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Saturday, 18 September 2010

Return of the Return of Politics?

I haven't blogged since the General Election. I fear too that I haven't properly commented since I was mistaken in believing that the Liberal Democrats wouldn't go into a full blown coalition with the Conservatives. I thought they would plump for a government of national unity, supporting the Tories piecemeal on vital economic reforms, and keep their own counsel on the rest of the agenda. I couldn't see enough common ground. The divisions and name-calling of the election seemed too raw and too real to make a coalition possible.

That it happened was down to the sheer desire and determination of Cameron and Clegg to make workable government happen. Cameron desperately wanted stable government. Clegg desperately wanted a stake in government. So, over a hundred days into the coalition, it seems strange to think of any other outcome. But hung parliaments are rare in this country, and we were in uncharted waters. And even now, although the transformation and sense of shared unity and purpose has been impressive, it will clearly be a massive task to keep this coalition together and effective.

So, we've had some return of politics. But the politics we have today is also unrecognisable for my generation. A coalition for the Conservatives for the first time in their modern history. A gigantic leg-up for the Lib Dems after an intially disappointing showing at the polls. And a Labour Party shorn of its old guard and about to conclude its first leadership election since Tony Blair swept to power in 1994. It's a return to politics, but not as we know it.

My blog title was initally conceived of as a plea - a plea for the return of politics in the sense of genuine engagement, debate, opposition and connection with the voters. I believed that the large majorities of the Labour governments of 1997, 2001 and even 2005 had the effect of creating impotent opposition and a sense that government could do what it liked. A sense that an initially unbalanced electoral system - itself a process that discourages engagement - delivered a government that was even more distant from the people. I also felt that the fag end of Gordon Brown's government was distant from the people through its irrelevance, its lack of ideas and its dwindling public support.

So now, our politics is ground level again. The issues are stark: tough decisions on the economy, on cuts, on the state versus society, on conservatism versus progressive politics. The coalition government will always be on a knife edge. It has harsh critics both within its main parties and without. This is now a five year bare knuckle fight.

And it's a fight that will only begin properly next week, when Labour elects its new leader. David Miliband, who will be elected on Wednesday, will be the final point in the return of politics for this Parliament. We've had the stunning shock of a coalition government being successfully assembled in a week. We've had the honeymoon. Now it's down to the real business of street fighting politics. And Party Conference season. Story of this Parliament? The Tories will have their sights set on seeking a mandate to govern alone. The Lib Dems want to define themselves within this coalition, and avoid becoming an irrelevant annex to another party. And Labour, defeated as it was, has nevertheless lived to fight another day.

So, politics is back. But it's all very different. Phew.

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