To the Marriott Highcliff Hotel for CentreForum and the Fabian Society’s lunchtime fringe: Labour and the Lib Dems: Allies or enemies? Squeezing myself between John Piennar and Rita Chakrabarti, it was standing room only as I watched Stephen Williams, David Lammy, Vince Cable and Charles Clarke argue their respective points.
Nabbing the free orange juice (it’s apparently politer to say “complementary”, but not once did the juice say how nice I’m looking) as I arrived, Stephen Williams was finishing his opening remarks and so I cannot regale you with the nuanced argument he made. Suffice to say, his overwhelming intelligence was clear from the way the audience were struggling to stay awake.
Labour minister David Lammy stood up, and the collective sphincters of the room tightened, expecting another long anecdote demonstrating how well he knows Barack Obama and is on the verge of being appointed his chief of staff. We relaxed our bowels, as we came to realise instead he was making a passable attempt at being articulate. Lammy was probably the most upbeat about the Labour-Lib Dem “progressive” (how I have come to hate that term) informal alliance. He identified what unites the two parties: equality, fairness, that sort of meaningless gumph, and believes whilst we are united on the ends, we divide on the means. The collectivism vs. individualism tension between Labour and the Lib Dems is obvious, and yet you don’t often hear it from Labour ministers any more, after they abandoned their socialist rhetoric in favour of PFI, wealth-generation rather than distribution and such fluffy anodyne nonsense. Probably his most interesting remark came when he contrasted the Lib Dem grassroots approach with Labour’s: “New Labour is not a grassroots movement”, said the Lammy one.
Vince Cable, guru of both economics, took the floor next. He reciprocated Lammy’s hero-flattering (Lammy had chosen Roy Jenkins as his, for his work on the early equality legislation) by eschewing the obvious, safe choices of Lloyd George, Mandela and Ghandi and picking John Smith and Tony Crossland, both former employers of the shiny-headed dance diva. Despite what Iain Dale reported earlier, Cable definitely did not, either explicitly or implicitly, call for a progressive (shudder) merger of Labour and the Lib Dems. He did, however, identify that after the next election there will probably be two progressive (somebody send for a doctor) parties in opposition, and the Lib Dems will be stronger in Parliament than the last time this occurred. File this observation under “bleeding obvious”, and his comment there will be a realignment of Labour policies in 2010 is probably about right.
Finally, the lumbering lion Charles Clarke rose onto his hind legs, and he was undoubtedly the most hostile. Both in the reception he was given and the remarks he made. He took the opportunity to criticise the Lib Dems on a number of fronts: our spending plans (he labelled the £20 billion of lower public spending “sorcerers money”); civil liberties, where he wrongly believes there is a dilemma in our approach we must resolve; and, perhaps most sharply, Clegg’s announcement earlier in the summer the Lib Dems are targeting Labour MPs will lead to more Tory MPs, undermining the progressive (I’m going to faint) alliance. This gave rise to a considerable murmur of disagreement from the audience, but he’s unfortunately right: with finite party resources, their redistribution is inevitably a zero-sum game. He denies there will be any realignment within Labour after Gordon’s downfall, as he can’t see any fundamental split in the party, the way there was in the early 80s.
With the posturing done, it’s back to the main conference venue to watch Nick Clegg’s Q&A. He refuses to identify a future coalition partner, but does say “of course David Cameron doesn’t describe himself as a neo-conservative, he describes himself as a cuddly toy”. Maybe there is a progressive alliance.
Gavin Whenman blogs at www.gavinwhenman.com