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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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.