CommentPlus: pick of the papers

The ten must-read pieces from this morning’s papers.

1. What we'll lose if we reject Labour (Independent)

Johann Hari says that a vote against Labour would be a betrayal of the party that gave us higher public spending, the minimum wage, tax credits and civil partnerships. Tactical voting by the anti-Tory majority could deny David Cameron outright victory and pave the way for electoral reform.

Read the CommentPlus summary.

2. The last Brown and Cameron battle could be yet to come (Guardian)

If Labour comes a decent second in the popular vote and even wins the largest number of seats, Gordon Brown will stay put in Downing Street and call the Lib Dems' bluff, says Seumas Milne. The Prime Minister is even expected to offer a referendum on full proportional representation.

3. Unsure how to vote? My contortions may help (Times)

David Aaronovitch argues that while Britain needs a new prime minister, the country also needs a Labour Party that can still be the best hope for social justice at home and progress abroad. Voters should choose Labour over the opportunistic and self-interested Liberal Democrats.

Read the CommentPlus summary.

4. Reform the euro or bin it (Guardian)

The Greek financial crisis has put the very survival of the euro at risk, says Joseph Stiglitz. Europe must implement the institutional reforms that should have been made when the currency was launched.

5. BP is drilling itself into deep water (Financial Times)

The BP Gulf of Mexico disaster is an example of the safety and environmental dangers that it and other oil companies face by drilling in such difficult spots, writes John Gapper.

6. Back the person, not the party (Independent)

Voters should support the candidate most likely to raise the quality of the House of Commons, says Andreas Whittam Smith. That means ruling out expenses cheats as well as timeservers.

Read the CommentPlus summary.

7. Call in the IMF to tell us how bad it really is (Times)

If the Conservatives win tomorrow, they should turn to the IMF to lay out a plan that the government can present as the Authorised Version, writes Camilla Cavendish.

8. The fantastical dream of a united Korea (Financial Times)

Polls may suggest that half of all South Koreans wish for national reunification, but North Koreans rarely receive a warm welcome when they enter the country, says David Pilling.

Read the CommentPlus summary.

9. My moment is yours, Balls (Guardian)

Ed Balls should not despair if he loses his seat tonight, says Michael Portillo. Life is better outside Westminster.

10. A bracing reminder of the price we pay for political freedom (Daily Telegraph)

Benedict Brogan reflects on a visit to the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire and recalls that the greatest duty of the nation and its politicians is to remember the cost of freedom.

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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.