Why the Lib Dems shouldn't enjoy Tory retoxification too much

Lib Dem ministers are in danger of looking like helpless passengers in a right-wing government.

Political strategists are obsessed with messages that "cut through". They mean the bits that somehow penetrate the consciousness of those people who don’t spend all their time thinking about politics, which is pretty much everyone.

Inconveniently, politicians are often surrounded by other politicians and journalists. They (we) are often as bad as each other at remembering an axiomatic truth about whatever it is they (we) have just said or written: most of the time, no-one cares.

So I do not mean to belittle the Liberal Democrats at their annual conference when I say that most of what passes as "news" – and what animates the chatter in the hotel bars of an evening – will skim off the surface of voters’ minds without leaving a mark.

I’d guess that two things have "cut through" in politics in the last week. First, that Nick Clegg is sorry. It might not be entirely clear what he is sorry for. We know he regrets making a pledge not to raise university tuition fees when he wasn’t remotely sure he could keep it. We know also that he stands by the policy on tuition fees currently in place. He is frustrated because the episode haunts his party, casting him as the emblematic face of broken promises and making it impossible to get any other messages heard. So, after much deliberation, Clegg decided to lob a contrition grenade – hardly a precise weapon, but sufficient, he hopes, to enable him to change the subject.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s aides insist his video apology is not meant to solve an image problem overnight (and plainly it hasn’t). The test of its effectiveness, they say, will only come towards the end of the parliament, when campaigning for a general election starts up. The hope is that, by then, it will seem tired and petty for Clegg’s rivals to attack him as the king of paltry pledges. He’s said he’s sorry – not a lot of politicians do that – what more do you want? It’s a pretty optimistic line, but probably fractionally better than the alternative, which was not apologising.

There are voters who will never forgive Clegg, whatever he says or does. They are lost to the party for the foreseeable future. As for the rest, given that one of the few things everyone knew about the Lib Dem leader is that he broke a promise, it is probably a small net positive that one of the other few things people now know is that he is also sorry. The details don’t matter so much. That’s cut through.

The second thing that has probably registered on most people’s political radars is that a senior Conservative member of the cabinet might or might not have called a police officer "a fucking pleb". Quite how toxic that is for the Cameron project hardly needs spelling out – it underlines the image of the Prime Minister as surrounded by a haughty, wealthy clique that is out of touch with the lives of ordinary people. Worse, it gives the impression that they despise public servants. Whether or not Andrew Mitchell actually said the words attributed to him – and he denies it – is hardly relevant. What counts is that it resonates as the sort of thing a millionaire, ex-banker Tory might be expected to say. Unfair, maybe. But that’s how cut through works.

The strong impression I get from speaking to senior Lib Dems here in Brighton is that they think Cameron ought to have jumped on the whole episode harder and faster. He should, they suggest, have seized it as an opportunity to trumpet his abhorrence at the attitudes attributed to his chief whip, declaring that there is no place for such language in a modern Conservative party. It is probably too late now. Whether Mitchell survives or not, the damage is done.

The Lib Dems aren’t too upset about that. It suits them to be seen as the reasonable, down-to-earth, humble face of the coalition as distinct from the moneyed arrogance of their partners. Predictably, Vince Cable exploited the opportunity to salt the Tory wound in precisely that way by proudly declaring himself to be a "pleb" in his conference speech. One senior Lib Dem, wearing a broad grin, yesterday described the whole Mitchell episode to me as  "dynamite!" A conference stall selling Lib Dem memorabilia sold out of badges announcing "I’m sorry" in the first days of the conference; "pleb" badges quickly replaced them as the must-have accessory.

But the relish with which Lib Dems are enjoying watching the Conservatives re-contaminate their brand does not sit entirely comfortably with the hope that Clegg’s apology will win the party a new audience.

In theory, it should be possible for the two episodes to cut through simultaneously in a way that helps the junior coalition partner. "Behold," the Lib Dems cry, "what we have to put up with! Yes, we made some mistakes, but aren't you glad we're here to rein these beastly Tories in. Imagine what they’d be like without us. The horror! We may not have won every battle - we handled that tuition fees thing all wrong - and yet we are winning some battles too." Then they hope their message of fairer taxes - making the wealthy carry more of the burden of austerity - will be heard and earn them some political credit.

But Tory toxicity is not specific to any policy. It is also contagious. It is a cultural apparatus that surrounds great tranches of the population, especially in the north and Scotland, as well as many younger voters and minority communities (as some glum Tories regretfully concede in private). It is a kind of political inoculation against putting a cross in a certain box come polling day. It is the force that stopped David Cameron from winning a majority. In that sense it is obvious that the Lib Dems should want to nurture the most vicious caricature of their governing allies – and hazardous.

There is ample evidence that the junior coalition party struggles to assert its identity in partnership with a much mightier political beast. Attempts at "differentiation" to overcome that problem have focused largely on policy. But individual policy rarely cuts through – especially when the question of credit and blame for good government in this parliament is largely dependent on the performance of the economy.

There is always the prospect that the Lib Dems are seen to be gathering up only crumbs of policy compensation in exchange for complicity in a largely Conservative project. And in that case, reveling in Tory toxicity is not risk-free.

While there is some disappointment in Brighton that Mitchell’s story has blown the conference out of the headlines, there are still a large number of people of in the party who see the  "pleb" episode as anything other than an open goal – and they’ll keep banging the ball in. It is hard to begrudge them that opportunity at their annual conference, since the occasion is all about celebrating the party’s distinctiveness and independence. But then the business of government must resume and the Tories will not have ignored the pleasure that was taken in their discomfort nor will they forget it. The task of managing coalition effectively, demonstrating that it can be a functional system of government, is as important a prize for the third party as differentiation from the Tories.

The lesson of the past two years is that, when the Conservative party feels wounded and insulted by the Lib Dems, it retaliates by demanding that Cameron ignore Clegg and crush his policy ambitions. The Prime Minister always acquiesces.

So the risk is that gleeful – and from the Tory point of view, gratuitous – punching of a bruised brand accelerates a process that ends up with the Lib Dems getting less out of coalition and looking more like helpless passengers. It is one thing for voters to know that Nick Clegg feels bad about handling one policy wrong. But if the two things they know are that he is sorry and that he doesn’t get his way, what cuts through is the sense that the Lib Dems are apologising for the basic fact of having propped up a Conservative government but not sorry enough to do anything about it.

Vince Cable joked that he was a "mere pleb" in his speech to the Liberal Democrat conference. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era