Left Foot Forward has been doing a series of interesting and valuable analyses of the coalition government’s programme for government, published this week – Shamik Dass links to most of them here, and the latest post, on the regions, is here. The picture that emerges is one of benign confusion. Confusion is to be expected – even the most unified of single governments has an initially unclear programme, despite all the inked spilled on its election manifesto. The proof, as every man and his dog have said in this whole new age of cliche, will be in the pudding.
But ‘progressives’ will find it hard to ignore or discount some of the benignity: a judicial review into the extradition of Gary McKinnon; a promise to repeal some of Labour’s worst civil liberties infractions, from ID cards to the DNA database; Tory acceptance that totemic capital gains and stamp duty policies will not fly. Even Theresa May has been forced to toe the softly-softly line, insisting through gritted teeth and palpable tension that, yes, she actually rather likes gay people and they would make wonderful adoptive parents, naturally. Gottle of geer, gottle of geer.
Labour would thus be wrong to underestimate the potential of this Tory government to reshape British politics. John Rentoul may have gone too far in calling Cameron’s alliance with Clegg a takeover rather than a merger; but whether or not such a formal outcome is likely, and despite Cameron’s own (rather flimsy) insistence on the separateness of the two parties in today’s Telegraph, were the coalition to be a success it would significantly realign at least the Liberal Democrats as a party with successful centre-right experience in government. Leftie Liberals hoping for an easy return to the status quo come the next election may be disappointed: their party will have to run of their record in government, and this record will, of course, be one of tempering Tory instincts; but it will also be one of actual legislative achievements, all of which will be framed in a centre-right context. This will define not just the party’s pitch, and its subsequent direction to travel, but potentially the country’s.
Labour may therefore find it tempting to outflank the Lib Dems on the left. Their fight, however, is not with Clegg. Had their core vote not held up so well, perhaps it might have betokened a greater struggle for the second position in British politics; as it is, there is clear appetite for a Labour message delivered more adroitly; Labour are yet a party of government, and this makes their primary enemy the Tories. Tacking to the left will not defeat Cameron – it would play into his newly centrist hands. This may account for the theme of the first week of the Labour leadership contest which John Harris has disapprovingly noted: immigration. Andy Burnham in the Mirror, for instance, argued that during the election campaign Labour “were in denial about the effects of immigration on wages, housing and anti-social behaviour in places where life is hardest.” The privileging of immigration over those other issues – a priority the left-wing leadership candidate, John McDonnell, inverts – is the problem.
Ed Miliband has suggested, correctly in my view, that immigration is a class issue. It is key that, in the victory of the two great parties of the middle class, Labour does not lose site of its separate roots. In safe Labour seats across the country, immigration is an issue because of social and economic deprivation. This is emphatically not to say it does not have a racist element – but it is to argue optimistically that that racism has a root other than the racist’s irredeemable, inherent, bigotry. The one-upmanship on immigration currently defining the Labour leadership race (and influenced by thinking such as David Goodhart’s) needs to be nuanced with this argument in mind. Burnham’s pitch, for example, is seductive on a certain level: the son of skilled and semi-skilled workers from the north, he has never lost touch with those roots. His ministerial career is less garlanded than the Milibands’ or Balls’s, but at this juncture that seems less important if he can show their flair for communication of his less technocratic views. As he argues thus persuasively, Labour must address, must debate, the issue which has troubled its core vote for so long (and done so understandably, if not always rightly); but there is a difference between addressing and pandering.
Of the awkward squad candidates, John McDonnell is a known quantity – and an unreconstructed leftie like me is bound to nod sagely to much of what he said in front of the PCS last week. Diane Abbott has in addition the profile and smooth media skills of the television personality she is in danger of becoming, and her message is absolutely vital in the face of what was shaping up to be a dull debate over a tiny series of minor disagreements between identikit ex-ministers. In providing the opportunity to force a keener examination of what the Labour party needs to be, though bearing in mind that a lurch to (as opposed to an embrace of) the left plays into Cameron’s cunning triangulation, it’s hugely gratifying that both are in the race: the voice of the party’s left, and – hallelujah – women, need to be represented in the Labour party of all parties. Their role ultimately is to keep the others honest, and they should start with immigration.