Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Lib Dems need to start telling us what they'll be fighting for in 2015

At Spring Conference, some of the manifesto raw meat needs to be presented and debated.

I’m feeling a little unloved. Many regular commentators on my posts here at The Staggers will be completely unsurprised by this revelation and will no doubt be having a quick snigger at my expense, but let me clarify what I mean. Because it’s not just me. The Lib Dems as a party seem to have dropped off the news media’s radar altogether.

The floods seem to be hung on the Tories, with special guest appearances by ex-Labour ministers, while UKIP keep their hand in by pinning the blame for the whole thing on the advent of gay marriage. Nary a mention of the Lib Dems. The news that the Scots may have to look elsewhere for their currency if they vote for independence also seems to be owned by a combination of George Osborne and Alistair Darling.

The good folk of Wythenshawe and Sale East may have doomed us to our eighth lost deposit in 15 by-elections (sooner or later someone in HQ is going to start noticing that trend and maybe worry about it a bit) but we still came fourth – not quite bad enough to make us interesting and certainly not enough to stop UKIP being the main story (although there seems a bit of a debate about whether coming second in a by-election once again is a good or bad result for them).

Even The Staggers seems to have forgotten us, with just two of the last 30 stories from the UK’s foremost political publication focusing on one of the two parties in government (no doubt my editor is thinking 'yes, well, if you pulled your finger out a bit more...'  but you get my drift).

So why is this? After all, it’s almost making me hanker after the days when a good non-sex scandal meant we dominated the front pages. Well, can I suggest it may be something to do with the differentiation strategy – you know, the one where whenever the Tories do something, almost anything, we give a sharp intake of breath and say "I don’t think that seems terribly sensible."

Don’t get me wrong, I like it when we do that. But the press are only going to write "another coalition row" so many times before they get bored with it. And I think that time has come. So we need to start following up that sharp intake of breath with an alternative plan, an explanation of what we would rather do instead. And when we do – for example, the raising of the tax threshold – then suddenly the headlines start appearing once again.

It may be chucking it down outside, but Spring Conference is just around the corner, and I hope some of the manifesto raw meat is going to presented and debated. It’s time we started telling people a little more of what we’ll be fighting for in 2015 – both in the election, and, if needs be, in the coalition negotiations.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.