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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What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

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As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.