Why Clegg could still face a leadership challenge next year

Lib Dem activists suggest that Clegg's position could still come under threat if the party finishes fourth or fifth in next year's European elections.

By any measure, Nick Clegg is having a good conference. He has won major votes on the economy, tuition fees, nuclear power, the 50p tax rate and Trident, confirming the Lib Dems' new status as a party of the "radical centre". These triumphs both reflect and reinforce Clegg's improved standing as leader. The Eastleigh by-election, which convinced the Lib Dems that they aren't facing wipeout in 2015, and the return of economic growth, which the party hopes to earn some credit for, means that talk of a leadership challenge by Vince Cable or anyone else has largely disappeared.

But speak to Lib Dems and you get the impression that Clegg's position isn't completely secure yet. One senior party activist told me that he could still face a challenge if the party performs particularly badly in next year's local and European elections, warning that "we could come fifth behind the Greens". Such a result would mean the loss of most or all of the party's nine MEPs. With a year to go until the general election, there would still be just enough time for the Lib Dems to contemplate a change of leader.

As Lord Oakeshott, one of those who would lead the revolt, noted in his pre-conference interview: "This will be much the biggest test we’ve had on a nationwide basis of our support and our appeal since the general election, so that’s why it will be crunch time. There will be no excuse when everyone has been voting, particularly in important areas like London. I think that’s when everyone will focus on things and I hope we will have a good hard look at our prospects for the election. There will still be time, but next May/June will be the last chance."

One group that hopes the Lib Dems might yet oust Clegg is the Tories. If it they are to win the next election, the Conservatives needs a Lib Dem leader who can win over Labour voters in Tory-Labour marginals. At present, after the defection of around a quarter of 2010 Lib Dem voters to Labour, the Tories stand to lose dozens of seats at the next election (Corby was an early warning) -  there are 37 Conservative-Labour marginals where the third place Lib Dem vote is more than twice the margin of victory.

The belief among the Tories is that a more centre-left figure such as Cable or Tim Farron, both of whom have signalled their availability, could prompt the party's former supporters to return home from Labour. Tim Montgomerie told me last year that "a left-wing replacement" of Clegg in 2014 was "vital to Tory hopes". Fortunately for Ed Miliband, the chances of him facing a new Lib Dem leader in 2015 have fallen further after Clegg's victories this week.

Nick Clegg on stage at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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There is no mandate for cutting immigration at the expense of living standards

Leave voters were asked if they would pay a price to cut immigration. The answer was clear. 

The Tories are in a mess on Brexit. The nation remains divided. But everyone accepts the need to prioritise reducing immigration, even at the expense of lower living standards.

These are the three key truisms of post-referendum Britain. But it turns out that only the first of those two propositions is actually true. The third, that there is a popular will to lower immigration at almost any cost, is not true at all. The latest poll from YouGov shows that even a majority of Leave voters are unwilling to accept any reduction in their living standards at all in order to curb immigration.

In the era of "fake news", it is important to begin with the facts. YouGov conducted its latest poll on Brexit on January 11 and 12. It found that the nation was indeed split and only marginally changed from the June referendum outcome.  In this poll, 44 per cent of all voters said they would to Remain and 43 per cent said they would vote Leave. This is well within the margin of error (as was the June referendum itself), and there was little recorded movement from one side of the divide to the other.

By introducing the question of immigration the YouGov pollsters made the responses much more decisive, and quite at odds with the received wisdom on the issue. YouGov asked only Leave voters what is the maximum amount of money they would be willing to lose "in order to regain control of immigration". The responses ranged from nothing at all to accepting a loss of over £200 or month per month and all points in between. The clear majority opted for nothing at all. They were willing to make no financial sacrifice at all. 

Remember, this is solely among Leave voters. It cannot be ruled out that some minority of Remain voters are willing to give up income to see immigration. But this would surely be a minority, possibly a tiny one. Therefore, the overall majority of voters, Leavers and Remainers combined are not will to let their living standards fall in order to lower immigration.

This stands in complete contrast to widespread assertions that the narrow Leave win in the referendum was "really" about curbing immigration. Theresa May herself has said that voters gave a very clear message they wanted tighter controls on immigration.  But of course immigration was not on the ballot. We know that popular sentiment is not pro-immigration. How could it be when voters have been told for years that it is the cause of all their woes?

Still, the clear evidence from the latest YouGov poll (and others) is that voters are unwilling to accept any decline in their living standards to achieve lower immigration. This makes it clear that immigration is not the paramount issue. Living standards are, as they usually are.

This has clear implications for all political parties. YouGov’s poll shows us that Labour cannot win by promising to cut immigration at the expense of living standards, which would surely follow any decision to quit the single market. Indeed, 65 per cent of the 2015 Labour voters voted to Remain. Among the minority Labour Leavers, two-thirds would not be willing to see any fall income in order to reduce immigration. The net result is that just 1 in 10 Labour voters in 2015 are willing to cut see their incomes fall to curb immigration.

Labour’s winning strategy will be to focus on its economic programme for government. Our electoral strategy will show people how Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell's economic plan can make the overwhelming majority of people better off. And keep on showing them. The reactionary Tory agenda can only make people worse off.

Diane Abbott is Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and shadow home secretary. She was previously shadow secretary for health.