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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

As long as Jeremy Corbyn's Labour opponents are divided, he will rule

The leader's foes have yet to agree on when and how a challenge should take place.

Labour MPs began plotting to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader before he even held the position. They have not stopped since. From the outset, most regarded him as electorally and morally defective. Nothing has caused them to relinquish this view.

A week before the first major elections of this parliament, Labour found itself conducting a debate normally confined to far-right internet forums: was Hitler a Zionist? For some MPs, the distress lay in how unsurprised they were by all this. Since Corbyn’s election last September, the party has become a mainstream venue for hitherto fringe discussions.

Many MPs believe that Labour will be incapable of rebuilding its standing among the Jewish community as long as Corbyn remains leader. In the 1930s, Jewish support for the party was as high as 80 per cent. “They handed you your . . . membership just after your circumcision,” quipped the father in the 1976 television play Bar Mitzvah Boy. By the time of the last general election, a poll found that support had fallen to a mere 22 per cent. It now stands at just 8.5 per cent.

Corbyn’s critics cite his typical rejection of anti-Semitism and "all forms of racism" (as if unable to condemn the former in isolation), his defence of a tweet sent by his brother, Piers (“Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine”), and his description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”. The Lab­our leader dismissed the latter remark as a diplomatic nicety but such courtesy was not displayed when he addressed Labour Friends of Israel and failed to mention the country’s name. When challenged on his record of combating anti-Semitism, Corbyn frequently invokes his parents’ presence at the Battle of Cable Street, a reference that does not provide the reassurance intended. The Jewish community does not doubt that Labour has stood with it in the past. It questions whether it is prepared to stand with it in the present.

MPs say that Labour’s inept response to anti-Semitism has strengthened the moral case for challenging Corbyn. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of how the fear of “enormous reputational damage” had pushed him to the brink of resignation. As the New Statesman went to press, Corbyn’s first electoral test was looming. Every forecast showed the party on course to become the first opposition to lose council seats in a non-general-election year since 1985. Yet Corbyn appeared to insist on 3 May that this would not happen, gifting his opponents a benchmark by which to judge him.

Sadiq Khan was projected to become the party’s first successful London mayoral candidate since 2004. But having distanced himself from Corbyn throughout the race, he intends to deny him any credit if he wins. Regardless of the results on 5 May, there will be no challenge to the Labour leader before the EU referendum on 23 June. Many of the party’s most Corbyn-phobic MPs are also among its most Europhile. No cause, they stress, should distract from the defence of the UK’s 43-year EU membership.

Whether Corbyn should be challenged in the four weeks between the referendum and the summer recess is a matter of dispute among even his most committed opponents. Some contend that MPs have nothing to lose from trying and should be prepared to “grind him down” through multiple attempts, if necessary. Others fear that he would be empowered by winning a larger mandate than he did last September and argue that he must be given “longer to fail”. Still more hope that Corbyn will instigate a midterm handover to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, his closest ally, whom they regard as a beatable opponent.

Those who are familiar with members’ thinking describe many as “anxious” and in need of “reassurance” but determined that Corbyn receives adequate time to “set out his stall”. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of being “caught between Scylla and Charybdis” – that is, “a Labour Party membership which is ardently Corbynista and a British electorate which is ardently anti-Corbynista”. In their most pessimistic moments, some MPs gloomily wonder which group will deselect them first. The possibility that a new Conservative leader could trigger an early general election is cited by some as cause for haste and by others as the only means by which Corbynism can be definitively discredited.

The enduring debate over whether the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged (the party’s rules are ambiguous) is dismissed by most as irrelevant. Shadow cabinet members believe that Corbyn would achieve the requisite nominations. Momentum, the Labour leader’s praetorian guard, has privately instructed its members to be prepared to lobby MPs for this purpose.

There is no agreement on who should face Corbyn if his removal is attempted. The veteran MP Margaret Hodge has been touted as a “stalking horse” to lead the charge before making way for a figure such as the former paratrooper Dan Jarvis or the shadow business secretary, Angela Eagle. But in the view of a large number of shadow cabinet members, no challenge will materialise. They cite the high bar for putative leaders – the endorsement of 20 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs – and the likelihood of failure. Many have long regarded mass front-bench resignations and trade union support as ­essential preconditions for a successful challenge, conditions they believe will not be met less than a year after Corbyn’s victory.

When Tony Blair resigned as Labour leader in 2007, he had already agreed not to fight the next general election and faced a pre-eminent rival in Gordon Brown. Neither situation exists today. The last Labour leader to be constitutionally deposed was J R Clynes in 1922 – when MPs, not members, were sovereign. Politics past and present militate against Corbyn’s opponents. There is but one man who can remove the leader: himself.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred