Nick Clegg has robbed my party of its soul - he must go now

Those on the left of the party have been treated with contempt as Clegg seeks to transform the Lib Dems into a free market sect.

I am in mourning. In mourning for my once great and principled party which, judging by the past week, believes in very little that it once held dear.

From opposition to nuclear power to being against a replacement for Trident and supporting a 50p tax rate for the highest earners, we’ve seen these and other totemic policies abandoned. It makes me think some commentators are right when they say that Nick Clegg has all but completed his transformation of the Liberal Democrats from a party which was to the left of Labour (or at least New Labour) to one that is now an annex to the Conservative Party. 

I’ve long argued that what Clegg wants to do is turn the Lib Dems into a British version of the German FDP. The free-market FDP wins a very small percentage of the vote but seems to remain permanently in government as a parasitical attachment to the conservative coalition led by Angela Merkel.

That kind of thing must surely not be the aim of the Liberal Democrats. Of course we’re pluralists and believe in working with other parties. But we shouldn’t ignore our own history and rubbish our own principles just so our mnisters can keep their hands on red boxes.

Our history brings up names like Keynes, Beveridge, and Grimond, radical social liberals. And, yes, other names such as Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams. As councillor and London Assembly Member Stephen Knight reminded us at a fringe put on by Liberal Left at this week’s Liberal Democrat conference, our party is a successor to two fine traditions, not just liberalism but also social democracy. Some would like to wipe the SDP from our history, but others, such as Vince Cable, continue to self-define as social democrats and we will not allow that fine tradition to be forgotten.

But over and above policy matters, what has upset me most this week has been the way some in our party, including Nick Clegg, treat those on the left. We’re belittled, patronised and treated with ridicule. Like embarrassing relatives, we're tolerated but not wanted.

Perhaps the worst example of this came during Clegg’s Q&A session when, before she’d even asked a question, Clegg made belittling comments about my colleague and friend Linda Jack, the chair of Liberal Left and one of the nicest and most principled people in our party.

When Linda did ask a question, she asked Clegg whether people such as her still had a place in the party. Clegg answered by not answering; he just talked about that morning’s economy motion. Any reasonable leader, regardless of whether they agreed with a certain individual, would have said, "Of course you have a place in our party, we’re a broad church". 

He said no such thing, which makes many of us feel like he’d really quite like us to leave the party so the transformation of the Liberal Democrats from a social liberal party to an economic liberal party will be complete.

Well, I have a very clear message for Mr Clegg and his acolytes: we’re going nowhere. As Janice Turner of the Social Liberal Forum said at the Liberal Left fringe, "this is our party too." Of course we’ve done good things in government, from re-linking pensions to earnings, to enacting Equal Marriage, but we’ve also compromised and capitulated too often and acquiesced too much.

So, after three years of biting my tongue, hoping for a better day and defending his leadership, I now call on Nick Clegg to go. What residual respect I had left for him was destroyed this week by the way he and his ilk referred to and dealt with those who dared to disagree with them.

Those of us on the centre-left of our party, who I believe continue to be its mainstream, will, despite it all, continue to fight for what we believe. A couple of years ago, at a Lib Dem conference not long after the coalition was formed, Nick Clegg told delegates, "we’ll never lose our soul."

Sadly, I fear we have.

Mathew Hulbert is a Liberal Democrat borough and parish councillor in Leicestershire

Nick Clegg delivers his speech at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

Mathew Hulbert is a Liberal Democrat Borough and Parish Councillor in Leicestershire

Getty
Show Hide image

What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

***

As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.