Happier times when coallition was a Rose Garden. Source: Getty
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Elections this May will punch a lot of coalition bruises

Europe is half of the problem. Council seats being contested were last filled in 2010, when support for Tories and Lib Dems was highest.

Elections to the European parliament on 22 May will be unusual to the extent that the run-up will include rather a lot of arguing about Europe. Naturally, Ukip wants to keep Brussels in the frame. Nigel Farage has made it his explicit ambition to cause an “earthquake” at Westminster by mobilising public euroscepticism behind his yellow-and-purple banner.

On this occasion – and in reversal of old reticence – the Lib Dems will also be running explicitly on their attitude to Europe, which is rather more enthusiastic than Ukip's. (The thinking behind this potentially hazardous gambit is the subject of my column in the magazine this week.)

Live TV debates between Farage and Nick Clegg will give the campaign more prominence than past MEP ballots. All of which means even less attention than usual is being paid to local council elections on the same day. But the interaction of the two votes will be interesting – and potentially problematic for the two coalition parties. If Ukip succeeds in mobilising a lot of well-motivated Brussels-bashers there is a good chance some of that Farageism will also be expressed as council losses for the Tories. 

That is why some Conservative associations, with the tacit support of MPs, are effectively campaigning for a split ticket. They know some of their members are determined to register a protest vote on the MEP ballot paper and will hear efforts to sell them Cameron’s EU policy as a provocation. So instead the message is: “by all means have your fun with Ukip in the euro election, as long as you stick with the Tories for the council poll.”

For the Lib Dems, there is another problem unrelated to Europe. The council seats up for grabs are the ones that were last filled in 2010, on the same day as the general election. That was a high tide of support for Clegg’s party. They are also largely metropolitan seats, including London boroughs, where the Lib Dem vote will have come disproportionately from those of the party’s supporters who once fancied it as a leftwing antidote to New Labour. They have abandoned Clegg in droves.

In other words, the council elections on 22nd May could represent a quite forensic probing of Lib Dem electoral weakness; a punch on the party’s most tender bruises. One senior figure in the party recently told me he could not imagine a worse combination than European elections on the same day as a contest to defend the 2010 council gains a year before the next general election. One reason for advertising a pro-EU position so vigorously in the campaign is that it at least provides a principled cover for the massacre. That is, Clegg can tell his demoralised troops that they took a beating for something in which they genuinely believe – which feels marginally better than being beaten up as David Cameron’s hapless lackeys.

Judging by recent precedent, yet more of Clegg’s councillors will be culled and, after some low-level grumbling, his party will carry on stoically towards the general election, like soldiers in the First World War marching stoically out of their trenches towards enemy machine guns. There is in the Lib Dem ranks now a kind of martyr’s pride at this capacity for rolling self-sacrifice in the name of coalition. As one Cleggite MP puts it: “It’s magnificent and ghastly at the same time.”

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.