Mehdi Hasan: "What is the point of the Liberal Democrats?"

They have sacrificed their distinctive beliefs and principles and received little in return.

"What is the point of the Lib Dems?" ask politicians, journalists, Lib Dem activists, Labour activists, students, taxi drivers and anyone else who has ever expressed a view on - or even a passing interest in! - British politics.

Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander have been touring the broadcasting studios trying to defend the Lib Dems' position (well, what position? They u-turned - again! - between Friday and Sunday) on Cameron's Euro deal (or lack thereof).

But consider this: in my mind, the Lib Dems had five issues which made them so distinctive and appealing to progressives: support for immigration; support for the European Union; support for electoral reform; opposition to tuition fees; opposition to the Iraq war.

Let's look briefly at the record of the past 18 months:

(1) Immigration: before the general election, the Lib Dems backed an amnesty for illegal immigrants. An amnesty, for crying out loud! And what have they done in government? Backed a cap on net migration.

(2) Europe: the Lib Dems were the most Europhile of the three major parties and, upon forming their coalition with the Tories, claimed they could constrain the Tories' Eurosceptic tendencies. In office, however, Nick Clegg finds himself Deputy Prime Minister of the most isolated and marginalised British government of the post-war period, with the UK now looking like its heading for the EU exit door. Bravo!

(3) Electoral reform: for the Lib Dems, PR used to be the be-all and end-all of British politics. But what happened? They agreed to a Tory proposal for a referendum on the non-proportional alternative vote (AV) and then lost the subsequent AV referendum, thereby closing the door on electoral reform for a generation.

(4) Tuition fees: the Lib Dems, lest we forget, pledged not just to oppose any increase in university tuition fees but to scrap them altogether. In government, however, not only did they fail to scrap the fees but ended up tripling them. Good job!

So that just leaves, (5) Iraq, which the Lib Dems opposed but, given their track record, will probably perform an inglorious and screeching U-turn on sometime between now and 2015. Keep an eye out for the press release from Danny Alexander welcoming the fall of Saddam Hussein and reports of a "furious" Vince Cable said to be on the verge of quitting...

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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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.