Clegg must give a straight answer

Hints are not enough -- the Liberal Democrats must clarify their position on a power-sharing agreeme

Quite the centre of attention yesterday, Nick Clegg moved today to make his voice heard amid the cacophony, writing an article in the Times, and declaring on Radio 4's Today programme that "I'm not a kingmaker . . . The people are the kingmakers."

Yesterday's speculation centred on what the party would do in the event of a hung parliament -- something our Leader this week calls on the Liberal Democrat leader to clarify.

But did he clarify anything at all?

Ostensibly, he remains committed to the position of "equidistance" from both parties, established before Christmas. His Times piece, along with the usual Lib Dem fodder that a vote for them is not wasted, shows a real -- and probably valid -- edgy feeling that the very public attempts by both Cameron and Brown to align themselves with the Lib Dems could remove a portion of their vote.

But what about the question on everyone's lips: Where would the Lib Dems' alliances lie if a power-sharing agreement became necessary? Despite the fighting talk that "the Liberal Democrats are not for sale", Clegg remains frustratingly reticent, writing:

We will respect the will of the public. The voters are in charge and the decision is theirs. If voters decide that no party deserves an overall majority, then self-evidently the party with the strongest mandate will have a moral right to be the first to seek to govern on its own or, if it chooses, to seek alliances with other parties.

Come on, Nick. This is spectacularly vague -- as I pointed out yesterday, it all depends on how you define the will of the public.

His second point is that, in the event of a hung parliament, the actions of the Lib Dems will be governed by their commitment to four central principles: fair taxes, a fair start for children (with smaller class sizes and a "pupil premium" favouring poorer children), a sustainable economy, and clean politics.

But hang on a minute -- aren't some of these goals completely incompatible with those of the Tories? The fair-tax proposal centres on raising the point at which people start paying income tax to £10,000, by increasing taxes on the rich. This doesn't sound like a great fit with cuts to inheritance tax that would enrich the country's wealthiest 3,000 estates.

And on cleaning up politics, Clegg says he wants to "stop tax avoiders from standing for parliament, sitting in the House of Lords or donating to political parties". I can't help but wonder whether this sounds a little pointed, given the dubious tax status of Lord Ashcroft, Conservative peer and donor extraordinaire.

As my colleague James Macintyre suggests in his fantasy politics piece in this week's magazine, Labour is the more natural ally for the Lib Dems. Clegg's comments today imply that he feels the same way -- on the Today programme, asked if this was a "centre-left agenda", he replied: "It's a fair agenda, yes." In yet another tantalising hint, he said of the Tories: "At the moment, of course, the differences are more striking than the synthetic similarities."

From a political perspective, perhaps it is astute -- necessary, even -- for Clegg to hedge his bets, refusing to publicly rule out a union with the Conservative Party now in case the Lib Dems come to regret it later. But, as he wrote today: "In the event of a hung parliament, the British people also deserve to know how the Liberal Democrats will respond."

Everything Clegg has said today implies that a Lib-Lab pact is more likely than a Conservative one. Now he must come out and say so.

 

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.