Wounded Tories will cause trouble for the Lib Dems

With Labour more confident and Tories anxious about their identity, Nick Clegg's party is about to f

There is something slightly ridiculous about the routine spin that defeated parties have to deploy after local election results. Losing, they say, is less of a set-back than it looks; the other side’s victory is not all that victorious.

That has been the message from the Tories and Lib Dems this morning as they survey the damage from last night’s ballot-box pummelling.  There is an element of truth in the assertion that mid-term polls always inflate anti-incumbent feeling. Local factors aside, the question such a poll implicitly asks of voters is “do you like the government?”. The question in a general election is “will you change the government?” They are similar, but not the same. Last night’s swing to Labour doesn’t demonstrate any national appetite to have Ed Miliband as prime minister (just as equivalent polls in the past have never signalled the country’s readiness to install Neil Kinnock, William Hague or any other unsuccessful opposition leader). Many Labour MPs and supporters wll be encouraged that Miliband has struck a note of humility and caution in his response to the results so far:

I also want to say something to those people who voted for other parties and the many people who did not vote at all … I will work tirelessly between now and the next General Election to win your trust … I know we have more work to do.

Anything more triumphant than that would have earned skeptical groans. The realism is itself a sign of progress in Labour's approach.

So what is the significance of last night’s vote? Just a couple of thoughts to begin with.

First, Labour will be relieved to see that their national share of the vote roughly reflects recent opinion poll trends. As recently as January of this year, the Tories had a lead over Labour – the enduring impact of the so-called “veto effect” from David Cameron’s sabotage of a Brussels treaty in December. Since the Budget, Labour has pulled ahead and opened up some more robust leads, even touching double digits on a good day for Miliband. Lurking in the back of most Labour minds is the fear that the lead is soft, likely to melt in the heat of a campaign. Party strategists would have preferred a vote share above 40% last night to really demonstrate that the advantage was setting, but they’ll take 39%. Much less than that and it would have been very hard for Miliband to claim any serious momentum in the country.

Second, the comparison with previous mid-term hammerings for incumbents doesn’t quite stand because there is a coalition government and a hung parliament. That means the Tories still need to be advancing in parts of the country to stand a chance of winning an outright majority at the next general election. Any kind of retreat by the Conservatives raises questions about David Cameron’s national strategy. Indeed, those questions have been raised pretty vocally overnight. Patience is wearing thin with a leader who has yet to demonstrate that he has a plan to mine hitherto undiscovered seams of potential Tory support. It is worth adding too that in last year’s local elections the Conservatives actually gained seats, largely because a lot of their voters bothered to turn out. The best explanation is that they came to the ballot to reject AV and threw in a vote for the Tory council while there were there.

That leaves many Tories thinking that in order to consolidate and advance, they need issues that animate the party base, fire up traditional Conservative sentiment (and play on anti-Lib Dem feeling). That perception will be strengthened by a relatively hearty vote for Ukip last night. So Cameron is going to come under a lot of pressure to act and sound more like an “authentic” Tory, which is a very hazardous proposition. The Conservatives didn’t miss out on a majority in 2010 because people thought they were insufficiently obsessed with crime, Europe and immigration.

If Boris Johnson is re-elected as London Mayor, as seems the most probable outcome, Cameron’s headache simply gets worse. Ken Livingstone’s likely defeat has been so well advertised that no-one can see it as an “upset” for Ed Miliband. It is priced into expectations now. But people – well, Tories in particular – will see Boris bucking the national trend, persuading a leftish metropolis that he’s alright really and beating a weak Labour candidate. That highlights the question of why Cameron keeps failing to do the same.

This is all exceedingly bad for the Lib Dems. In recent weeks I’ve noticed more confidence on the Labour side that Nick Clegg’s party is irredeemably stuffed. Tories too are privately saying that they can’t really see any viable electoral escape routes for their coalition partner. In the past, whenever a delegation of irate MPs has challenged Cameron to choose between his coalition partners and his party, he has sided with the latter. The pressure on Cameron to assert a more robust Conservative identity – which comes increasingly from liberal Tories as well as the right – combined with a growing Labour appetite for “finishing the job” of crushing Clegg means the third party could be about to face a murderous squeeze.

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

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How Donald Trump is slouching towards the Republican nomination

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb.

In America, you can judge a crowd by its merchandise. Outside the Connecticut Convention Centre in Hartford, frail old men and brawny moms are selling “your Trump 45 football jerseys”, “your hats”, “your campaign buttons”. But the hottest item is a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Hillary sucks . . . but not like Monica!” and, on the back: “Trump that bitch!” Inside, beyond the checkpoint manned by the Transportation Security Administration and the secret service (“Good!” the man next to me says, when he sees the agents), is a family whose three kids, two of them girls, are wearing the Monica shirt.

Other people are content with the shirts they arrived in (“Waterboarding – baptising terrorists with freedom” and “If you don’t BLEED red, white and blue, take your bitch ass home!”). There are 80 chairs penned off for the elderly but everyone else is standing: guys in motorcycle and military gear, their arms folded; aspiring deal-makers, suited, on cellphones; giggling high-school fatsos, dressed fresh from the couch, grabbing M&M’s and Doritos from the movie-theatre-style concession stands. So many baseball hats; deep, bellicose chants of “Build the wall!” and “USA!”. (And, to the same rhythm, “Don-ald J!”)

A grizzled man in camouflage pants and combat boots, whose T-shirt – “Connecticut Militia III%” – confirms him as a member of the “patriot” movement, is talking to a zealous young girl in a short skirt, who came in dancing to “Uptown Girl”.

“Yeah, we were there for Operation American Spring,” he says. “Louis Farrakhan’s rally of hate . . .”

“And you’re a veteran?” she asks. “Thank you so much!”

Three hours will pass. A retired US marine will take the rostrum to growl, “God bless America – hoo-rah!”; “Uptown Girl” will play many more times (much like his speeches, Donald J’s playlist consists of a few items, repeated endlessly), before Trump finally looms in and asks the crowd: “Is this the greatest place on Earth?”

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb. Only a minority within a minority of Americans, it was assumed, could possibly be stupid enough to think a Trump presidency was a good idea. He won New Hampshire and South Carolina with over 30 per cent of the Republican vote, then took almost 46 per cent in Nevada. When he cleaned up on Super Tuesday in March, he was just shy of 50 per cent in Massachusetts; a week later, he took 47 per cent of the votes in Mississippi.

His rivals, who are useless individually, were meant to co-operate with each other and the national party to deny him the nomination. But Trump won four out of the five key states being contested on “Super-Duper Tuesday” on 15 March. Then, as talk turned to persuading and co-opting his delegates behind the scenes, Trump won New York with 60 per cent.

Now, the campaign is trying to present Trump as more “presidential”. According to his new manager, Paul Manafort, this requires him to appear in “more formal settings” – without, of course, diluting “the unique magic of Trump”. But whether or not he can resist denouncing the GOP and the “corrupt” primary system, and alluding to violence if he is baulked at at the convention, the new Trump will be much the same as the old.

Back in Hartford: “The Republicans wanna play cute with us, right? If I don’t make it, you’re gonna have millions of people that don’t vote for a Republican. They’re not gonna vote at all,” says Trump. “Hopefully that’s all, OK? Hopefully that’s all, but they’re very, very angry.”

This anger, which can supposedly be turned on anyone who gets in the way, has mainly been vented, so far, on the protesters who disrupt Trump’s rallies. “We’re not gonna be the dummies that lose all of our jobs now. We’re gonna be the smart ones. Oh, do you have one over there? There’s one of the dummies . . .”

There is a frenzied fluttering of Trump placards, off to his right. “Get ’em out! . . . Don’t hurt ’em – see how nice I am? . . . They really impede freedom of speech and it’s a disgrace. But the good news is, folks, it won’t be long. We’re just not taking it and it won’t be long.”

It is their removal by police, at Trump’s ostentatious behest, that causes the disruption, rather than the scarcely audible protesters. He seems to realise this, suddenly: “We should just let ’em . . . I’ll talk right over them, there’s no problem!” But it’s impossible to leave the protesters where they are, because it would not be safe. His crowd is too vicious.

Exit Trump, after exactly half an hour, inclusive of the many interruptions. His people seem uplifted but, out on the street, they are ambushed by a large counter-demonstration, with a booming drum and warlike banners and standards (“Black Lives Matter”; an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, holding aloft Trump’s severed head). Here is the rest of the world, the real American world: young people, beautiful people, more female than male, every shade of skin colour. “F*** Donald Trump!” they chant.

After a horrified split-second, the Trump crowd, massively more numerous, rallies with “USA!” and – perplexingly, since one of the main themes of the speech it has just heard was the lack of jobs in Connecticut – “Get a job!” The two sides then mingle, unobstructed by police. Slanging matches break out that seem in every instance to humiliate the Trump supporter. “Go to college!” one demands. “Man, I am in college, I’m doin’ lovely!”

There is no violence, only this: some black boys are dancing, with liquid moves, to the sound of the drum. Four young Trump guys counter by stripping to their waists and jouncing around madly, their skin greenish-yellow under the street lights, screaming about the building of the wall. There was no alcohol inside; they’re drunk on whatever it is – the elixir of fascism, the unique magic of Trump. It’s a hyper but not at all happy drunk.

As with every other moment of the Trump campaign so far, it would have been merely some grade of the cringeworthy – the embarrassing, the revolting, the pitiful – were Trump not slouching closer and closer, with each of these moments, to his nomination. 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism