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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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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