Martin Salter - working hard for Reading West

Goodbye, Brave New World

Back in 1981 I received a call from an old friend predicting the imminent demise of my party and urging me to throw in my lot with the recently formed SDP. “Labour is finished,” this excitable schoolteacher proclaimed, and what’s more, “the SDP are about to break the mould of British politics.”

Apparently the old, two-party system had had its day and the public were crying out for pluralism, cooperation and even coalition. Well maybe they were - for about five minutes or so - but the Liberal/SDP Alliance ended in tears in 1988 after public policy rows, irreconcilable personality differences and a disastrous performance in the 1987 general election which saw them fail to gain a single new seat.

The rise of New Labour and the demise of the the Tories at the fag end of the Major government gave precious few opportunities for a third force to flourish. Twenty years on from the Gang of Four and the Limehouse Declaration, and the 2001 second Labour landslide seemed to suggest that the old mould of politics, far from being broken, was as intact as ever, with one hegemony being replaced by another.

In fact, it took the disastrous decision to invade Iraq before the third party could make any real advances and even some of these were reversed at the recent election. It is not much more than an accident of electoral arithmetic, arising from Cameron’s failure to land a killer blow on a weakened and poorly led Labour Party, that some parts of our great nation are now ruled by Liberal ministers for the first time in nearly a century.

Of course the new arrangements have been accompanied by the same mould-breaking drivel that was being spouted in 1981. Now I don’t doubt that coalition politics could have the potential to attract new levels of support and therefore create long-term term problems for Labour as it seeks to rebuild. However, all political parties have to stand for something substantial other than a longing for the trappings of office, and neither Clegg nor Cameron are figures of substance. Furthermore, I do not see how the ideological differences that divide most Tories and Lib Dems can be papered over for longer than a few months. This is why there is now an excellent opportunity for Labour if they select a new leader capable of articulating new and distinctive policy priorities that are attractive to younger voters in particular.

For me the decision to back Ed Miliband is a no-brainer. I have watched this guy in action in tough ministerial meetings at Energy and Climate Change as well as at the dispatch box. He is a sharp, warm and intelligent communicator and, although with cabinet experience, he does not smell of the tired old Blair-Brown divisions that will haunt his main rivals. The younger Miliband is a genuine environmentalist, although he should have resigned over the third Heathrow runway, and this is an issue which will return to prominence and exercises more newer voters than old.

But irrespective of whoever gets to lead my party, for me life has already moved on. I’m now based for a while on the other side of the world in Sydney, in a country where Labour is in power both nationally and in a majority of the states. Two-party tribal politics is not only alive and kicking down here, it is in-yer-face, complete with some choice expletives.

So its goodbye to the brave new world of coalition politics in Britain, to yet another Labour leadership contest and, I’m afraid, to Daily Telegraph blogs. I’ve enjoyed covering the election period for a newspaper from the other side of the political tracks. Its been fun to occasionally read some of the more rabid comments from the not so brave, anonymous standard bearers of the Right, but it is now time to retreat back to our respective comfort zones.