CommentPlus: pick of the papers

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

1. Are these hardships necessary? (Financial Times)

Samuel Brittan argues that the real argument should be about whether we need unparalleled fiscal austerity or not. All is not lost as long as the US and China stick to quasi-Keynesian policies.

Read the CommentPlus summary.

2. This Budget is the big test (Guardian)

The Labour leadership candidate David Miliband says his party must take on the Budget with principle and passion to show that it has learned the right lessons from the crisis.

3. After Shannon, what about the other 304,000? (Times)

There are 304,000 children suffering low-level neglect, says Camilla Cavendish. It's impossible to expect social workers alone to keep bad parents on the straight and narrow.

Read the CommentPlus summary.

4. The dealing room had it coming (Independent)

Andreas Whittam Smith discusses financial reform. Banks have become huge organisations engaged in scores of different activities, some of them more suitable for gamblers than for sober citizens.

Read the CommentPlus summary.

5. Liberal Democrats should prepare for a bumpy ride (Guardian)

Reading the Lib Dem soul is a tricky business, says John Harris, but there is dissent in the ranks, as most of the people at the top subscribe to a politics very different from that of the party mainstream.

6. West must offer Turkey a proper seat (Financial Times)

Ankara has not turned its back on Europe, says Philip Stephens, but the terms of engagement have changed. Economically vibrant and politically self-confident, Turkey has outgrown the role allotted to it by the west.

Read the CommentPlus summary.

7. Germany won't let the euro train be derailed (Times)

Josef Joffe says that Germany has always been a vital part of the single currency and has far too much at stake to let it fall apart.

Read the CommentPlus summary.

8. Plucky Belgium is leading the way. Today Flanders, tomorrow Scotland (Guardian)

Simon Jenkins points out that however much Euro-enthusiasts wish it were otherwise, the craving for lower-tier self-rule refuses to die. In Scandinavia, Italy, Spain, even the UK, concession after concession is made to devolutionary sentiment.

Read the CommentPlus summary.

9. What football says about a country (Independent)

It is not the fear of losing that does them in, says Matthew Norman. Losing is far too familiar an experience to frighten them a jot. It's the fear of winning.

10. From Russia with Restraint (Times)

The leading article says that although Kyrgyzstan urgently needs outside help, Moscow should not overplay its hand.

Read the CommentPlus summary.

Sign up now to CommentPlus for the pick of the day's opinion, comment and analysis in your inbox at 8am every weekday.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.