Why has Clegg told millions not to vote for the Lib Dems?

The Lib Dem leader's decision to abandon any attempt to win over left-wing voters is bizarre.

ConservativeHome's Peter Hoskin has written a fine post on why the right should stick up for Nick Clegg, which equally functions as a demonstration of why the left should not (unless, as Lenin put it, we support him "as the rope supports a hanged man"). Hoskin notes Clegg's early support for austerity (he pledged that the Liberal Democrats would eliminate the deficit through spending cuts alone, a stance that put him to the right of George Osborne) and his opposition to universal benefits for the elderly. Even when the Lib Dems were still officially opposed to immediate spending cuts and to higher tuition fees, it was clear that Clegg's heart wasn't in it (he simply accepted that his leftish party would not accept a change of policy ). Under the cover of coalition government, he has emerged as the right-leaning politician he always was.

The coverage of his comeback interview with the Guardian inevitably focused on his call for a new wealth tax, but as notable was the contempt he showed for left-wing voters. He told the paper:

Frankly, there are a group of people who don't like any government in power and are always going to shout betrayal. We have lost them and they are not going to come back by 2015. Our job is not to look mournfully in the rear view mirror and hope that somehow we will claw them back. Some of them basically seem to regard Liberal Democrats in coalition as a mortal sin.

Clegg's resigned tone ("they are not going to come back by 2015") is extraordinary. Psephologically speaking, he's almost certainly right, but since when has a politician willfully abandoned so many voters? Rather than traducing the millions who have turned against the Lib Dems (in an interview with the Guardian, of all places), shouldn't he be trying to "claw them back"? When he declares that it's not his "job" to do so, one is tempted to reply, "actually, it is".

At the very least, Clegg could highlight some of the leftish policies the coalition has pursued (a 35% increase in international development spending, a ring-fenced NHS budget, an increase in capital gains tax). But when it comes to voters, the Lib Dem leader appers to value quality over quantity. Like Kurt Cobain, he would rather be hated for who he is, than loved for who he's not.

There is something admirable about such political purity but his MPs, looking nervously at their party's disastrous poll ratings (they are averaging around 10 per cent), will surely question his judgement.

Nick Clegg said left-wing voters were "not going to come back by 2015". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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