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.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.