Why does Labour get a much easier ride from the left than the Lib Dems?

Nick Clegg and the fleeting nature of hatred.

If you’re reading this, there’s a high chance you aren’t keen on Nick Clegg, and possibly the Liberal Democrats as a whole. If I were to ask you to post why in the comments - as if you need an invitation - I imagine you’d probably say something like this genuine extract, quoted verbatim:

Clegg is the most insincere, deceitful, disingenuous, untrustworthy man to hold office in the UK.

...only with a few more expletives thrown in for good measure.

Thing is, like Mr Clegg, I just lied to you: I changed one of the words. The comment wasn’t about Clegg, but another politician who went from being an electoral asset to a liability after a spell in power. It's about Tony Blair, from a Guardian article in 2009. Pretty mild stuff compared to what you’ll find underneath any article about Nick Clegg. And yet, the main source of hatred reserved for Clegg’s Lib Dems is that they lied and broke manifesto promises, and this is something that Labour themselves know a great deal about too.

Leading up to the 2010 election, both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats published documents highlighting failures from Labour’s 2005 manifesto (the Tory version can still be read here, but ironically the link on Nick Clegg’s site promising the PDF of Labour’s Broken Promises is broken), but the party broke promises even when fully united with a massive majority in the early days of New Labour too. Party strategists seemed aware that this was becoming an Achilles heel - in 1997, part of their winning campaign was to publish five point pledge cards, containing promises for the coming parliament. They repeated this for the following three elections, but compare the specific pledges of the first (“We will cut NHS waiting lists by treating an extra 100,000 patients as a first step by releasing £100m saved from NHS red tape”) to the happy thoughts of the 2005 batch (“Your Family Better Off”) and there’s the unmistakable air of a party trying to promise something so vague that they can’t be accused of failing to deliver. No wonder: they were forced to admit before the 2001 election that they had only managed three out of five of the specific pledges, which were previously viewed as a touch on the unambitious side.

So why do Labour get such a comparatively easy ride from the left? Sure, there are negative comments about Miliband and Labour in general, but they don’t contain anything like the special kind of bile reserved for the Liberal Democrats. Over 13 years, Labour broke plenty of election pledges including, lest we forget, their own pledge not to bring in top-up fees (“We will not introduce top-up fees and have legislated to prevent them.” - 2001 Manifesto), not to mention abandoning their own 1997 commitment of delivering a referendum on parliamentary voting reform, much to the annoyance of Liberal Democrats (“We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons” - 1997 manifesto). They even went so far as winning a court battle over their failure to deliver a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, getting the court to agree with the defence that “A manifesto promise is incapable of giving rise to a legally binding contract with the electorate”. And the biggest kicker? They did much of this with a handsome majority of seats in the Commons, without the excuse of being the junior partner in a coalition government, which is actually a far more explanation than it’s often given credit for being. Labour haven’t recently had to defend another party’s ideology to maintain government unity, which will hurt you far more than a couple of policy ideas failing to come through.

Perhaps Labour get off lightly because the pledges they failed to deliver on were not high-profile policies - electoral reform gets Lib Dem activists all hot and bothered, but barely registers with Labour voters, let alone the public at large. And although there’s a lot of bluster about the Lisbon Treaty and the role of the EU, Labour has never been the natural party of eurosceptics - indeed the man bringing the case against the government was a UKIP activist, who probably cast his vote elsewhere anyway. The Liberal Democrats on the other hand have always relied heavily on the student vote, and although they weren’t as vocal about tuition fees in 2010 as they had been in previous years (even the Tories were unconvincingly making free tuition a manifesto pledge in 2005), Clegg wasn’t averse to campaigning at university campuses and repeating the manifesto policy of scrapping tuition fees to any student who would listen. It’s worth noting the actual pledge to ‘vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament’ signed by the party’s 57 MPs was an NUS campaign, rather than a Liberal Democrat initiative (indeed some Labour and Conservative candidates were also signatories), but plenty happily posed for grinning photo opportunities alongside their signature, blissfully unaware that they had just lit the fuse on a bad PR time bomb.

Maybe the real problem is that many centre-left voters feel stupid for being taken in by Nick Clegg’s impressive television debate performance, where he artfully positioned himself as a new kind of politician in a brand new, exciting medium - one who doesn’t break promises, and doesn’t believe in limp pragmatism. It seems like another lifetime now, but Nick Clegg’s debate performance was genuinely inspiring, coming from nowhere and winning over much of the audience with his polished presentation and refreshing words which resonated with a disillusioned public, fed up with Labour but suspicious of the Tories - and he may have done a little too well. It’s easier to deal with hollow marketing copy on a page like every other year, than to find out the man you trusted on the TV turned out to be promising the impossible. The former is just business as usual, but the latter can genuinely hurt - a lie to your face. No wonder people are vocally angry.

The Liberal Democrat campaign team wasn’t shy about capitalising on the jadedness of the populace towards the two main parties either. It will make Lib Dem activists cringe now to watch campaign videos such as this one, amusingly titled “Say Goodbye to Broken Promises” in which Clegg makes an impassioned message to the camera about “promises being kept” and how political parties have proven they just can’t be trusted. Of course, he was inadvertently correct - he just didn’t appreciate at the time how being right about this one might make it a dangerous sentiment to tap into.

But ultimately the main reason Labour doesn’t face the same anger nowadays may be disappointing to those commenters who wishfully boast about the impending Liberal Democrat oblivion: anger fades. Most have forgotten about New Labour’s broken promises now that Blair and Brown are party conference memories, and it’s entirely plausible the same will apply to the Lib Dems in time. In 2016, once Clegg has either jumped or been pushed and a new face is in place, Milliband will likely be facing similar flack when his One Nation Labour turns out to be the familiar old Two or Three Nations, and Cable or Farron may once again seem a suitable vehicle for protest votes in by-elections. However implausible it may seem right now in the heat of the moment, time heals all wounds - to come back to the Guardian comment I started on, there will always be a next “most insincere, deceitful, disingenuous, untrustworthy” figure waiting to fill the hate vacuum. And that’s a promise I won’t break.

Alan Martin writes about politics, tech and gaming (although rarely at the same time).

Does Ed Miliband get off lightly? Photograph: Getty Images
Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.