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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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.