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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Want to beat Theresa May? First, accept that she's popular

The difficult truth for the centre and left, and advocates of a new party, is that people don't "vote for the Tories reluctantly".

An election campaign that has been short on laughs has been livened up by a modest proposal by an immodest man: the barrister Jolyon Maugham, who used to write about tax for the New Statesman as well as advising Eds Miliband and Balls, has set out his (now mothballed) plans for a new party called Spring.

The original idea was a 28-day festival (each day would be celebrated with the national costumes, food and drink of one of the European Union’s member states) culiminating in the announcement of the candidacy of Spring’s first parliamentary candidate, one Jolyon Maugham, to stand against Theresa May in her constituency of Maidenhead. He has reluctantly abandoned the plan, because there isn’t the time between now and the election to turn it around.

There are many problems with the idea, but there is one paragraph in particular that leaps out:

“Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, Labour’s left and moderates are bent on one another’s destruction. No one knows what the Lib Dems are for – other than the Lib Dems. And we vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative.”

Even within this paragraph there are a number of problems. Say what you like about Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty but it seems hard to suggest that there is not a fairly large difference between the two – regardless of which one you think is which – that might perhaps be worth engaging with. There are fair criticisms of the Liberal Democrats’ uncertain start to this campaign but they have been pretty clear on their platform when they haven’t been playing defence on theological issues.

But the biggest problem is the last sentence: “We vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative”. A couple of objections here: the first, I am not sure who the “we” are. Is it disgruntled former Labour members like Maugham who threw their toys out of the pram after Corbyn’s second successive leadership victory? If you are voting for the Tories reluctantly, I have invented a foolproof solution to “voting for the Tories reluctantly” that has worked in every election I’ve voted in so far: it’s to vote against the Tories.  (For what it’s worth, Maugham has said on Twitter that he will vote for the Liberal Democrats in his home constituency.)

I suspect, however, that the “we” Maugham is talking about are the voters. And actually, the difficult truth for the left and centre-left is that people are not voting for Theresa May “reluctantly”: they are doing it with great enthusiasm. They have bought the idea that she is a cautious operator and a safe pair of hands, however illusory that might be. They think that a big vote for the Tories increases the chance of a good Brexit deal, however unlikely that is.

There is not a large bloc of voters who are waiting for a barrister to turn up with a brass band playing Slovenian slow tunes in Maidenhead or anywhere in the country. At present, people are happy with Theresa May as Prime Minister. "Spring" is illustrative of a broader problem on much of the centre-left: they have a compelling diagnosis about what is wrong with Corbyn's leadership. They don't have a solution to any of Labour's problems that predate Corbyn, or have developed under him but not because of him, one of which is the emergence of a Tory leader who is popular and trusted. (David Cameron was trusted but unpopular, Boris Johnson is popular but distrusted.) 

Yes, Labour’s position would be a lot less perilous if they could either turn around Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity ratings or sub him out for a fresh, popular leader. That’s one essential ingredient of getting the Conservatives out of power. But the other, equally important element is understanding why Theresa May is popular – and how that popularity can be diminished and dissipated. 

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

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