How can the Lib Dems reverse the slide in their support?

Latest poll puts the Lib Dems down 5 points to 18 per cent.

In the end, just two Lib Dems voted against the coalition's VAT rise -- Bob Russell and Mike Hancock. Nick Clegg will be relieved that so few chose to rebel against a tax increse that, after all, his own party campaigned against during the election.

But there's little comfort for the Lib Dems in today's Independent/ComRes poll, the third in quick succession to show a slide in their support since the Budget. The poll puts Clegg's party down 5 points at 18 per cent, with the Tories up 4 to 40 per cent and Labour up 1 to 31 per cent.

Contrary to expectations of some on the left, it is so far the Tories who are gaining at the Lib Dems' expense. So long as the elixir of electoral reform remains within their reach, the Lib Dems will want this coalition to work. But fears that they are the convenient fall guys for George Osborne's cuts are growing by the day. And the old excuse that the Lib Dems receive less airtime than the Tories and Labour no longer applies.

New Statesman Poll of Polls

Poll of Polls

Conservative majority of 12.

The challenge for Clegg is, as Philip Stephens writes in today's Financial Times, to find a story that "goes beyond the claim that his party is a civilising influence on the government".

The introduction of the Alternative Vote for Westminster elections, against the wishes of the Tories, would provide Clegg with just this -- one reason why the timing of the referendum is such a pressure point in the coalition.

In addition, as my colleague James Macintyre argued yesterday, when there is a resuffle, Clegg should push for more influential positions in the cabinet.

But above all, one feels that the Lib Dems need to find an issue, aside from electoral reform, on which they can clearly and publicly distinguish themselves from the Tories. It could be Afghanistan, it could be Trident, it could be inequality. Whatever it is, Clegg needs to find it -- and soon.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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It's time for Jeremy Corbyn's supporters to take on the unions

The union support for expanding Heathrow reflects a certain conservatism. 

The government’s announcement that it will go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow seems to have unlocked an array of demons. It has also created some unlikely alliances. Zac Goldsmith, the pro-Brexit mayoral candidate whose campaign was widely condemned as racist, is seeking to re-invent himself as an environmental champion, campaigning alongside fellow Heathrow MP John McDonnell. And the Richmond byelection which he is triggering could yet become a test case for Labour’s progressive alliance enthusiasts.

But perhaps the most significant position is that of the major unions. To the shock of many less seasoned activists on the left, Unite, the largest trade union in the UK and a consistent supporter of Corbyn’s leadership, has loudly called on the government to “be bold and build” the new runway, even now urging it to accelerate the process. Far from being a revelation, Unite’s position on Heathrow is longstanding – and it points to the lasting power and influence of an establishment trade unionism.

In August, the TUC co-ordinated a joint statement from five unions, urging the government to go ahead with the third runway. Like the rest of the unions’ lobbying efforts, it was coordinated with other pro-expansion stakeholders like the CBI, and it could just as easily have been authored by the business lobby. Heathrow expansion will, it says, “deliver at least £147bn to UK GDP and 70,000 new jobs”. “Trade unions and their members”, said Frances O’Grady, “stand ready to work to help the government successfully deliver this next major national infrastructure project”.

The logic that drives unions to support projects like Heathrow expansion – and which drives the GMB union to support fracking and Trident renewal – is grounded in a model of trade unionism which focuses not on transforming the workplace, but on the narrowly-defined interests of workers – job creation, economic growth and a larger share of the pie. It views the trade union movement not as merely antagonistic to employers, but as a responsible lobbying partner for business and industry, and as a means of mediating workers’ demands in a way that is steady and acceptable to the state and the economic system. This model, and the politics that accompanied it, is why, historically, trade unions were a conservative influence on Labour’s internal politics.

Nothing could be more at odds with the political, environmental and economic realities of the 21st century. It is not in the interests of workers or ordinary people to live on a planet which is slowly becoming uninhabitable. To avoid catastrophic global warming, we need to leave the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground – that probably means shrinking the aviation industry, not expanding Heathrow’s passenger capacity by 70 per cent. All of this is implicitly recognised by Jeremy Corbyn’s environmental and industrial strategy, which aims to create a million new jobs and build a million new homes while switching to renewables and democratising the energy industry.

The gap between Corbyn’s policies and the policies of many major trade unions tells us something deeper about the challenges facing the left. If Corbynism is an unfinished revolution in the Labour Party machine, it is one which has barely started in the wider labour movement.

The gradual leftward shift in many unions’ political allegiances has broadened the alliance around Corbyn and given him strength in numbers and resources, but it is often as much about internal union politics as it is a deep conviction for what Corbyn represents. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis did back Corbyn’s re-election following a ballot of members, but is hardly a left-winger, and the union’s votes on Labour’s NEC are not safely aligned to the left.

The political radicalisation of the unions has been matched, if anything, by a decline in coordinated industrial action. The national strategy that fuelled the anti-austerity movement in 2011 and 2012 is only a memory. The democratic and organising culture in many unions, too, remains bureaucratic and opaque. Trade unions have played a key role in Corbyn’s coalition, but without a significant shift in their internal culture and a shift away from their role as respectable partners of industry, they could easily scupper the project as well. 

The expansion of Heathrow airport is a step backwards for the future of the planet and the interests of ordinary people – and yet, if it happens at all, it will have been made possible by the concerted efforts of key trade unions. This is not an aberration but a reminder that, despite their rhetorical flourishes in support of Corbyn, Britain’s trade unions are also in need of change. Any project that aims to transform the Labour party and wider society must also aim to transform the whole of the labour movement – from the shop floor to the corridors of power.