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May 05 2010

Labour can't be written out of the progressive script | David Clark

No party has a monopoly on virtue, and both the Lib Dems and Labour have much to contribute to liberal-left politics

Among the countless mistakes made by Labour in its election campaign, the failure to understand the nature of the Liberal Democrat challenge is perhaps the most damaging. David Miliband attributes the party's unexpected surge to a mindless "anti-political" reflex, while Gordon Brown dismisses Nick Clegg as little more than a "gameshow presenter" – all style and no substance. All this does is make Labour seem clueless and out of touch.

As it happens, Clegg's progress owes a great deal to substance and the fact that in the leaders' debates he gave the most sensible and thoughtful answers to questions about political reform, the environment, defence, wealth redistribution and how to clean up the City. His appeal is based on a positive and healthy desire to reject old taboos and make a break with the prevailing order of British politics. Instead of insulting the intelligence of those minded to give the Liberal Democrats a try, Labour would do far better to understand the frustrations of disillusioned progressives and respond accordingly.

I agree with those who argue that a breakthrough for the Liberal Democrats and a hung parliament could be a "progressive moment" opening the way to badly needed reforms blocked by the other two parties. I hope they end up with a share of power, partly as earned reward for having been right on the two most important issues of the last decade – Iraq and the dangers of a financialised economy – when Labour and the Conservatives were so culpably wrong, but mostly because they have some of the best ideas about how Britain needs to change. I would like to see those ideas implemented by Liberal Democrat ministers sitting in the next cabinet.

And yet, when I was approached to sign the letter of writers and intellectuals supporting Nick Clegg in the Guardian, I found myself unable to do so. In their enthusiasm for change, it seemed that something important had been missed. I felt similar unease at the Guardian's editorial in support of the Liberal Democrats. It's not that I dispute the thrust of the argument in favour of a realignment of progressive politics and a bigger role for the Liberal Democrats. It just seems to me that the absolutist terms in which the case has been stated mirrors the error Labour partisans have always made in the past of believing that their party has a monopoly on virtue. Much as some people may wish it, Labour cannot simply be written out of the script. For a mixture of electoral and ideological reasons, it will remain central to the hopes and prospects of liberal-left politics in Britain.

The letter from John Kampfner, Richard Reeves and others makes the undeniable point that during the last 13 years of majority government Labour has often proved to be an obstacle to progressive change. There are, sadly, too few reasons for thinking that the next 13 years would be very much different if Labour continued to govern on its own. But since we can safely discount that as a possibility, the range of effective choice is between a Conservative government and a coalition involving the Liberal Democrats and one of the other major parties. In any honest assessment, the only formation capable of turning the next parliament into the great reforming moment envisaged by the letter's signatories is a Lib-Lab coalition. So why leave that elementary political truth unacknowledged?

The Guardian editorial at times reads like a rush of blood to the head, as if a repeat of the 1906 Liberal landslide might be on the cards. The possibility of a tactical vote for Labour in some constituencies – grudgingly conceded as a "pragmatic caveat" – is the only hint that things might be a bit more complicated. But far from being an exception to the general rule that voting Liberal Democrat is the best way to realise the "progressive moment", Labour remains the only serious challenger to the Conservatives in the clear majority of constituencies across the country. Cleggmania has not changed that fundamental electoral fact. To pretend otherwise lacks seriousness and candour, and risks putting into office a Conservative government that would do none of the things on the Guardian's liberal wish-list.

One thing is clear from this election; the future of progressive politics will have to be very different from its past. The culture of Labourism, old and new, with its machine approach to political change and its neuralgic aversion to sharing power, will have to give way to a new and more open style of politics. These could well turn out to be the last days of majority Labour government that Britain ever sees, but they cannot be the end of Labour as a party of government if the hopes of progressive voters are to be realised. This isn't merely a question of electoral necessity. The reasons why Labour was called into being more than a century ago remain just as valid today, even if the party itself has half forgotten them. We cannot turn the clock back and pretend that Labour was never invented; nor should we wish to.

The liberal tradition – with its principled commitment to human rights at home and abroad, its suspicion of the central state and its attention to constitutional reform – is an essential and too long neglected part of the progressive mix. But the good society cannot be built on liberalism alone. It also needs a party committed to establishing the material foundations of human freedom and the wider distribution of wealth needed to make it real – a party rooted in the democratic socialist tradition. For all its sins and errors, Labour is still best placed to perform that role. One of the major challenges for progressives in the next parliament must be to turn it once again into a vehicle for social and political change, instead of what it has become – an instrument for disciplining the left into accepting the status quo.

Tomorrow is a moment that calls for progressive realism, not wishful thinking. That goes for Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters alike. Now that I have the approval of Ed Balls and Peter Hain, among others, I feel able to say publicly that I will be voting tactically to re-elect a very decent Liberal Democrat MP in my home constituency. I hope that Liberal Democrats elsewhere will feel able to set partisan impulses aside and cast their votes for the very many decent Labour candidates without whom the progressive moment will become another missed opportunity. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Who received EU farm subsidies last year? Whitehall won't say | David Hencke

In refusing to release information about who receives subsidies until after the election, civil servants are exceeding their brief

Over the bank holiday weekend senior civil servants running the country took an extraordinary decision to ban the public from seeing information because they thought it was so controversial that it would disrupt election campaigning.

They decided to protect candidates from being asked questions on the issue and thought it best the public be left in ignorance about the facts.

What was this issue? Not some horrendous economic figure, some real facts on immigration. No, it was decision not to reveal which farmers and agribusinesses scooped up some £3bn from the taxpayer from EU farm subsidies last year.

On Friday statistics were published simultaneously in the other 26 EU countries revealing who had been paid what – it is part of a victory by European journalists to force countries under freedom of information acts to release all this previously secret information.

But in London – against an EU directive – the information was banned. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website says: "Due to the general election campaign, this website will not be updated with the 2009 figures until after the election."

A letter from a Defra official to Jack Thurston, head of, which campaigns for transparency for EU payments, says why: "This decision reflects the need to maintain, and be seen to maintain, the impartiality of the UK civil service, given the potential risk that CAP payment information relating to any individuals involved in the election might be used as part of election campaigning."

Yet ministries continue to publish information on hospital admissions and roads, just to name two. And in post-devolution Scotland they have taken the opposite decision. They published their figures over the weekend – revealing that 19,000 farmers and agribusinesses shared nearly £600m of public money and the world has not fallen apart north of the border.

So who does this protect? Initial research by reveals that possibly up to 70 of the 650 Tory candidates standing at the election could be receiving some sort of subsidy. Up to half a dozen Ukip candidates – who campaign against the EU – could be receiving EU cash as well as a smattering of Liberal Democrat candidates. On the Tory side they have discovered that the declared postcode for receipt of EU subsidies is often the same one as used by a local Conservative Association, suggesting that leading officials of the local parties are also receiving subsidies. These are all taken from the previous year's subsidy figures.

Yet we won't know, thanks to Whitehall, until after the election – even though the EU has made it clear in an article in the EU Observer today that it is disappointed with Britain and intends to write to the new government pointing out it is not in line with the EU directive.

Frankly, disappointment is too weak a word. It is scandal that unelected officials should decide what information should be made public and when. The decision is also partisan in that it appears to protect opposition party candidates more than Labour candidates from scrutiny – particularly in the case of the Conservatives.

Sir Gus O'Donnell, the cabinet secretary, should reverse this now. Otherwise it bodes very badly if we are in hung parliament territory when Whitehall will be effectively running the country while politicians sort out a new government. If officials are going to select what information the public should know and what should be kept secret, they are exceeding their brief. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Cameron may ignore guidelines and claim victory

Tory leader signals if he fails to win he may challenge convention that serving PM gets first chance to form government

David Cameron is reported to be poised to claim victory even if he fails to win an overall majority on Thursday.

In doing so he will challenge the constitutional convention that says if Britain votes for a hung parliament, the existing prime minister gets the first chance to form a government. "There is a convention and there is practice and they are not always quite the same thing," said Cameron.

The cabinet secretary, Gus O'Donnell, has set out guidelines to allow for a week of possible negotiations about a coalition, to ensure the Queen is not drawn into political controversy and avoid turbulence in the markets. But senior Conservatives have made clear that Cameron was not consulted on these guidelines and will ignore them if he fails to win an outright majority. Instead he intends to lead a minority government.

The Hansard Society, the independent parliamentary authority, say what happens on Friday will depend on a combination of the electoral arithmetic, the constitutional conventions, the pressures of the media cycle and the blogosphere, the reaction of the markets and the direction of public opinion.

By Friday morning it should be clear whether any one party has an outright Commons majority by winning more than 325 seats.

Assuming that no party has a majority and the Liberal Democrats finish with the third largest number of seats, what are the most likely scenarios?

1 Gordon Brown hangs on and tries to do a deal with the Lib Dems.

The Hansard Society say the incumbent "caretaker" prime minister has first call on forming an administration: "Only if the incumbent prime minister fails to put together a deal with one or more of the other parties, or, after having chosen to 'meet' parliament, he loses a confidence motion, will the leader of the opposition party be invited to form a government." He does not have to go until it is obvious that he does not command the confidence of parliament, which means his legislative programme is defeated in the vote on the Queen's speech on 25 May or he loses a subsequent vote of no confidence.

Constitutional experts say it is possible for Brown to hang on even if Labour has failed to win the most seats, but it is likely that his lack of moral authority, media pressure and public opinion would make this difficult.

In the meantime if the election arithmetic means that Labour and the Lib Dems together have a majority of votes and more than 325 MPs, Brown may try to secure a deal with Nick Clegg – who would be expected to demand Brown's resignation and full electoral reform. The O'Donnell guidelines provide for these negotiations to take a week to 10 days.

Brown might refuse to quit, insisting that the result is a Tory defeat. Depending on the arithmetic he may try to carry on as a minority government but would probably have to resign at the first major parliamentary defeat.

2 The Miliband/Johnson option

As above but Brown does agree to resign, being replaced under a little-known Labour party rule by either a caretaker, such as Alan Johnson, or a new leader such as David Miliband. The deal does not have to be a full coalition but could range from Lib Dems in the cabinet to an agreement not to vote down the minority government in exchange for policy pledges. However a PM who has not taken part in the leaders' debates would seem to lack a moral mandate.

3 David Cameron declares victory anyway.

He hasn't got a majority but wins the largest number of votes and even possibly the largest number of seats. With strong media support he insists that Brown resigns immediately and he goes to Downing Street as head of a minority government without bothering to try to strike a deal with the Lib Dems or any other minority parties.

Senior Conservatives have argued that the O'Donnell guidelines were drawn up without consulting Cameron so he doesn't feel bound by them. This option depends on the momentum of media pressure and public opinion to force Brown to quit. If Brown refused to go and insisted on staying on until the 25 May vote, the Queen could not be called upon to intervene.

The Hansard Society says the monarch does not possess any reserve discretionary powers to act as a broker between party leaders in difficult situations: "It is essential for the future of the monarchy that its detachment from the political process is maintained."

In 1974, Labour supporters protested at Heath's attempt to hang on when he had not won the largest number of seats but Harold Wilson bided his time before forming a minority government.

4 Second general election

If the three parties cannot agree then it raises the prospect of an early election. But the party leaders will be conscious that the public and the market are unlikely to forgive them for putting them through the whole thing again. Instead Brown may play a longer game and gamble that a Tory minority administration making unpopular spending cuts during a double-dip recession will rapidly lose support, raising the prospect of fighting an autumn election with his record for economic competence intact. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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