What the Lib Dems need to do to get back on track in 2013

Stopping the worst excesses of the Tories is not enough. The party needs radical new policies.

We’re bumping along in the polls at around 10 per cent, we have the most unpopular leader of all the major political parties, and in the last three Westminster by-elections we came third, fifth and eighth, losing our deposits in two of the three campaigns. You might think the Lib Dems go into 2013 with a large black cloud hanging overhead and an awful sense of impending doom. You’d be wrong.

The grassroots are surprisingly chipper. In the most recent Lib Dem Voice survey (fieldwork just before Christmas), 77 per cent of respondents said they continued to support the party being in coalition, 61 per cent said they thought the party was on the right course, and (hold onto your hats) 58 per cent said they were either "very satisfied" or "satisfied" with Nick’s leadership.

How come? Well, partly it’s the Pollyanna lurking inside every Lib Dem. Doing less than spectacularly in mid-term polls is the default expectation for most grassroots members (even if by-election disaster after disaster is something of a novelty), so this doesn’t feel like particularly alien territory for most folk. It’s also true when you look at local election results – and when we think about the 2015 general election, we think of it at a local level – we’ve done rather better in 2013 than most people realise.

And many in the party genuinely look at the good things the Lib Dems have achieved in government – 2 million out of income tax altogether, the pupil premium, Green Investment Bank et al – and think actually, for doing all that, unpopularity is a price worth paying. And that’s a fair point. But I can’t help but feel the party may have listened to the Prime Minister’s call for the country to approach 2013 with a sense of realism and optimism a tad too literally.

So here’s my two pennies' worth for the next 12 months if the Lib Dems are going to get back on electoral track.

We have a ‘new’ positioning of the party as the only repository of both economic competence and social justice. Of course, it’s not new– Nick announced it at conference in September 2011. But it’s not really stuck has it? Might I suggest that this may have something to do with the fact that demonstrating economic competence during the worst economic malaise for 80 plus years is quite tricky? Ditto social fairness, when the last government before you has spent all the money, and you’ve got your coalition partners introducing a benefit cap and apparently encouraging words like ‘feckless’ and ‘workshy’ to be bandied about.

So if that’s the strategy, fine – but we’ll need some rather better communications to get it resonating than we’ve managed to date. Might I suggest ditching the HQ line of ‘the Lib Dems are working to build a stronger economy in a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life’ for the rather snappier ‘Lib Dems represent the head and the heart’. Folk might actually remember that.

And while stopping the worst excesses of the Tories is as important as ever – the snoopers' charter being just a starter – that won’t be enough. Neither will shouting ‘well, what would you do then?’ on a continuous loop at the Labour Party. We need some new, exciting policy initiatives of our own. Our newly elected federal policy committee needs not just to be thinking about the general election manifesto for 2015. It need to be presenting conference very quickly with some radical new thinking for debate and agreement. And then we need to be presenting it to the country.

As a party, we spent too long on our non-differentiation strategy with our coalition ‘partners’ – and we are now similarly in danger of thinking that if we shout at the Tories about how awful they are for the next 30 months, all will be right in the world. It won’t. We have 12 months to show the country we are still the radical, reforming and creative political party the members all joined. And if we do that, combined with our record to date, we’ve got a half a chance.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference.

Nick Clegg delivers a speech to the Centre Forum at The Commonwealth Club on December 17, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser