The Lib Dems' identity crisis just got a lot more critical

Coalition was meant to be a journey to political maturity and professionalism. But it's amateur hour yet again.

Let’s start, as justice demands we must, with the assumption that Chris Rennard, the Liberal Democrat peer and former party chief executive, is not guilty of allegations of sexual harassment levelled against him. They are not proven and he denies them. Still, since we know that Nick Clegg’s office was informed of complaints of that nature back in 2008, there can only be two possible reasons why the matter was not thoroughly investigated.

The first is that no-one really took the allegations seriously. The second is that the allegations were deemed grave and credible but the importance of Rennard to the Lib Dem political operation and the fear of besmirching his and the party’s good name made thorough investigation feel politically too risky. Both interpretations imply contempt for people who say they have been sexually harassed. Either way the party leadership comes out of the whole business looking negligent and disorderly.

That impression has been amplified by Clegg’s handling of the affair – specifically, his tantalising statement on Sunday, dragging Danny Alexander into an opaque narrative of "non-specific" allegations and vaguely sought reassurances. The Lib Dem leader admitted to having known something all along but couldn’t say exactly what it was. It is hard to imagine a response more finely calibrated to send the press pack into a feeding frenzy.

Most of the British press doesn’t need much incitement to sink claw and fang into the Lib Dems. The timing of the scandal – breaking in the middle of a crucial by-election campaign – has lead to some reasonable suppositions of ulterior anti-Clegg agendas at work. The Eastleigh campaign certainly adds electoral piquancy to the story but the Lib Dems can hardly complain about that. Wishing it had not come out now implies that there might have been some better time for it to come out, which is really a way of wishing it had never come out at all and that instinct is what makes the whole thing scandalous in the first place.

This is bad for Clegg. But how bad exactly? Most of the people in Westminster I’ve spoken too in the last couple of days think the Lib Dems will still hold Eastleigh. It is almost impossible to tell whether any of the Rennard-related news cuts through on the Hampshire front line. If it does, I’d imagine a likely consequence will be mildly affiliated Lib Dem voters staying at home on polling day. Since the party’s strategy on the ground relies on a ferocious Get-Out-The-Vote operation, a surge in abstentions would be problematic.

But I suspect the Lib Dems' pain in this saga will go further and deeper than seeing their by-election campaign blown off course. A central problem for the party since joining coalition government has been clarity of identity. They surrendered the vague pieties of perpetual opposition in the hope of graduating into the status of grown-up party of government.

Clegg’s office has a clear enough sense of where they think he and the party can stand on the political spectrum. They are supposed to be more compassionate than the dinosaur Tories and more fiscally rigorous than profligate Labour. Opinion polls don’t yield much evidence that the Lib Dems are actually perceived that way but the aspiration is plausible enough. There is, in theory, a gap in the political market – a Blair-shaped hole – for third-way candidates who combine economic rigour with a social conscience.

But to fill that gap the Lib Dems must above all look like a serious political outfit. The pitch is non-ideological and pragmatic. They are supposed to be the go-to guys for coalition when the voters don’t fancy handing unalloyed power to either of the bigger parties. They are offering themselves as the moderate technocrats who aren’t afraid of compromise and keep Westminster grounded and centred. You aren’t necessarily expected to like the Lib Dems anymore, but, according to Clegg’s strategy, you are supposed to think it worthwhile having them around in government.

The defining feature of this offer is professionalism and it is the absence of that very quality that stands out from the mess they are in over Lord Rennard. The charges themselves (unproven and denied, it must be said), the original handling of complaints five years ago and the sprawling case study in crisis mismanagement over the past week all conjure up the impression of an organisation staffed with chancers and over-promoted amateurs.

It is already pretty hard to overstate the problems with the Lib Dem brand. Not enough people know what they stand for. (Do they even know anymore?) Clegg himself is still seen as a slippery character, a betrayer of promises and a trader of principle for the baubles of office. The electoral life raft that strategists were crafting was fashioned from claims to be delivering stable, effective government. Lib Dem plans for 2015 are based on the hope that eventually some voters will come to look at their record in office and judge them to have been decent and useful. Yet here they are in a colourful parade of shabby and useless.

Nick Clegg renewing his coalition vows earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.