As Huhne divides, Labour must conquer

I had this on Labour Uncut yesterday. It was deemed a “must read” by Politics Home.

Stewart Lee describes David Cameron with his arm around Nick Clegg as being akin to “a bloke who has bred a prize pig”. The Liberal Democrats have been slaughtered to ten per cent in opinion polls and Cameron boasts of being “in a position in four years time where we win the general election and govern on our own”.

While Tories love this bullish talk, the plan for the “pigs” fight back is more obvious than that which will deliver Cameron this outcome. The NHS bill has shown what can be expected from the Liberal Democrats. Pick fights with their governing partners – even if this necessitates reneging on past commitments. Extract concessions. And present the outcomes as injecting Lib Dem sanity into the Tory madness.

In 2003, the Tories complained about the Liberal Democrats producing a “disreputable” campaign guide. It advised candidates to “be wicked, act shamelessly, stir endlessly”. The Tories might suspect that Lib Dem ministers have dusted it down. Chris Huhne seems eager to manoeuvre. He has attacked his Conservative colleagues as “rightwing ideologues”. He is, obviously, looking for a “win” on the environment.

Huhne’s constituency was Tory target seat number 12 last year. It is reported that Cameron will “not lift a finger to help” Huhne if he is found to have lied to the police. This disinclination may reflect bad feeling over the AV referendum. Huhne’s spoiling for a policy fight is unlikely to rebuild burning bridges.

Huhne retaining his seat through taking a joint Tory/Lib Dem ticket at the next election seems a diminished probability. As government policies are doing nothing to allow Cameron to make substantial inroads in the north of England, the prime minister looks intently upon Lib Dem seats like Huhne’s in the south.

With his scraps with government colleagues, Huhne seeks to retain his hold on his seat. Huhne won’t attack from the right in these inter-government confrontations. The Liberal Democrats are desperately trying to salvage their leftist identity from the wreckage of their entry into government. This boxes the Tories in to the right – limiting the extent to which the Cameron camp can be pitched on the centre.

Having devoured (but not properly understood) the Tony Blair books, this might unnerve Cameron. He wants to command the centre and shift it in his direction through reform, in contrast to the supposed failure of Blair’s first term. But nowhere in those books does it advise immediately firing out all your ideas, even if they are so half-baked they will inevitably fail to secure support and demand back tracking.

We know about the u-turns. The delayed white paper on public service reform also suggests that, while the Lib Dems are reduced to pettiness, the Tories are already scraping their ideas barrel. Tory ministers are risk-averse in assisting, because, as the likes of Andrew Lansley and Caroline Spelman attest, they will be hung out to dry if these risks don’t quickly come off.

There are threats and opportunities for Labour in these developments. We seem irrelevant when the debate plays out exclusively between two fractious governing parties. It is frustrating that, while it was long apparent that this was likely, the NHS bill has too often played out in this way. Huhne now threatens to extend this pattern to the environment. The need to insert ourselves into the national conversation places increased premiums on clear messaging and distinctiveness.

Senior Labour people insist that we “defend the record” of the last government. This cannot be at the expense of not learning the lessons of the last general election. We must not confuse babies with bathwaters in striking this balance. We’ve been too coy, for example, about the health gains we achieved by GP commissioning in government, which didn’t lose us any votes. Instead of being fearful of our own shadow, let’s take such good ideas to their logical conclusion. This won’t leave us in the same places as the government. It will, though, confirm Alan Milburn’s argument that only Labour can successfully reform public institutions.

Some examples of where this attitude might lead are: Labour believes that work should pay, so we want to rebalance taxation from income to wealth. Labour believes that power should be accountable to people, so we want a second chamber fully elected by PR. Labour believes that Britain is in Europe, so we will work constructively to create an EU that best enables the UK to adapt to twenty first century realities. Labour’s engagement with the EU is part of a belief in internationalism. This demands that we do not allow a narrow, ultimately self-defeating conception of national interest to stand between us and support for the kind of urgently needed reforms to global institutions championed by Mark Malloch Brown.

Advancement of these kinds of idea would show the country that we have the self-confidence to speak our truths about today’s biggest challenges. It would show the Lib Dems that if their core beliefs (on tax, the Lords, PR, Europe and global institutions) mean anything, that they could be better furthered under a Labour-led government than a Tory one. If we can secure the tactical objective of ensuring that Lib Dem MPs are inclined towards a Labour-led government, then the Tory/Lib Dem alliance cannot continue into a second parliament. If we can do this at the same time as achieving the strategic objectives of distinctiveness and relevance, then so much the better.

These strategic and tactical imperatives require candour about our beliefs and the policy conclusions to which they lead, rather than Clegg-bashing or any other form of personality driven politics.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist.