Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Beneath the surface, tensions are growing in the Lib Dems

Everything right now is analysed through the prism of "what it means about the leadership".

The daffodils are blooming, the sun is shining and the floods are receding – which can only mean one thing. It’s Lib Dem Spring Conference. This may come to a surprise to many, as unlike in previous years, where the rows have been heavily trailed and keenly anticipated, this time all seems sweetness and light. Sure, there’ll be debates and differences of opinion – but no one’s going to be resigning over motions on the best way to fight food poverty. And with the party set to take positive positions supporting immigration and Europe, why, it feels just like old times.

After some difficult conference moments for the leadership in recent times – for example, it’s exactly a year ago since Jo Shaw quit the party on stage over the Secret Courts debacle - the party looks to be at peace with itself.

Sadly, I fear this is not the case. Scratch the surface, and you find a party that’s tense, nervous about the future, especially worried about the European elections, and constantly looking out for trouble. Witness the reaction to Thomas Byrne's article last week (which named Alistair Carmichael as a potential leader) and especially a quote from someone in the party attacking the left. Over on Lib Dem Voice, that got the hairdryer treatment.

"Apparently, a member of party staff has been mean about Tim and referred to those many party activists who have a lot of time for him as 'sandal wearers.' I can’t honestly think of anyone actually working on proper election campaigns who would ever say such an insulting or dismissive thing. They know that they need every activist motivated and out there, telling the Liberal Democrat story, if we are going to have a hope in hell of achieving our goals this year and next. They would never insult members of the party who, by and large, have kept on working patiently on the ground"

Indeed, almost everything right now is analysed through the prism of "what it means about the leadership". Witness the announcement of the negotiating team for potential future coalition talks. Immediately it has been examined for every conceivable signal. It’s a sign of strength that Nick has appointed a team without reference to the wider party. Or else it’s a sign of weakness that Nick has not been brave enough to submit his choices for debate amongst the party at large. And why is the chosen line-up dominated by the left? Or indeed the right? And why now? Is it a distraction technique – get everyone in the party thinking about the general election to stop them thinking about the European elections? The debate seems endless.

The party is going to look confident, assured, positive and passionate on stage this week. But increasingly the debate behind the scenes that will dominate the bar conversation is around one question: after this May’s elections - what happens next?

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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Can the disciplined Democrats defeat Trump’s maelstrom of chaos?

The Democratic National Convention has been exquisitely stage-managed and disciplined. But is it enough to overcome Trump’s news-cycle grabbing interventions?

The Democratic National Convention did not begin auspiciously.

The DNC’s chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was unceremoniously launched as if by an ejector-seat from her job on the eve of the convention, after a Wikileaks dump of internal emails painted a picture of a party trying to keep the insurgent candidate, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, from blocking Hillary Clinton’s path to the nomination.

One email, in which a staffer suggests using Sanders’ Jewish faith against him as a candidate in order to slow his insurgent campaign, was particularly damning in its optics and Schultz, who had tweeted with some hubris about her Republican opposite number Reince Priebus during last week’s Republican convention in Cleveland, had to fall on her sword.

Clinton’s pick of Tim Kaine as a running-mate – a solid, safe, and unexciting choice compared to a more vocal and radical campaigner like Elizabeth Warren – was also criticised, both by the media, with one commentator calling him “a mayonnaise sandwich on wholewheat bread”, and by the left of the party, who still held out hope that the Democratic ticket would have at least one name on it who shared the radical vision of America that Sanders had outlined.

On top of that, Kaine, who is a Catholic, also disappointed many as a vice-presidential pick because of his past personal history of opposition to abortion. Erin Matson, the co-director of the reproductive rights group ReproAction, tweeted that Kaine being added to the ticket was “tremendously disappointing”.

On the other side, Donald Trump had just received a poll bump following a terrifying speech which recalled Richard Nixon’s 1968 convention address. Both speeches appealed to fear, rather than hope; many are calling Trump’s keynote his “Midnight in America” speech. Just before the Democrats convened, analyst par excellence Nate Silver and his site, 538.com, forecast Trump’s chance of victory over Clinton in November at above 50 per cent for the first time.

On top of that, Bernie Sanders more vocal supporters arrived at the Democratic convention – in Philadelphia in the grip of a heatwave – in relative force. Protests have already been more intensive than they were at the RNC, despite all expectations to the contrary, and Sanders delegates disrupted proceedings on the first day by booing every mention of Hillary Clinton’s name.

But then, things appear to turn around.

The second day of the convention, which saw Hillary Clinton formally nominated as the first female presidential candidate in American history, was less marred by protest. Bernie Sanders addressed the convention and endorsed his erstwhile rival.

Trump’s inability to stop prodding the news cycle with bizarre non-sequiturs turned the focus of what would otherwise be a negative Democratic news cycle back onto him; an unforced error which led to widespread, if somewhat wild, speculation about his possible links with Putin in the wake of the news that Russia had been behind the email hack and lightened some of the pressure on the Democrats.

And then Michelle Obama took the stage, delivering an oration of astonishing power and grace (seriously, watch it – it’s a masterclass).

Compared with the RNC, the Democratic National Convention has so far been exquisitely stage-managed. Speakers were bookended with pithy, designed-for-virality videos. Speakers started on time; headliners played in primetime.

Both Trump and Clinton have now addressed their conventions before their headline speech remotely, via video link (Trump also engineered a bizarre early-convention pro-wrestling-style entrance), which put observers of both in mind of scenes from V for Vendetta.

But the imagery of Clinton’s face appearing on screen through a graphic of shattering glass (see what she did there?) will likely be one of the moments that sticks most in the memory of the electorate. It must kill the reality TV star to know this, but Clinton’s convention is getting better TV ratings so far than the RNC did.

Michelle Obama’s masterful speech in particular provided stark contrast with that of Melania Trump – an especially biting contrast considering that parts of the latter’s speech last week turned out to have been plagiarised from the former. 538’s forecast saw Clinton slide – barely – back into the lead.

A mayonnaise sandwich Tim Kaine might be, but he is nonetheless looking like a smart pick, too. A popular senator from a key swing state – Virginia – his role on the ticket is not to be a firebrand or an attack-dog, but to help the former secretary of state reach out to the moderate middle that Trump appears to be leaving entirely vacant, including moderate Republicans who may have voted for Mitt Romney but find Trump’s boorish bigotry and casual relationship with the truth offputting. And the electoral mathematics show that Trump’s journey to victory in the electoral college will be extremely difficult if Kaine swings Virginia for Clinton.

Ultimately, the comparison between the Democratic convention in Philadelphia so far and last week’s chaotic, slapdash and at times downright nutty effort in Cleveland provides a key insight into what this election campaign is going to be like: chaos and fear on one side, but tight discipline on the other.

We will find out in November if discipline is enough to stop the maelstrom.

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.