A bad start to 2011 for Nick Clegg

A new poll puts the Lib Dems on just 8 per cent as divisions over control orders re-emerge.

A new poll puts the Lib Dems on just 8 per cent as divisions over control orders re-emerge.

If the Lib Dems were hoping that hostility towards them might have dissipated over the Christmas period, they'll be disappointed this morning. The first YouGov tracker poll of 2011 puts Nick Clegg's party on just 8 per cent, their joint lowest level of support since 1990.

Labour is still ahead of the Conservatives on 42 per cent, though support for the Tories remains surprisingly robust at 40 per cent. If repeated at a general election on a uniform swing, the latest figures would reduce the Lib Dems to a rump of just nine MPs.

Clegg will make his second visit to Oldham East and Saddleworth today, insisting that the by-election is a "two-horse race" between Labour and the Lib Dems. But with the Tories just 2,310 votes behind at the last election, the claim could yet return to haunt him. It wasn't so long ago that Clegg hubristically declared that the general election was a "two-horse race" between the Tories and the Lib Dems, only to win fewer seats than Charles Kennedy in 2005.

Meanwhile, despite the Sunday Times (£) claiming that the Lib Dem leader had "won" his battle to abolish control orders, this morning's papers suggest that the orders will be retained in some form. For Clegg, any compromise on civil liberties would be distinctly embarrassing.

In the case of the VAT rise and tuition fees, he could at least claim, however implausibly, that the £155bn Budget deficit made such decisions "unavoidable". But in the case of control orders, no such alibi is available to him. The retention of the orders would be a fundamental breach of principle.

As the new year begins and political hostilities resume, there are fewer reasons than ever for the Lib Dems to be cheerful.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Benn vs McDonnell: how Brexit has exposed the fight over Labour's party machine

In the wake of Brexit, should Labour MPs listen more closely to voters, or their own party members?

Two Labour MPs on primetime TV. Two prominent politicians ruling themselves out of a Labour leadership contest. But that was as far as the similarity went.

Hilary Benn was speaking hours after he resigned - or was sacked - from the Shadow Cabinet. He described Jeremy Corbyn as a "good and decent man" but not a leader.

Framing his overnight removal as a matter of conscience, Benn told the BBC's Andrew Marr: "I no longer have confidence in him [Corbyn] and I think the right thing to do would be for him to take that decision."

In Benn's view, diehard leftie pin ups do not go down well in the real world, or on the ballot papers of middle England. 

But while Benn may be drawing on a New Labour truism, this in turn rests on the assumption that voters matter more than the party members when it comes to winning elections.

That assumption was contested moments later by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

Dismissive of the personal appeal of Shadow Cabinet ministers - "we can replace them" - McDonnell's message was that Labour under Corbyn had rejuvenated its electoral machine.

Pointing to success in by-elections and the London mayoral election, McDonnell warned would-be rebels: "Who is sovereign in our party? The people who are soverign are the party members. 

"I'm saying respect the party members. And in that way we can hold together and win the next election."

Indeed, nearly a year on from Corbyn's surprise election to the Labour leadership, it is worth remembering he captured nearly 60% of the 400,000 votes cast. Momentum, the grassroots organisation formed in the wake of his success, now has more than 50 branches around the country.

Come the next election, it will be these grassroots members who will knock on doors, hand out leaflets and perhaps even threaten to deselect MPs.

The question for wavering Labour MPs will be whether what they trust more - their own connection with voters, or this potentially unbiddable party machine.