If the Tories lose the next election, Clegg must leave with them

To allow the Liberal Democrats to swap sides without incurring any penalty would offend the essential order of our democracy.

I’ve nothing against dogs in general. In fact, I’ve always fancied owning a Staffy. But I’m not fond of poodles. So I nearly choked when Ed Balls hinted at a possible liaison with Nick Clegg, the biggest poodle of all. Our shadow chancellor thinks he could work with the Lib Dem leader in a coalition. It seems Nick and Ed have had a cosy chat recently, and Ed is acting like he’s found a new best friend. They’ve even been indulging in playful teasing on Twitter.

What really gives me the shivers is Ed’s bold assertion that he has “no reason to doubt [Clegg’s] integrity.” Really? What about the “small” matter of tuition fees where Nick betrayed millions of voters? Or his U-turn on reducing the number of digital gambling machines in bookies? One minute he’s backing a campaign to introduce curbs, the next he’s refusing to act, no doubt after a quiet word from the prime minister.

Besides, the shadow chancellor is getting ahead of himself by talking about a coalition at this stage in the game. My personal position is that it’s always preferable to have a decisive outcome in a general election. So it’s a mistake for Labour to get distracted by any talk of coalition. Let’s not give voters a sense of defeatism before the 2015 election posters have even been printed. Instead, let’s focus on fighting as hard as we can for a majority by listening to the concerns and needs of voters. Obviously Labour has a duty to try and form a government if the voters of the UK deliver an indecisive result by some quirk of electoral arithmetic. Yet if the Tories are thrown out of office, it is abundantly clear that Nick Clegg is the person most responsible for propping up a failed administration that did not carry a decisive mandate.

One of the strengths of our electoral system is this: you can heave a party out of office. To allow the Lib Dems to swap sides without incurring any penalty, in effect, feels like it offends the essential order of our democracy. Someone will have to take responsibility for the failures of the current coalition before the Lib Dems could form a coalition on a very different programme of renewed national purpose. 

The man with shared responsibility for those failures is Nick Clegg. Which is why he should go as Lib Dem leader as the price for coalition. There are plenty of people who could take his place. I'm probably in a minority of one in thinking that the Lib Dems should bring back Charlie Kennedy. But there are others who can hold down the job of Lib Dem leader. Vince Cable would be a good choice for example, or Danny Alexander even.

I know Nick’s supporters have tried to promote him as an attack dog rather than a poodle. But let’s face it, he shouldn’t be anyone’s first choice of a mutt they can count on to protect their rights. Clegg has become Mr Toxic, a leader tainted by association with David Cameron and the Tory leader’s “kick the poor, protect the rich” policies. His own MPs are clearly depressed by his lapdog-like behaviour. Sarah Teather has even decided to stand down because of the direction in which her leader is taking the party.

If we do end up without a majority at the next election, then Nick Clegg isn’t the right Lib Dem to go into government with. It’s a price this country shouldn’t have to pay again for democracy.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg visit Wandsworth Day Nursery on 19 March 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East, and Deputy Chair of the Labour Party. He is also an avid gamer and campaigner for media integrity.
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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.