the evidence on the distribution of public spending set out in unprecedented detail by Tim Horton and Howard Reed in their TUC report 'Where the Money Goes' last week. So any substantive attempt at "progressive austerity" would be very cautious about additional, discretionary cuts on a faster and deeper timetable, and would need to revisit the issue of the appropriate balance between taxation and spending, as well as the pace of debt reduction and the contribution of growth. If George Osborne's deficit reduction strategy holds, any claim to deliver "fair cuts" is bound to be shown to be Panglossian.


PS: Why aren't there be more Tories around the LibDem fringe? I can fully understand why LibDems' wanted their conference itself to be a party conference, not a Coalition event. But shouldn't the centre-right think-tanks be bringing coachloads of bright-eyed modernising Tory MPs to talk about localism, inequality and all of the rest of it.

Guido Fawkes is at the fringe to speak up for the libertarian right. But it is beginning to look like Guido might have to hurry up with his next LibDem membership application if he wants to beat Speccy editor and Clegg-fan Fraser Nelson to the muesli.


Chris said...

A number of people are painting a picture of Clegg as someone who is taking a long-term view and willing therefore to accept short-term pain. I think it's an accurate picture, but it's creating a false opposition between short-term and long-term. It's possible to be aiming for long-term goals and yet to be too casual about the negative side of those long-term goals. In Clegg's characterisation of not making public disagreements as the pukka thing to do, for example, he seems oblivious to how Lib Dems are going to campaign against those policies that they do disagree with when they have been silent on them for five years. Or in his realisation that Cameron is a good egg once you get to know him; all very new politics, but likely to come back and bite him on the bum when he next unleashes his barbed tongue on someone he hasn't had a few drinks with. Harris and others have been good at challenging this attitude but I'm afraid that they're not going to be heard by people who think the necessity to compromise makes all compromises correct.

What Clegg really seems to lack - even with reassuring words about actually fighting the next election - is a Plan B. He's so focused on long-term over short-term he doesn't grasp that his long-term decisions might also be poor. I suppose that's something he's learned from Osborne.

PS, I think the answer to 'Why aren't there be more Tories around the LibDem fringe?' (and I must say I appreciate your nod to International Talk Like A Pirate Day) is that they are surely wary of being there when Clegg drops the other shoe and announces that the Lib Dems can't be a home for disaffected right-wingers. Any day now, I'm sure.

Unknown said...

Great blogging as ever, Sunder. Really enjoyed this and the previous post.

I wonder though, how helpful it is for a Labour discourse with the Lib-Dems to be framed in terms of fairness? This means that there are two debates that Labour is having with the coalition. The fundamental problem with Clegg's "long-term" approach is an economic one - that there's not much evidence that rushed and large-scale deficit reduction is possible without seriously damaging consequences.

So, our debate with the Lib-Dems and their supporters should not be about the fairness of cuts - which ends up with short-term/long-term arguments - but the kamikazi economics of the coalition agreement, which threatens at worst a return to recession and at best low levels of growth.

In terms of who in the cabinet might be more willing to "dock with Labour", I reckon Chris Huhne's position is most difficult. Given that most of the Tory benches are sceptical about the need for either action to avert climate change or state intervention to direct investment into decarbonisation - and the significant lobbying power of the big energy companies - it is going to be difficult for him. Specifically the issue of the renewable heat incentive...