Whether driven by circumstance or long-term plan, the reaction of David Cameron to the general election result has been an attempt to realign British politics around the centre-right, using the need to strike – and then keep an agreement – with the Liberal Democrats as a way to drag his party away from its more right-wing elements. Doubtless, future biographers will spill much ink over what might have been had he got closer to the winning post on his own, or even past it, just as the question of how pluralistic Tony Blair would have been had he not got a landslide in 1997 is a what-if often written about.
What the 2010 negotiations and then this deal have exposed is the hollowness of some in Labour how always assumed that somehow the Liberal Democrat could only, should only, make a deal with them – as if the centre-left was the only possible show in town.
One key point they missed is that Liberal Democrat MPs and activists pretty much uniformly genuinely believe in electoral reform not only as a way of changing vote versus seat numbers but as a way of introducing a new form of doing politics. In that context, setting out your stall as only being willing to ever do a deal with one political party is political suicide – because why should that party ever given you much if you’ve already conceded that you’ll always deal with it, come what may?
That’s why although some in Labour may wish that doing a deal with the Conservatives is political suicide for the Liberal Democrats, the reality is that refusing on principle to do a deal with the Conservatives would have been political suicide for the Liberal Democrats – because what would Labour have ever had then to offer? (Even the fruitful Labour / Lib Dem talks in the late 1990s, in the end, foundered after some promising initial agreements on Labour knowing that there was no real alternative for the Lib Dems.)
However, looking at the bigger picture beyond who deals with whom there is a paradox. Whilst Cameron may be trying to realign politics around the centre-right, in the process the political agenda is shifting in a rather different direction.
On civil liberties, which have repeatedly been curtailed by successive governments since Roy Jenkins was the last Home Secretary to significantly increase rather the decrease our liberties, the agenda is now firmly one that should appeal to those with liberal instincts, whether outside Labour or even in Labour – at least those who aspire to the ‘progressive’ label rather than those of the David Blunkett school. For the first time in decades, the political initiative is with those who want to strengthen civil liberties and it is the would-be authoritarians who are on the back foot.
Similarly on the environment, with Chris Huhne in the Cabinet and the Conservative Party leadership endorsing greener taxes, the overall policy mix of the government is looking far greener than it was under Labour.
Likewise too on political reform. Whilst Labour MPs have been rapidly ditching even their commitment to fixed-term Parliaments, the Government is moving on holding a referendum to let the public decide on changing the voting system (remember Labour’s 1997 promise?) and is pledged finally – after Labour’s 13 years of dallying – to introduce elections for the upper house.
Even on inequality, where the Government’s record so far is highly controversial, both Cameron and Clegg have clearly nailed the political colours to the mast of reducing inequality. This is not a one-off debate about the first Budget; it’s a long-term commitment of political capital which will necessitate further steps in future years. Critics of Clegg pointing out that the Government’s equality record should not be judged just on its first Budget miss the point they should be welcoming; he was in effect committing the Government repeatedly to return to the issue.
Again, the contrast with previous government is stark as there is now a growing political consensus that measures of overall inequality across the country are a key judge of how a government is doing. That is very different from previous Conservative governments and even much of the Blair years.
So on issue after issue, what we are seeing happen is the terms of political debate move in a direction which you can call liberal, progressive or centre-left as you wish. Whatever the label, what is not happening is for the debate on the environment moving rightwards, or the arguments on civil liberties moving in an authoritarian direction, or the agenda on political reform moving in a conservative direction, or the inequality agenda being ignored.
That leaves a problem with Labour – what political space does it leave for an opposition to fill – but also holds out a promise for the Liberal Democrats as on all those grounds it means the terms of political debate are moving in just the direction the party wants.