Rising coalition tension squeezes Labour out of the debate

The more Lib Dems and Tories feel licensed to air competing views, the more Labour looks short of th

The Conservative party does not like the 50p tax rate. That much is clear. It is just as clear that government policy is, for the time being, to retain the rate. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats support a "Mansion Tax", although it is not government policy to introduce one. Both parties are in office, each accuses the other of hogging the agenda, neither gets its way all of the time. That is how coalition works. It is all quite obvious really.

But one feature of the arrangement that gets less recognition is the effect it is having on Opposition MPs. Labour have complained since the formation of the coalition that two-party government squeezes them out of the news agenda. It also squeezes them out of policy debate. The Lib Dems have cultivated the role of in-house opposition within government; the Tory right does something similar. That doesn't leave much room for the views of the official opposition, which is a bit less glamorous because it is that much further away from real power.

What is more, as coalition relations get tetchier - as they plainly are - this problem for Labour gets worse. Competitive "differentiation" between the Lib Dem and Tory wings of the government will soak up ever more news time. But it isn't just about media attention. The Coalition is a political enterprise that is fundamentally distinct from the two parties that own it. That gives Lib Dems licence to explore the question of what Lib Dem views might be and Tories freedom to debate Toryism in a way that seems increasingly denied to Labour MPs.

There has been plenty of argument in about what sort of direction Labour should be taking, often identifiable by colour coding: Blue, Purple, Black etc. But that energy seems to be fizzling out.

I mentioned in my column this week the paralysing fear of schism that stops Ed Miliband from developing innovative ideas on public service reform (among other things). The Labour benches generally feel frozen with caution. The two Eds, Miliband and Balls, advance the party line in increments and then invite the party to toe it without a fraction of deviation. As a result, anything anyone in Labour says that might be decoded as new or interesting causes a sensation, which only reinforces the leadership's fear of saying anything - or allowing underlings to say anything - egregious.

Paradoxically, the fact of being bound into an awkward alliance with another party seems to have made Lib Dem and Tory MPs more relaxed about expressing their own opinions, while Labour MPs, released from the responsibilities of government, are the most cryptic and tongue-tied of the lot.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Getty
Show Hide image

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.