Clegg's strategy is clear, but now he must deliver

The next 12 months will show if the electorate is willing to give the Lib Dem leader a hearing.

I asked Nick Clegg yesterday at Lib Dem conference for a short description of what we stand for. What is the liberal language we should be using in our everyday conversation? What's the elevator sell?

I rather liked his answer: "We should answer the call of the head and the heart." By this he meant that we should offer the fiscal responsibility the country needs (and Labour can't claim to have delivered) and also ensure that the life chances of every person are never blighted by the circumstances of their birth - everyone should have an opportunity for greatness. The 'caring' territory that the nasty party (not my phrase) would struggle to own.

Reading the above makes perfect sense in the context of Nick’s speech to the Lib Dem conference yesterday. What’s interesting is that I wrote the above 12 months ago at the Birmingham conference. And here we are, 12 months on, and the message remains the same.

Are you ready to trust Labour with your money again? And do you really think the Tories will make Britain fairer? Because the truth is, only the Liberal Democrats can be trusted on the economy and relied upon to deliver a fairer society too.

And the other truth is that it’s been this ever since we entered government

Leading up to Nick’s speech, there was no shortage of advice about how we should restore our standing in the polls and in the eyes of the electorate. "Turn left" was the advice of the Telegraph's Mary Riddell – "The party’s voters won’t allow a deal with the Tories in 2015 – it’s time to make eyes at Labour". Keep right was the advice of Richard Reeves, Clegg's outgoing director of strategy, in the New Statesman– "Any attempt to position the Liberal Democrats as a party of the centre left after five years of austerity government in partnership with the Conservatives will be laughed out of court by the voters – and rightly so".

But Nick’s message from the last week is clear: yes, I have made political mistakes, but my principles have stayed the same. And for the second half of this Parliament, I will demonstrate that we remain an economically responsible and socially liberal party and you will see that.

The chatter around the grassroots throughout the conference was pretty consistent. Yes, Nick’s got stuff wrong – and large swathes of the party remain livid about it. Yes he’s got a lot to prove – to us, even before the rest of the world. But the next 12 months will show if Nick can deliver against the agenda he outlined yesterday. And if the electorate is willing to give him a hearing.

The party has approved that agenda, supporting the leadership on its economic strategy, while giving it a bloody nose on socially illiberal Tory led policy like "secret courts".  Now let’s see the leadership deliver. The grassroots – and the electorate – are watching. And the clock’s ticking ...

Nick Clegg aims to present the Liberal Democrats as economically responsible and socially liberal. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Getty
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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.