Clegg’s contradictions

The Liberal Democrats need to sort out their line of attack on Labour’s “deficit deniers”.

One of the (many) downsides to the Liberal Democrats being in coalition with the Conservatives, and Lib Dem press officers like Lena Pietsch having to serve under Tory spinners like Andy "Bully" Coulson, is that the Lib Dems have had their talking points written for them, word for word, by their Conservative coalition partners.

Take the deficit. I've blogged before about Clegg and Cable's humiliating and inexplicable U-turn on the issue of spending cuts and the timing of deficit reduction, but have you noticed how Tory-esque their attacks on Labour's economic policies seem to have become in recent weeks? The whole Osbornian "deficit denier" stuff has been swallowed wholesale by the Lib Dem front bench.

Last month, in a joint press conference with the Tory party chair, Sayeeda Warsi, the Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, said it was "inexcusable" that none of the Labour leadership contenders had come up with any policies to tackle the record Budget deficit. And on Sunday, Danny Alexander wrote to the Labour leadership candidates, accusing them of "opportunism rather than economic competence".

And in yesterday's PMQs, stand-in Nick Clegg, the deputy PM, told the Tory MP Mark Pritchard::

They [Labour] were irresponsible in government, and they are now living in denial in opposition.

He told the Labour MP Nic Dakin:

One hundred thousand members of the public have made suggestions about how we can try to bring some sense to our public finances without hitting the vulnerable and without hitting front-line public services. Have we heard a single suggestion from anyone on the opposition benches? Not a single suggestion.

But, in the same session of PMQs, he said to the Labour MP Joan Walley:

I simply ask the Honourable Lady and her colleagues whether they have any qualms about the fact that her party and her government announced £44bn-worth of cuts but never had the decency or honesty to tell the British people where those cuts would fall.

Hang on! He accepts that Labour had planned "£44bn-worth of cuts", but accuses Labour leadership contenders -- including David Miliband, who is sticking to the Brown/Darling deficit reduction plan -- of being in "denial". Contradiction?

And he tells Dakin (above) that we have not "heard a single suggestion from anyone on the opposition benches" about how to fix the public finances, despite being well aware of the various proposals that have emerged from the five leadership candidates during the course of the campaign.

Take David Miliband, for example, who wants to abolish charitable status for private schools and introduce a mansion tax.

Take Ed Miliband, who wants to retain the bankers' bonus tax.

Take Ed Balls, who wants to introduce a 50p tax rate on those earning more than £100,000.

Take Andy Burnham, who wants to end the ring-fencing of the NHS budget.

Take Diane Abbott, who wants to scrap Trident (something the Deputy PM once wanted to do!).

Now, I accept that most of these proposals have yet to be fleshed out in detail, and none of them on their own (or, for that matter, combined) will eliminate or even halve the structural deficit, but to pretend that we've had nothing but silence from in-denial Labour leadership candidates is simply untrue and absurd.

It also, as I said, flatly contradicts his other line of defence -- Labour planned cuts, too! -- which he deployed against Joan Walley yesterday, and again on the Today programme this morning against John Humphrys.

Get your story straight, Nick!

UPDATE:

I hear Danny Alexander refused to appear on Newsnight yesterday to debate Ed Balls. The shadow schools secretary has, of course, been praised for his grasp of economics and fiscal policy by, among others, centre-right figures such as Irwin Stelzer, Martin Wolf and Boris Johnson (!).

Check out Balls's reply to Alexander's letter to the candidates here.

You can read Mehdi Hasan's politics column each week in the New Statesman magazine.

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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.