The Liberal Democrat surrender

This is the great betrayal. There is no other way to put it.

Did anyone see TweedleCam and TweedleClegg on the doorstep of Downing Street? I'm glad I didn't have breakfast this morning. Otherwise, I think I'd have been sick by now. (By the way, will their private secretaries be able to tell them apart?)

Nick Clegg -- the former aide to the Tory Eurocrat Leon Brittan and a former member of the Cambridge University Conservative Association -- is now the Deputy Prime Minister of the UK. David Laws -- the former investment banker and Orange Book supporter of an insurance-backed health service who was once suspected by Paddy Ashdown of being a Conservative mole and was once invited by George Osborne to join the Tory shadow cabinet -- is Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Osborne's number two. Vince Cable -- another former Orange Booker and one-time supporter of "light-touch regulation" who, as I noted in a critical NS profile of him in September 2009, first touted the possibility of a Tory-Lib Dem alliance back in 2005 -- is the Business Secretary.

It will be interesting to document Cable's verbal and intellectual contortions in the coming days, as he defends the impending Tory "austerity" measures. Like Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, he spent much of the election campaign condemning Cameron and Osborne's economic illiteracy and, in particular, their Hooverite enthusiasm for spending cuts this year (opposed, incidentally, by the International Monetary Fund, the OECD and 67 leading economists in a letter to the Financial Times).

So, here comes the double-dip recession -- courtesy of Cameron and Clegg, Osborne and Cable (oh, and those self-destructive Labour tribalists, on left and right, who preferred luxuriating in opposition to contemplating a power-sharing deal with the Lib Dems).

The truth is that in countless seats seats across the land, thousands of people voted Lib Dem in order to keep Cameron out of Downing Street. They did not want, or expect, the Liberal Democrats to become Tory enablers in a hung parliament. In an interview with me on the eve of the election, the arch-tribalist Ed Balls called on Labour voters to back the Lib Dem candidate (and sitting MP), Norman Lamb, in the Tory-Lib Dem seat of Norfolk North in order to keep the Conservatives out. The result? The third-placed Labour vote fell 3 per cent and Lib Dem Lamb held on to his seat with an increased majority over the second-placed Conservatives. In my view, Lamb now owes those tactical Labour voters in his constituency an apology. So do all those Lib Dem MPs who were elected in three-way marginals.

Clegg has betrayed progressives across the length and breadth of Britain. He had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to repair the century-old rift on the centre left and forge a radical and progressive alliance in favour of electoral and constitutional reform. I suspect Labour will now sit on its hands in any future referendum and the Lib Dems might be on their own campaiging for a "Yes" vote. Their new partners in government have already stated their plans to oppose any change to our dysfunctional first-past-the-post system.

Clegg has also betrayed the longer-term strategic interests of his party for crude and short-term tactical gains. Thanks to his bravura performance in the first leaders' televised debate, we had seemed to be on the verge of breaking our stale duopoly and bringing genuine three-party politics to the UK for the first time.

But the next general election, whether it is sooner or later (and the bookies have 50-50 odds on another election within the year!), will see the Lib Dems horribly squeezed by the two main parties. It will be a straight Conservative-Labour battle once more. And what, after all, would be the point of voting Lib Dem? In fact, I'm sure the Labour pamphlets have already been printed: "Vote Clegg, Get Cameron". It has a ring to it. It also has the virtue of being true.

Clegg's decision to join hands with Cameron's Conservatives is, in the words of Alastair Campbell on Newsnight yesterday, "a strategic error of gigantic and historic proportions". Reports have already emerged of the Labour Party website crashing under the pressure of new membership applications. One cabinet minister expects hundreds of defections from the Lib Dems to Labour in his own constituency. "I even know the names of one or two Lib Dem councillors thinking of jumping ship. They are distraught," he tells me.

Labour now remains the only truly progressive, centre-left, anti-Conservative, mainstream party in this country. Bring on the next election. The Liberal Democrats will be punished. Clegg and co will regret their foolish betrayal.

UPDATE: Oh, and the biggest policy betrayal by the Lib Dems was Clegg's decision to swap his de facto amnesty for illegal immigrants for (what he once called) the Tories' "arbitary cap" on immigration. How can Lib Dems like Simon Hughes and Charles Kennedy vote for such an immoral and unworkable proposal?

 

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Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Shadow Scottish secretary Lesley Laird: “Another week would have won us more seats”

The Labour MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath on the shadow cabinet – and campaigning with Gordon Brown in his old constituency.

On the night of 8 June 2017, Lesley Laird, a councillor from Fife and the Labour candidate for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, received a series of texts from another activist about the count. Then he told her: “You’d better get here quick.”

It was wise advice. Not only did Laird oust the Scottish National Party incumbent, but six days later she was in the shadow cabinet, as shadow Scottish secretary. 

“It is not just about what I’d like to do,” Laird says of her newfound clout when I meet her in Portcullis House, Westminster. “We have got a team of great people down here and it is really important we make use of all the talent.

“Clearly my role will be facing David Mundell across the dispatch box but it is also to be an alternative voice for Scotland.”

At the start of the general election campaign, the chatter was whether Ian Murray, Labour’s sole surviving MP from 2015, would keep his seat. In the end, though, Labour shocked its own activists by winning seven seats in Scotland (Murray kept his seat but did not return to the shadow cabinet, which he quit in June 2016.)

A self-described optimist, Laird is calm, and speaks with a slight smile.

She was born in Greenock, a town on the west coast, in November 1958. Her father was a full-time trade union official, and her childhood was infused with political activity.

“I used to go to May Day parades,” she remembers. “I graduated to leafleting and door knocking, and helping out in the local Labour party office.”

At around the age of seven, she went on a trip to London, and was photographed outside No 10 Downing Street “in the days when you could get your picture outside the front door”.

Then life took over. Laird married and moved away. Her husband was made redundant. She found work in the personnel departments of start-ups that were springing up in Scotland during the 1980s, collectively termed “Silicon Glen”. The work was unstable, with frequent redundancies and new jobs opening, as one business went bust and another one began. 

Laird herself was made redundant three times. With her union background, she realised workers were getting a bad deal, and on one occasion led a campaign for a cash settlement. “We basically played hardball,” she says.

Today, she believes a jobs market which includes zero-hours contracts is “fundamentally flawed”. She bemoans the disappearance of the manufacturing sector: “My son is 21 and I can see how limited it is for young people.”

After semiconductors, Laird’s next industry was financial services, where she rose to become the senior manager for talent for RBS. It was then that Labour came knocking again. “I got fed up moaning about politics and I decided to do something about it,” she says.

She applied for Labour’s national talent programme, and in 2012 stood and won a seat on Fife Council. By 2014, she was deputy leader. In 2016, she made a bid to be an MSP – in a leaked email at the time she urged Labour to prioritise “rebuilding our credibility”. 

This time round, because of the local elections, Laird had already been campaigning since January – and her selection as a candidate meant an extended slog. Help was at hand, however, in the shape of Gordon Brown, who stood down as the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in 2015.

“If you ever go out with Gordon, the doors open and people take him into their living room,” says Laird. Despite the former prime minister’s dour stereotype, he is a figure of affection in his old constituency. “People are just in awe. They take his picture in the house.”

She believes the mood changed during the campaign: “I do genuinely believe if the election had run another week we would have had more seats."

So what worked for Labour this time? Laird believes former Labour supporters who voted SNP in 2015 have come back “because they felt the policies articulated in the manifesto resonated with Labour’s core values”. What about the Corbyn youth surge? “It comes back to the positivity of the message.”

And what about her own values? Laird’s father died just before Christmas, aged 91, but she believes he would have been proud to see her as a Labour MP. “He and I are probably very similar politically,” she says.

“My dad was also a great pragmatist, although he was definitely on the left. He was a pragmatist first and foremost.” The same could be said of his daughter, the former RBS manager now sitting in Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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