They voted yellow – but now do they regret it?

The <em>New Statesman</em> asks prominent Lib Dem supporters for their verdict on the first year of

On 5 May 2010, Nick Clegg stood on the edge of a major electoral breakthrough. Following his sterling performances in a series of televised debates, the Liberal Democrats finally stood shoulder to shoulder with the Conservatives and Labour as a credible option for millions of voters. Pundits predicted gains of 20 or 30 seats for the Lib Dems as the party rode to historic highs in the polls.

One year on, and the party is in government, but the good news stops there. After joining the Conservatives in a coalition, Clegg was cast as a traitor by many on the left who had been sucked in by his seemingly sincere promises of a "new politics".

Students hung him in effigy. The Liberal Democrats' poll ratings crashed to single figures. In the hangover from Cleggmania, the New Statesman asks five public figures who voted Lib Dem (and one who did not) whether they regret their decision one year on from the election.

Lisa Appignanesi, novelist

I still think coalition government has its benefits. However, I'm very distressed at what the Lib Dems have allowed to happen in two (unwittingly) related areas. I do think that in a world that increasingly requires knowledge and skills, university or any form of tertiary education should be free. We owe it to the next generation.

An educated citizenry nurtures our entire polity in more ways than I can put into 200 words. It's not a simple matter of the arithmetic of higher wages for graduates. (Even the US has state universities aside from the high-fee charging private institutions.) And tertiary education is as important as health.

I'm also very disappointed at the way in which the Lib Dems have handled the response to protest, permitting the police to "kettle" and robbing a generation that wants to take an interest in politics of their right freely to do so.

Jemima Khan, human rights campaigner

I did something odd last year. I canvassed for my brother Zac, then a wannabe Tory MP, in Richmond, alongside my mother ("Darling, it's going marvellously. But what's a ponce?"). I then slunk into the polling booth in my own constituency on election day and voted Lib Dem.

If I lived in Richmond, I would have voted for Zac. As is often the case with British voters, I was very clear about who I did NOT want to vote for. I would not vote for Labour – a party which invaded a foreign country for no reason, lied about it, made us an international pariah and then bankrupted us. The Tories would doubtless have done much the same or worse.

I hate black-and-white politics. I'm more comfortable with ambiguity. My ideal scenario would be a sort of pick'n'mix – to be able to vote for my favourite, individual candidates from all the parties. For those of us who voted Lib Dem, Clegg's compromises have been disappointing, but that's the nature of coalition government. He chose to form a coalition with the party that won the most votes rather than take the easier option – to remain in the familiar, cloud-cuckoo-land of opposition – and be liked.

Some of the decisions, such as the promise of a green investment bank and not just a fund, I don't think would have been made if there had been a fully fanged Tory government in power. I have noticed that in the past two weeks the Lib Dems have been taking a more combative stance – and that's a good thing in my view, but of course it has elicited the inevitable cries of rifts in the coalition. He can't win.

I know it's an unpopular view, but I see Clegg as a decent man – more human than most politicians – trapped in a nightmare. Ultimately, I would still rather the Lib Dems were there in the coalition than not.

George Monbiot, environmentalist

I voted for Lembit Öpik, partly because he had proved to be an excellent constituency MP, and partly to keep the Tory out. This strategy enjoyed the same degree of success as most of my attempts at political intervention.

I regret the fact that Lembit lost his seat; I regret the fact that the Lib Dems have proved to be all leaf and no plums even more. I am amazed that they're still prepared to act as Cameron's cannon fodder, and I fail to see what they gain from their craven compliance with the most vicious programme of disaster capitalism the UK has ever witnessed.

Anthony Barnett, OpenDemocracy founder

In March last year I wrote an NS cover essay, "Hang 'em". The Tories were implicated in the Labour government's support for the Iraq war, its permission of parliamentary corruption and its backing the banks and market fundamentalism up to the financial crash. The Lib Dems had failed also. Their policies were often correct but their spirit was lacking; they were not challenging the system. We should hang the lot of them.

But when, after the first leaders' debate, the Lib Dems appeared to be different, I supported voting for them. I should have kept to the logic of my argument and backed the Greens. I am proud that I opposed returning Mandelson and Brown to power (voters rightly rejected their controlling database state; only if Labour's leaders now show they have learned, changed and will not govern like that again can they win back support).

But the Lib Dems have embraced marketisation not democratisation of the public sphere. Clegg and co are enjoying the grotesque powers of the British state to intensify the market fundamentalism voters clearly rejected at the election. Westminster is still hanging us, only more so.

Sunny Hundal, editor of Liberal Conspiracy

I regret the course of action Nick Clegg took after the election – but at the time it was the only decision I felt at ease with. The Labour Party of May 2010 was trying desperately to triangulate on the economy, on cutting benefits, on immigrants and asylum-seekers. It had no positive vision for the future and it was intellectually spent. I couldn't bring myself to vote for it.

In hindsight, many decisions are regrettable, but we have no choice but to stand by them. I saw how quickly the Lib Dem leadership were willing to ditch their principles; I saw a much better vision articulated by Ed Miliband – so I joined Labour to support his leadership bid and that vision. And there were plenty who followed the same path. You live, you make mistakes and you learn. But you can't whitewash your own history.

And one who didn't . . .

Laurie Penny, columnist and activist

This time last year, I was just as disgusted with New Labour as everyone else; I wanted to see a real shake-up of the staid two-party system, and was all set to vote Lib Dem for the chance at a hung parliament. In the end, though, I just couldn't do it. I spent several nights arguing with Lib Dem friends about the importance of supporting trades unions, and realised that something in me just doesn't trust Liberal equivocation.

Whatever that something is, it wrenched the pen back just as I was about to put a cross in the yellow box. My local Labour candidate was John Cryer, an LRC member who took a stand against the Iraq war. Voting for him was a bit like a diet chocolate muffin – all the pleasure of voting Labour with none of the guilt – but it still left a bad taste in my mouth.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.