In retrospect, the formation of the Coalition Government was probably inevitable. The mathematics largely dictated this outcome; however the situation was exacerbated by Labour’s ineptitude. It should have been obvious that a “progressive alliance” was not going to happen once it became clear who was negotiating on Labour’s behalf. First and foremost, there was Lord Mandelson, who has many gifts, but a description of whom as an “honest broker” or “trustworthy negotiatior” can only elicit rueful laughter. Additionally, Ed Balls was on the team; to describe him most accurately, it can be said that he is sort of a younger, English version of Gordon Brown, except he lacks Brown’s charm, wit, intellect and anger management skills.
The whole sorry episode highlighted the parlous state of New Labour: it was rather like a diseased, tottering elephant, gangrenous and stumbling, its open wounds infested with flies, while buzzards named “The Daily Mail”, “Sky News” and “BBC” circled overhead. The moment it fell over, it was a relief to the beast itself, but the force of the impact split the carcass open and gave us a gruesome view of the rot within. We were warned: the Liberal Democrat negotiators could smell the stench of death. According to reports, the Labour Party was much more interested in its forthcoming leadership battle than forming a government with them. So what else could Lib Dems do? If they had prevented the formation of a stable government, they would be damned by the voters. If they had tried to create a rainbow coalition, they would have chained themselves to the damned and again been damned. This was the only reasonable outcome from their perspective, and even respectable, leftish Liberal Democrat figures like Dr. Evan Harris have said so.
But what is tactically right can also be strategically wrong. We have seen all three big parties throw away the mantle of progressive politics. In fairness, the Liberal Democrats did so out of necessity and with some reluctance; no doubt there will be Liberal Democrat activists who will be having antacid along with breakfast for the next few years. The Conservatives wanted the progressive label but never did anything to earn it; their embrace of the Lib Dems is more a symbol of continuity than change. To explain: the Tories remain the most electorally successful political party in Europe, largely because they rarely let ideology get in the way of obtaining power. Labour said “good-bye” to being progressive when they became “intensely relaxed” about the super-rich earning billions and worse, when they signed up to George W. Bush’s adventures, both curious positions for a party that was established by the trade unions and once was the leading advocate for nuclear disarmament. Labour’s deathbed utterances have only proven how far gone it is: Lord Mandelson claimed that the New Labour project was “alive and well”, Alistair Campbell made the extraordinary claim on Newsnight that Labour was the “only” progressive party available, an assertion which sounds rather curious to Green, Scottish Nationalist and Plaid Cmyru ears. Labour is not going to make anything better by having a leadership election: apart from the bumptious Mr. Balls, the other choices feature a range of Milibands, who are more or less cloned from a New Labour vat, and Jon Cruddas, whose credibility as an authentic radical voice is only surpassed by the unlikelihood of his obtaining the top job. Perhaps a symbol of how un-progressive things have become can be discerned in both Labour’s and the Tories’ strange revival of the spirit of Richard Nixon: first Cameron summoned up “Tricky Dick” by invoking the “ignored majority” (which was a remix on Nixon’s “Silent Majority”). Brown followed: his Nixonian appearances on the television debates were supplemented by a Nixonian outburst of bad temper, followed by a farewell speech filled with Nixonian pathos. If you want an idea as to how genuinely progressive such motifs are, ask students who attended Kent State in 1970.
So who will take up the progressive cause? While the Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cmyru are genuine left-of-centre parties, they are by definition locked into their respective nations. The far-far left seems to be locked into a perpetual set of splits and counter-splits which gives Monty Python’s “Judean People’s Front” gag continued currency (at last count, there are ten Communist Parties in Great Britain, to say nothing of Trotskyist organisations). It is indeed only the Greens, in both its England & Wales and Scottish variants, who are united, serious, modern, purposeful and fresh. To suggest that progressive politics will revive in the form of the Green Party may sound far-fetched at this moment; after all, the Green Party has only one MP, and indeed, its vote was squeezed in the local component of the recent election. However the Party fills a vacuum, which democratic politics as well as nature abhors. Who else is going to stand up for public services in the face of impending cuts? Who else will be free of the tension of coalition, and thus be able to give full voice for the need for civil liberties? Who else upon whom can the trade unions rely? Who else will be credibly saying that a complete re-think of foreign policy needs to occur, and that Britain’s involvement both in Afghanistan and in the deployment of nuclear weapons must end? And lastly, who is going to be trustworthy and seen to be trustworthy when it comes to demanding changes in how the economy is run? As Caroline Lucas looks to her left, she will see few. As she looks to her right, she will see a wasteland. While the pomp and glamour of the new government’s arrival may obscure this perspective for a time, once the progressive majority gets over being blinded by the flashbulbs, it will see it has few other places to go and certainly nowhere else that will call upon that most precious of political emotions, enthusiasm. It will be a gradual process to be sure, and the opportunity will need careful cultivation, but just as a “new politics” may have arrived, so too may have the Green moment.