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John Kampfner: Labour will have to grow up eventually

Once a warrior nation, always a warrior nation? Is Britain really embracing change or do we want to revert to the old formula of adversarial politics? These questions are crucial to any assessment of the Coalition's performance after the fabled 100 Days in office, and to any serious prediction for the future.

A new politics is what many had been calling for as the last parliament dissolved in opprobrium. Millions of people who loosely defined themselves as of the centre-left and liberal and beholden to no particular tribe long ago gave up on the thuggish practices of the Labour government. Some like me went further and endorsed the Liberal Democrats in the hope of achieving a re-alignment. Many who gave that party the benefit of the doubt have left it again, furious at Nick Clegg's decision to jump into bed (after all, this is said to be the Brokeback Coalition) with David Cameron. To continue the analogy, a civil partnership of convenience is one thing, but of love is quite another.

The Lib Dems' poll ratings have plunged and its leader's personal ones even more so. While the numbers vary, the figures seem reliable, as reliable as they were during an election campaign which gave the nation Cleggmania followed by a disappointing final result.

Many in the Lib Dems are worried, their views given increasingly frequent airing by the party's ever-forthright number two, Simon Hughes. Another man apparently worried by this is Cameron himself, who has taken to working with his Lib Dem colleagues with greater enthusiasm than he shows for his dealings with the red-meat brigade in his own party.

Clegg is taking the long view. The Government, and his party's role in it, will be best judged in five years' time, assuming the Coalition holds out that long. Yet, as his aides admit, it is essential for the Lib Dems to mark their ground. They have to show how they are making a difference.

The scorecard on one area in particular – civil liberties – is better than most people realise: the scrapping of ID cards and the ContactPoint children's Database; the outlawing of finger-printing of kids at school without permission and of child detention in immigration cases. The decision to end section 44 stop-and-search powers for police – which will provide more protection for ethnic minorities and others – was similarly eye-catching, as was the acceptance of a court ruling that gay people cannot be deported if they faced persecution in their home country.

Throw into the mix Ken Clarke's assertion that more non-custodial sentences are needed to reduce the UK's huge prison population and a picture emerges of a liberal reforming administration. Many of these are politically brave, going against the grain of lowest common denominator politics.

Most of this is lost in the cacophony of cuts. That is understandable: after all, the nervousness is acute ahead of the comprehensive spending review announcement in October. How many schools and hospitals will shut? Which benefits will go? How many firms will go under? How many people will suffer as a result?

Each of the main parties is failing to address these problems properly. Labour is both vociferous in its denunciations and economical with the truth. As Alistair Darling – one of the few to emerge from the previous government's last years with credit – points out, Gordon Brown played fast and loose with the nation's finances, and thereby with people's long-term well-being.

The Lib Dems seek to score points off Labour, while failing to differentiate themselves from their Coalition partners. Economic exigency is a justifiable argument for cuts. The budget deficit does need tackling. But the contrast is palpable with many Tories, who salivate at the prospect of weakening the state as an economic actor.

This is the fault line of the Coalition: the role of the state, not in New Labour's Big Brother mindset, but as a promoter of social justice. Is Francis Maude right when he asserts that this Government will complete Margaret Thatcher's unfinished business? Or will Clegg prevail when he talks, as he did in a speech yesterday, about the seriousness of this administration in improving social mobility, Blair and Brown's unfinished business? There may be the odd overlap but fundamentally these two approaches cannot in the end be reconciled.

This Coalition is here to stay, at least for a while, and its detractors will benefit more by engaging with it rather than denouncing it. Just as my decision to up sticks from Labour is met with "Judas is a term too good for you" green ink rant, so, on a bigger canvas, Alan Milburn's decision to work with the Government on its social-mobility agenda received the "collaborator" treatment from John Prescott. Labour's more credible figures know that they have to do better than that.

So, in spite of their very strong concerns about the cuts, are voters beginning to accept the idea of a national coalition and, dare I say it, even appreciate it as a means of delivering political change? The evidence seems mixed. Other countries have been doing it for years. Is this a reflection of their more consensual political cultures, or do coalitions produce that more consensual culture?

The introduction of electoral reform will embed that in the UK. The Alternative Vote will help to enfranchise millions of people whose votes have never counted, living in seats so safe where nothing could dislodge the incumbent. For Labour, this will be a crucial test, beginning with the parliamentary vote in September and culminating in the referendum next April. Does that party want to close off the one chance Britain has to revive its moribund democratic process?

The message from the more enlightened figures in Labour is: grow up. Jack McConnell knows a thing or two about coalitions. As First Minister in Scotland, he led a coalition with the Lib Dems for five years. He has provided the Con-Lib coalition a set of helpful hints about how to work together. The key, he says, is to ensure a collective purpose, a clear set of policy agreements and compromises, to develop trust and also crisis resolution mechanisms when things go wrong, but always for the parties to ensure voters know where they stand.

He then delivered a stark warning to his Labour colleagues: "We underestimate this at our peril. There's been a tendency over the summer on the part of many leading figures on the Labour side to simply attack the Coalition. All that does is unite the Coalition." He then adds: "I think there's a public willingness to go with politicians who are seen to want to compromise and to work together. Labour needs to be very careful and not position ourselves as being the party that is operating out-with the national interest."

Many Liberal Democrat supporters did not achieve what they wanted: a realignment of the centre-left. Instead they have inadvertently produced a realignment of the centre-right. Jack Straw this week spoke for many in his party when he said that, actually, Labour can't stand the Liberals and didn't want to work with them in the first place. If – and it remains an if – the new politics does work, then a new generation of Labour leaders will have to engage, or stay on the sidelines.

John Kampfner is author of Freedom For Sale. He presents Beyond Westminster: the perfect coalition on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday at 11am


Belfast Telegraph