What the Liberal Democrats should do next

Why yesterday's electoral disaster is not the end.

The left is generally more interested in protest than power. And so, even though in terms of practical policy the Liberal Democrats are ensuring that the coalition government is far less brutal than it otherwise would be, many on the left are gleeful at the party's electoral rout yesterday.

This is rather strange in terms of practical politics. It is almost as if the left wants the Conservatives to have more influence in the coalition, so as to punish Clegg and his party for daring to try to make a coalition work. The left seems to want the Conservatives to marginalise the Liberal Democrats in government. The left may well dislike the Tories; but they really do hate the ministerial Liberal Democrats, just as a religious fanatic hates the apostate more than the infidel.

This ferocity must bewilder and unsettle the average Liberal Democrat activist. They are more used to benefiting from the dislike voters have for the main two parties, rather than being disliked themselves. However, it may be that yesterday's electoral disaster, and the underlying antipathy which many now have for the party, has a silver lining.

If the Liberal Democrats are to be a serious party in respect of central government, there are two things to be done. First, they need to be more realistic and consistent in what they campaign for: manifestos and pledges now need to practical and attainable. The luxury of striking populist poses is for politicians in opposition, not those who actually have to implement policy. One hopes the Liberal Democrat MPs who made the pledge not to raise tuition fees and then voted to do so have learned this lesson.

Second, the party has to be distinct. As this blog has said previously, the blurring of lines between Tories and Liberal Democrats makes one want to adapt the ending of Animal Farm:

"The voters outside looked from Tory to Clegg, and from Clegg to Tory, and from Tory to Clegg again; but already it was impossible to say which was which."

The Liberal Democrats in the coalition need to emphasise differences with the Conservatives. Clegg should ration his appearances alongside Cameron. One realises it is perhaps not practical politics for the Liberal Democrats to go into opposition and offer their support on a vote-by-vote basis (though there is no constitutional or legal reason why they cannot); but it is crucial that the party develops a ministerial reputation separate from that of the Conservatives.

Both the Conservative and Labour Parties have come back from setbacks similar to that suffered by the Liberal Democrats yesterday. The loss of so many local councils will of course have an adverse and lingering effect on the party's activist base.

But it is not the end. Instead, it is a signal to the party that it has to take exercising and retaining ministerial power seriously; to think and act and campaign as a left-of-centre party of power, making a substantive and positive difference to actual policy. And then the self-indulgence of opposition for its own sake can be left to the Labour party.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent for the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.