Labour’s unending spite towards the Lib Dems is self-defeating

Even if Miliband thinks Clegg is dead in the water he must remember that voters are unimpressed by p

The longer Labour sustain double digit poll leads over the Conservatives, the more people start to ponder seriously the prospect of Ed Miliband as Prime Minister. It is not inconceivable that that the current government could unravel so spectacularly that the Labour leader marches into an undefended Downing Street like Joshua into Jericho.

But between victory and defeat there lies the awkward prospect of continuing stalemate. (I’ve written before about the strategic deadlock underpinning Britain’s hung politics.) In the rather likely event that no party emerges from the next election with a majority, Miliband would need to find some accommodation with the Liberal Democrats to form a government, whether in coalition or a less formal “confidence and supply” arrangement for parliamentary votes.

Naturally, this scenario is getting more attention as relations between the Tories and the Lib Dems in the current coalition fray. Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, a highly respected observer of political and electoral trends, recently used an article in a think tank journal to counsel Labour to be a bit less beastly to Nick Clegg’s party on the grounds that they might need their friendship before too long. Jim Pickard on the FT’s Westminster blog today reports that high-level contacts between the two parties do exist, although for the time being conversations seem limited to discussion of single-issue tactical considerations: banking, House of Lords reform.

Besides, the main point of contact for Labour appears to be Vince Cable, whose nostalgic impulses towards a revival of the old “progressive alliance” are tolerated by Clegg’s office but not shared. There was an excellent analysis of the prospects for a Lib-Lab pact on last night’s edition of the Westminster Hour on BBC Radio 4. Well worth a listen. The conclusion seemed to be that most Labour MPs simply cannot get past their tribal loathing of the Lib Dems and visceral sense that Clegg’s decision to facilitate the installation of a Conservative Prime Minister was treasonous. The volumes of venom that have been sprayed over Lib Dem MPs in parliament seem to go beyond the usual antagonism of civilised politics. As one senior Lib Dem minister says of Labour: “They don’t mind the Tories because that’s part of the game, but they really hate us and want to destroy us.”  

To be fair, that is not an impossible goal. Coalition has not worked out so well for the Lib Dems in terms of poll ratings  -  Ukip periodically challenge them for third place. That weakness is giving Labour ever more confidence to simply ignore Clegg. Senior figures in the party have concluded that the Lib Dem leader is essentially finished in Westminster. From a tactical perspective it might be more worth Miliband’s while trying to decapitate the third party in the hope of working with a more amenable successor. Even if Clegg survives, the Lib Dems will want to stay in government after the next election and will do whichever deal works best for them. In other words, the time to be nice to the Lib Dems is after polling day. Before then, the focus is on winning a majority. There is some rationality in that view but it overlooks the importance of culture in politics. Labour needs to wean itself off spite towards the Lib Dems, not simply because there might be a future coalition at stake but because wounded, petty, tribal insularity is generally an unattractive feature of politics that puts off swing voters. Conspicuous displays of pluralism will make people more likely to trust Labour. Paradoxically, it is possible that the nicer Miliband can be to the Lib Dems now, the less likely he is to need them after an election.
 

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.