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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.