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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The hidden joy of charity shops

Mary saw her colleagues at the charity shop every day, but she didn't tell them she was sleeping on the 31 bus.

Camden is a bric-a-brac kind of place – market stalls, blaring music, occasional offers of weed. But the back room of the Sue Ryder charity shop on Parkway is immaculate, with hooped petticoats waiting to be steamed and crockery stacked neatly on the shelves. I’ve come to talk to the shop’s manager, Oya, and one of her volunteers, Mary*, and they are waiting for me with milky tea and chocolate-chip cookies.

Mary is nervous. She is afraid of having her real name printed. “It’s shaming to tell you my story but I believe if I tell people at the right time, good things will happen,” she says. Now in her fifties, she arrived in Britain four years ago from Italy, without friends or savings, having left her husband. The jobcentre gave her an Oyster card and told her to volunteer at a charity shop to improve her English. “So we put her on the tills,” says Oya. “That’s what we do with anyone who gets sent to us to learn English.”

But Mary had a secret. She couldn’t find anywhere to live, so every afternoon, when she finished her shift at the shop, she would go to the jobcentre and laugh and joke with the staff there to cover up the reality that she didn’t have anywhere else to go. When the jobcentre closed, she would ride the 31 bus through the night, from White City to Camden and back again. It was the best way to stay warm. Then, every morning, she would arrive at the shop early, brush her teeth in the staff bathroom and change into fresh clothes – washed in a friend’s hostel room. No one else knew.

The charity Crisis calls people such as Mary “the hidden homeless” and says that it is almost impossible to estimate how many of them there are in Britain today. Most homeless people don’t qualify for accommodation in shelters but eke out their time shuttling between friends’ sofas, insecure rented accommodation, bed and breakfasts or sleeping rough on the streets.

Eventually, the shop manager – Oya’s predecessor – asked Mary what was wrong and her story tumbled out. Between them, with help from the jobcentre staff, Mary found a studio flat and moved from volunteering on the tills to working at a nearby convenience store, where she is now a supervisor. Both she and Oya have to stop to reach for tissues while telling me this story. “Sue Ryder is my family,” says Mary. “Sometimes I want to cry but there are no tears left. And Allah would be angry if I dared to cry now, with all that I have.”

Despite having a paid job, Mary still volunteers at the charity shop on Friday mornings. She leaves at 3pm to work the evening shift at the convenience store. She and Oya are firm friends outside work. Mary brings in home-cooked lasagne for Oya and her daughter – “She says, ‘Eat some tonight, freeze the rest for Ella’” – and Oya invites her round and cooks her Turkish food on Friday nights. “She’ll say working here saved her life,” says Oya. “I’ll say I made a friend for life.”

The reason I’m here is a selfish one. Volunteering for a charity is the perfect antidote to a culture that can often feel mercenary, cynical and ruthlessly individualistic. I wish more people did it. I’m also here because in December, I wrote a piece defending charities from accusations that many do not turn every penny of donations into outlay on their projects. But running charity shops requires upfront investment – on electricity, rent and wages – so it’s too simplistic to demand that all the money they receive should go straight back out of the door.

That article prompted the management of Sue Ryder, which operates 457 shops with 12,000 volunteers, to get in touch and invite me in. Some of their volunteers, like Mary, need to learn English and other skills before they can get a paying job; some are serving prison sentences; others are youngsters sent unwillingly by their schools for work experience. (Jackie, who now manages one of the charity’s shops in Aberdeen, had previously been imprisoned three times.)

Not that everything is rosy in the charity shop back room. Oya says that some people use them as a “dumping ground”. I tell her that I once read a story about a donation of tights that had a used sanitary towel still stuck to the crotch and they nod: “We had that.” Oya is very proud, however, that the store “doesn’t smell like a charity shop”.

As well as providing jobs and raising money, stores such as this one provide a useful social barometer. There are around 9,000 charity shops in the UK and their number rose 30 per cent in the five years following the financial crash of 2007. Since then, the economic downturn has increased trade significantly. Last year at the shop in Camden, the number of donation bags increased by 52 per cent and takings went up by 8 per cent, yielding a net profit of £65,000.

In Camden, close to chichi Mornington Crescent and Primrose Hill, the donations can be eyewateringly expensive (recent finds include a £1,200 clarinet and a £980 Prada handbag), while the cheapest brands stocked are Marks & Spencer and Next. “More people are charity shopping,” says Oya. “And not the people you’d expect. They’re suited and booted. Sometimes they’re famous.” Mention is made of an EastEnders actress spotted in the store.

Because of her work, Oya has been invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace on 12 June and naturally she is taking Mary. A trip to buy hats is coming up and their enthusiasm is infectious. Here in the back room of a north London charity shop, as the three of us – a Turkish-British Muslim, an Eritrean-Italian Muslim and plain old white agnostic me – drink milky tea, I feel the most British I have all year. These guys really love the Queen. And they love being friends. Stepping out into the sunshine, my overwhelming feeling is: maybe we’re all going to be OK.

*Her name has been changed

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster