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
Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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