The other Lib Dem-Tory talks

Facebook friends and enemies.

Until last Friday, my Facebook newsfeed had been pretty tedious. I've been a Liberal Democrat for 20 years, and most of my Facebook "friends" are in the party. They spent the election using the social networking site to vie for supremacy in pavement politics: one would update his status to "has knocked on 10,000 doors in this election", to be bettered minutes later by someone who had "knocked on 20,000".

But as coalition talks continue, the newsfeed has become a lot more interesting.

As proportional representation slips down the list of priorities put forward by Nick Clegg (behind economic stability), there is a sense of real unease among many members. "Stick to the bottom line -- implemented & genuine PR, not just some claptrap commission . . . Lib/Lab/Others is over 50 per cent of the popular vote -- not exactly shabby," goes a typical post.

"We must insist the new parliament introduces a fair voting system and a new election under new rules within a year," is the rallying call by another, pushing a demonstration at Reading Civic Centre.

These posts get plenty of "Likes". And listening in on the social network exchanges, Clegg clearly has a problem here. In an election where "Labour with 8.0m votes; LibDem with 6.3m; Labour get nearly FIVE TIMES the seats", the sense of unfairness is raw. Oddly, Clegg would have had a freer hand here if 80 Lib Dem MPs had been returned.

Scores of "Friends" are now members of competing Facebook pages backing electoral reform. "We want the Liberal Democrats to insist on Proportional Representation", has approaching 2,000 members. "Every vote counts" is also popular, as is "We want proportional representation".

As they rally to these, Lib Dems who are still hurting from the result, still looking at options they know will split either the party or its support base, are the target of Tory "friends". A thread starts in good humour, maybe with an expression of sympathy, or musing about what happens now, but soon the mood changes.

The comment thread from an MP who lost lost last Thursday is typical. One "friend" posted "Sorry for the loss of the vote", and followed up with a plea to be careful about a tie-up with the Tories. It quickly got ill-tempered, with one "friend" saying it would be "unfair and undemocratic" for Clegg to "prop up the losers"; and we're quickly back into a debate about whether Thatcher "f*cked us over good and proper".

"It's going to happen Ed. Accept political reality," hectors one of my oldest friends. "Recognise that constructive engagement on a pragmatic centre-right basis is what you've ended up with, rather than hankering after Labour and a referendum on PR that will likely be rejected by that public. Your party won't be forgiven at the polls in six months." This followed a link I'd shared to a long, moderately worded article by the academic and former staffer Richard Grayson that urged a Lib-Lab tie-up.

That kind of finger-wagging is common, and Tory friends have been most active on Lib Dems' Walls. "If they turn down a deal with the Tories and go for a Lib/Lab pact, they run the gauntlet and deserve everything they get," writes another in response to a post by former staffer: "I voted Lib Dem for a number of reasons. One of which was to keep the Tories out."

What does all this show about how a coalition decision would play out in the Lib Dems? The Facebook chatter shows that by letting PR slip further down the list of priorities, Clegg will be putting himself in hot water with the membership.

The postings from Tories also tell us a great deal. Cameron and his team have been appropriate, measured and sensible -- but beyond those Cabinet Office negotiations the Tories aren't playing so nicely.

And do we detect in the shrill tone from Tory supporters a hint that, if this deal falls through, their anger will have to turn inward?

Eduardo Reyes was vice-chair of the Student Liberal Democrats. He worked for the Liberal Democrats from 1995-98, and has been a party election agent and council candidate.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.