John Rentoul: A return to tribalism won't help Labour

Putting Ed Balls up on Newsnight to talk about cuts is like telling voters, who rejected that approach only three weeks ago, that they have not been paying attention
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I thought Harriet Harman got it right on Tuesday. When she opened the debate on the Queen's Speech, she thanked David Cameron for his words on the steps of No 10 when he became Prime Minister. They were remarkable, come to think of it, but the world has turned upside down in the past two weeks and not allowed much time for reflection. So I was grateful to the acting Leader of the Labour Party for allowing us that opportunity.

Cameron had said: "Compared with a decade ago this country is more open at home, and more compassionate abroad and that is something we should all be grateful for." An odd and careful choice of words, but a sentiment that was right not just for the moment but for all time. As the coalition government has already discovered, people think more of leaders who acknowledge that there is some good in other parties. Hence I thought more of Harman for thanking Cameron for paying tribute to the government of which she had been part.

Still, if it was all in danger of getting a little sickly, Cameron spoiled it on Tuesday by opening his reply to Harman with a blast of partisan gracelessness: "I enjoyed listening to her speech, but I felt that there was something missing. There was not one word of apology for the appalling mess that has been left in this country." There he went again. Just like the weather. One moment sunshine rules the day; the next it is the sudden chill of "Broken Britain". It is that kind of inconsistency that leads people to imagine that he lacks depth.

Fortunately for Cameron, the charge of inconsistency is less wounding than that of consistently getting things wrong, and, when it comes to partisan gracelessness, the Labour Party is currently the market leader. Unfortunately, one reason why Harman's tone this week was so striking was that it is at variance with most of the other voices in her party.

At the weekend I attended a Labour Party inquest. It was organised by the modernisers' faction, Progress. There were a lot of young people there, and some of them were most excited by the novelty of being in opposition. It wears off, you know. As someone who spent most of his formative political years attending leftish inquests into Labour defeats, I have to say that they are all the same and that they are mostly beside the point. A lot of people become animated about electoral reform or impatient to take the fight to the Tories (and in the present case, the addition of the Liberal Democrats to the government seems to have made no difference); while in between sessions all the talk is of nominations and shadow cabinet elections.

Furious denunciations were made of the coalition and all its works. The 55 per cent threshold for dissolving a fixed-term parliament was attacked as "gerrymandering". This overlooked the fact that, had Labour won the election, or if it had succeeded in stitching together a deal with the Liberal Democrats, it would have introduced fixed-term parliaments itself. In order to mean anything, a law setting a fixed term for parliament must have some mechanism to make it difficult for a party or parties with a bare majority to pre-empt the fixed date and seek a new election. Oh well. Similarly, the coalition is attacked for wanting to equalise the sizes of constituencies. Yes, that might help the Tories – much less than the Tories imagine, incidentally – but how can the opposition argue against the principle of reducing a bias in its favour?

Similar denunciations were made of colleagues seeking common ground with the enemy. Candidates for the leadership were condemned for blaming Labour's defeat on immigration and welfare dependency. Karen Buck MP, who defeated Joanne Cash to hold her seat and who is usually on the sensible wing of the party, said she did not want Labour to respond to defeat for the first time by "lurching to the right". But if the party is on the left of the centre, and most of the voters it needs to win are in the centre, lurching to the right might be a sensible response to defeat.

But no. Yesterday Michael Gove was as good as his word, namely his promise to embarrass the Labour Party by seeking to complete the schools reforms started by the prime minister whose name is the subject of a self-denying ordinance here. Gove's initiative consisted of inundating head teachers with an email, offering them the chance to escape endless emails from what has – relief at last! – been renamed the Department of Education. A likely story, and a bit of symbolism. But what is Labour's response? To put up Ed Balls on Newsnight to say that it is all about cuts.

That is like telling the voters, who rejected that approach only three weeks ago, that they have not been paying attention. The voters know that more money has been put into schools. They know about interactive whiteboards and classroom assistants. But they also know that better schools are not simply a matter of more resources – they know that they are about leadership, discipline and good teachers. So, while we may be confused by the Conservative offer to make us attend more tedious meetings to run our own schools, we understand that Gove is trying to make it easier to set up new schools and to change existing ones.

We also should know that Gove's policies are a tribute to New Labour's victory in the battle of ideas. The grammar-school tendency may still be strong on the Tory back benches, as shown by Graham Brady's election as chairman of the 1922 Committee last night, but Cameron and Gove are resolutely committed to the comprehensive principle. They do not put it quite like that, of course: the word comprehensive has been comprehensively trashed since the 1970s, when it was so popular that Margaret Thatcher was a reluctant disciple. But the foundation of the Tory's "free" schools policy is that new schools should be non- selective, open to all.

On that basis, Gove seeks to tackle the problems of vast urban secondary schools with discipline problems and poor teaching at source, by encouraging the setting-up of new, smaller schools, often with distinctively different approaches to learning. And what is Ed Balls's response? To talk about cuts. And two-tierism, implying that Gove is interested in widening the gap between schools of different socio-economic intakes, when it is Gove who has proposed a bounty on the heads of disadvantaged children – a policy more radical than anything Labour has tried since academy schools and Teach First.

Meanwhile, Balls's rival for the bone-headed Labour constituency is running his campaign on a ticket of opposition to a war fought seven years ago. That way lies madness. Labour dodged the bullet of an anti-politics spasm during the election campaign, but is showing all too many signs of taking its narrow escape as an endorsement of politics as usual. The Liberal-Conservative coalition is not politics as usual, and opposition to it has to start by recognising the wisdom of Harriet Harman's approach. Now that is not a conclusion to which I ever thought I would come.

John Rentoul is Chief Political Commentator for 'The Independent on Sunday'. He blogs at;