Why the "bigot" row has done Clegg no good

The right are outraged, the left think he's a flip-flopper.

When Gordon Brown described voter Gillian Duffy as a "bigoted woman", Nick Clegg declared that he would have to "answer" for his comments. Now the Deputy Prime Minister is having to do the same. A press release issued in advance of a speech given by Clegg on gay marriage suggested that he would describe opponents of the policy as "bigots". It read:

Continued trouble in the economy gives the bigots a stick to beat us with, as they demand we “postpone” the equalities agenda in order to deal with “the things people really care about”. As if pursuing greater equality and fixing the economy simply cannot happen at once.

But after Clegg's remarks prompted predictable outrage among some on the right, his office issued a "recall" email to journalists, followed by a corrected email. The latter replaced the words "gives the bigots a stick to beat us with, as they demand" with "leads some people to demand". A spokesman for Clegg added that "This was not something the deputy prime minister has said. It's not something he was ever going to say because it's not something he believes. It was removed from the draft copy, that should never have been sent out, for that very reason."

The damage, however, was done. Today, both the Mail and the Telegraph splash on the story, in an assault on the Lib Dem leader reminiscent of that before the last election. So it's worth asking whether the row will help or hinder Clegg. For many on the left, "bigot" is the appropriate term for those who believe that same-sex couples should be denied the right to marry. A reminder that the Deputy Prime Minister feels the same way should, however briefly, improve his standing among liberals. Yet the fact that the Cabinet Office withdrew the email means that Clegg is enjoying few plaudits this morning. Instead, the affair is seen as further confirmation of his flip-flop approach to politics (cf. tuition fees, the NHS reforms). Once again, the Deputy PM has performed the dubious feat of uniting the left and the right in loathing for him.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg denied that he planned to refer to opponents of gay marriage as "bigots". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: The divisions within Labour

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change.

Labour is a party torn between its parliamentary and activist wings. Since Jeremy Corbyn, who this week appealed desperately for unity, was re-elected by a landslide last September, Labour has become the first opposition in 35 years to lose a ­by-election to the governing party and has continually trailed the Conservatives by a double-digit margin. Yet polling suggests that, were Mr Corbyn’s leadership challenged again, he would win by a comfortable margin. Meanwhile, many of the party’s most gifted and experienced MPs refuse to serve on the front bench. In 2015 Mr Corbyn made the leadership ballot only with the aid of political opponents such as Margaret Beckett and Frank Field. Of the 36 MPs who nominated him, just 15 went on to vote for him.

Having hugely underestimated the strength of the Labour left once, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will not do so again. In the contest that will follow Mr Corbyn’s eventual departure, the centrists could lock out potential successors such as the shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey. Under Labour’s current rules, candidates require support from at least 15 per cent of the party’s MPs and MEPs.

This conundrum explains the attempt by Mr Corbyn’s supporters to reduce the threshold to 5 per cent. The “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make the ballot in 2007 and 2010) is being championed by the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Jon Lansman of Momentum, who is interviewed by Tanya Gold on page 34. “For 20 years the left was denied a voice,” he tweeted to the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, on 19 March. “We will deny a voice to no one. We face big challenges, and we need our mass membership to win again.”

The passage of the amendment at this year’s Labour conference would aid Mr Lansman’s decades-long quest to bring the party under the full control of activists. MPs have already lost the third of the vote they held under the electoral college system. They face losing what little influence they retain.

No Labour leader has received less support from his MPs than Mr Corbyn. However, the amendment would enable the election of an even more unpopular figure. For this reason, it should be resolutely opposed. One should respect the motivation of the members and activists, yet Labour must remain a party capable of appealing to a majority of people, a party that is capable of winning elections.

Since it was founded, Labour has been an explicitly parliamentary party. As Clause One of its constitution states: “[The party’s] purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.” The absurdity of a leader opposed by as much as 95 per cent of his own MPs is incompatible with this mission. Those who do not enjoy the backing of their parliamentary colleagues will struggle to persuade the voters that they deserve their support.

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change. Rather than formalising this split, the party needs to overcome it – or prepare for one of the greatest defeats in its history.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution