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Cold shoulder

Why Labour is not ready to work with the Lib Dem left

Our sympathies go out to Julian Huppert, the Liberal Democrats’ science champion who last week somewhat optimistically extended a hand of friendship to Labour. Huppert, who is on his party’s left, harboured high hopes that Labour would support the big idea in his science policy, launched at the party’s Brighton conference last week.

However, Labour’s team shadowing the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, via the party’s science spokeswoman Chi Onwurah, has declined.

The rejection appears surprising as it goes against the broad thrust of Labour thinking, which is to find friends on the Lib Dem left. Having spent two years bashing the Lib Dems for going into government with the Conservatives, we now hear that Ed Miliband is on texting terms with business secretary Vince Cable.

In the run-up to Labour’s conference in Manchester, senior party figures, including Ken Livingstone and Peter Hain, were appealing to Lib Dem left-wingers to join a new progressive alliance. It’s a shrewd move born in the knowledge that the Lib Dem faction in government is likely to lose control of the party after the next election, if not before, leaving the Lib Dems’ left-faction back in command.

What is lacking, however, is talk of specific areas where the two parties might cooperate. So you would think that Huppert’s offer would have found more support.

There are at least two reasons why Onwurah’s team closed the door on working with Huppert. The first is that you won’t hear policy specifics from opposition parties more than two years before an election. It is too early in the cycle and is why this week’s Labour conference in Manchester is likely to yield only the broadest outlines of a future Labour manifesto.

The second reason is that Labour’s shadow BIS team knows that coalition policy in research and innovation (as in so many other policy areas) is an extension of the Blair/Brown legacy: the rise in tuition fees and the creation of a market in higher education, support for the Technology Strategy Board and the Catapult centres are all policies incubated by a Labour government and acknowledged as such by universities and science minister David Willetts. If Onwurah were to find common cause with Huppert it would mean revisiting, or at least questioning, that legacy, which the party isn’t prepared to do in the open just yet.

Yes, Miliband and Chuka Umunna, shadow business secretary, are talking of a new kind of capitalism and being harder on errant banks, but they are still fundamentally at one with the coalition on the broad thrust of research, innovation and industrial policy.

All of this could, of course, change as behind-the-scenes talks between Labour and the Lib Dems continue. Labour’s BIS team recently hired Mark Leach, founder of the Wonkhe blog, as a special adviser, suggesting an opening for more radical ideas.

Huppert’s offer was an opportunity for Labour to turn their thoughts on a progressive alliance into something more concrete. Unfortunately for him it came a year too early.