Liberal Democrat MP Lorley Burt walks on stage wearing a Nigel Farage mask at the party's spring conference in York. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Westminster is in thrall to the cult of Farage – but Clegg knows that most voters see through it

There are far more people who don’t vote Ukip than do, including many who despise pub-bore nationalism.

David Cameron has handled Ukip like an intimate rash. There was an itch he couldn’t help scratching but scratching only made it worse. Now he is trying to ignore it in the hope it will go away.

He certainly doesn’t want to talk about it. The Prime Minister aims to reach the general election in May 2015 without sharing a platform with Nigel Farage or even uttering his name. Downing Street hopes that Ukip’s popularity will peak at the local council and European Parliament elections this May, if not before. Meanwhile, Cameron’s strategy is to avoid gratuitously offending the party’s supporters.

For Ed Miliband, the relationship is more complex. His instincts are antithetical to those of Farage but their interests are tactically aligned. Currently, Ukip poaches more votes from ex-Conservatives than from disgruntled Labourites in vital marginal seats, so the longer the Farage phenomenon endures, the likelier it is that the Labour leader ends up in No 10.

To the extent that Labour has a strategy for dealing with Ukip voters, it is to sympathise with their rage while steering blame away from migrants and benefit claimants. A Labour government that guarantees jobs, higher wages and affordable homes is expected to neutralise resentment of foreigners for supposedly driving down pay and colonising council houses. That is a theory to explain when Farage might go away, not a campaign to see him off.

So there is a vacancy for someone who will confront the Ukip leader on his own terms. Nick Clegg has awarded himself that honour. The Liberal Democrat leader used a speech at his party’s spring conference on 9 March to express a brand of liberal patriotism celebrating a “modern, open, tolerant” Britain that tends to want to be part of Europe, as distinct from a fearful and reactionary blend of Little England nostalgia that wants out. Clegg will debate the merits of Britain’s EU membership with Farage live on television in April.

Lib Dem strategists are not expecting the party to be buoyed by some great surge of enthusiasm for Brussels. They note only that a liberal Europhile position currently polls better than Clegg (as do many things). Since the party shed much of its core support by forming a coalition with the Tories, it needs to recruit a new cohort of voters. Salvation depends on finding people who agree with Nick and just don’t know it yet.

This plan isn’t entirely delusional. Liberal dismay at the main parties’ craven response to Farage extends beyond the question of Europe. The Ukip leader has enjoyed privileged media status as a spicy character in an otherwise bland political drama and as the incarnation of public loathing of politicians. Fringe idiocy in Ukip’s ranks has not escaped ridicule but there is in Westminster a strain of self-hating deference to the party’s voters, as if their jaundiced view of modern Britain were more authentic than other political opinions. In reality, there are far more people who don’t vote Ukip than do, including many who despise pub-bore nationalism. Just as the Ukip leader wants to channel anti-establishment anger, Clegg wants to channel a cosmopolitan backlash against the cult of Farage.

It is worth a try. The Lib Dems have been supremely disciplined through successive local election ravages – but their patience is not infinite. Clegg has so far managed to avert despair with the argument that it is better to be harried in office than to be irrelevant in opposition. Since another hung parliament looks plausible after the next election, there is always hope of staying in power.

There are Labour and Tory MPs who assert with bitter confidence that Clegg, as a likely coalition kingmaker, has more reason than Miliband or Cameron to be sure of being in power after 2015. That calculation rests on the record of tenacious Lib Dem incumbents in fortified bastion seats bucking a national trend. It also presumes that, since the party has been bumping along the bottom for three years, the only way is up.

To sustain that story, Clegg needs to show some progress in May, although abject defeat would probably not provoke a leadership challenge. The party’s regicidal impulse, once so quick, has been numbed by the duty to look responsible in government. It would be roused only by a general election catastrophe.

It helps that expectations of Lib Dem performance are so low. Clegg’s office is happy to keep them that way. Senior aides present the debates with Farage in modest terms, as an opportunity to get a neglected pro-EU argument across, rather than some prizefight in which Europhobia might be dealt a knockout blow. At best, the Lib Dems hope to add a few points to their vote share over the coming months, dragging it into the mid-teens from single-digit ignominy and avoiding the eviction of every one of the party’s MEPs from Strasbourg.

Besides, Ukip support is about a lot more than Europe. Farage’s voters are recruited from across the political spectrum and animated by a complex of resentments, insecurities and prejudices. They nurture a feeling that politicians have conspired to turn Britain into a place that suits metropolitan elites. Clegg’s contention is that more people are happy with the current complexion of the country than Farage is letting on and that some of them are frustrated by what they see as tacit endorsement by Miliband and Cameron of the Ukip gripe.

The Lib Dems can’t realistically expect to convert that sentiment into enthusiasm for their party. They just need to borrow some votes in May to make a point. Or rather, by standing as the very opposite of Farage, they hope to bring some clarity to the enduring mystery in many voters’ minds of what might be the point of Nick Clegg.

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

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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Slowly but surely, the patriotism question is making its way into Labour

John Denham observes a strange but happy outbreak at Labour party conference.

It’s a measure of Labour’s distress that it managed to settle the leadership while resolving so few of the challenges it faces. Over the past two years, the party’s electoral base has been torn apart by identity politics. Huge numbers of Scottish Labour voters abandoned party loyalty to vote for separation and then to dump the party itself. In England, voters feared SNP support for a minority Labour government; many others turned to Ukip. In the final blow, millions of former Labour voters, particularly those who felt mostly sharply English, backed Brexit. Many of the party’s MPs wonder how many will ever be coming back.

Faced with this tsunami of political rejection, the issue was simply airbrushed out of the leadership campaigns. Over four months neither Jeremy Corbyn nor Owen Smith even acknowledged, let alone addressed, the potent power of identity. Both cleaved to the belief that the complex weave of hope, fear, powerlessness, aspiration, community and security that are bound up in our sense of ‘who we are’ could all be stilled by the promise of ‘anti-austerity’.

One of the left’s less appealing habits is believing that it understands what voters really want better than voters do themselves. (You tell me you are worried about how quickly migration is changing your community, I tell you’re really worried about spending cuts).  Jeremy Corbyn’s statement that “we are not concerned about numbers” is probably enough to lose Labour the 2020 election on its own. No comprise here with voters on the issue that has dominated public concern for 15 years. To be fair, Owen Smith never offered a radically different perspective. It was never part of the debate.

Yet reality has a fortunate habit of intruding into the debate. In early, sometimes stumbling ways, identity politics is beginning to concern people right across the party. At Liverpool, most of the think-tanks held meetings addressing national identity in England, Scotland and the Union. Most attracted healthy audiences who, by and large, did not think identity was the property of the far right. (Declaration of interest: I was a speaker at some of these). Policy Network, IPPR, LabourList and the Fabians were amongst those taking the debate forward. Much of the New Statesman’s “New Times” edition is preoccupied with the same issues. Newer organisations from different parts of the party are engaging. The Red Shift group of Liam Byrne, Shabana Mahmood and Nic Dakin called for an explicitly English Socialism. Veteran Brexiteer John Mills, is supporting a new Labour Future organisation. Both are exploring how radical national policy and national identity fit together.

More surprising was the overt insertion of patriotic themes into the speeches of Corbyn’s front bench and the leadership itself. Military service sits as easily with the socialism of Clive Lewis as it does with Dan Jarvis. Rebecca Long-Bailey told the conference  Patriotism is not just about waving a flag during the World Cup. It is a real, life-long commitment to the people around you….When you pay your taxes, you are investing in the British people..This commitment to British people should be woven into every aspect of the British economy,

This is a potentially powerful and unifying theme for Labour. National identity and patriotism may still be a minority interest, yet it attracts people from all the party’s wings.  Tristram Hunt, Lisa Nandy, Owen Jones and some of Corbyn’s key supporters are all engaged.

These are early days. National identity was hardly the dominant issue of the conference, let alone Momentum’s parallel event. Too often the tone is narrow and defensive, as though people on the left don’t have identities but we need to understand those who do. There’s a temptation to believe that Labour simply needs some St George flags to unveil on council estates and put away elsewhere. At its best, progressive patriotism can uniting disparate interests and communities. It opens up conversations with people who would reject a political label. It can be a foundation for holding the powerful to account.

In his speech, John McDonnell praised Christians on the Left for promoting the hashtag “patriots pay their taxes”; a message that was reinforced in Corbyn’s own speech: “there is nothing more unpatriotic than not paying your taxes”.  As Hillary Clinton exposed this week, patriotism can separate those who accept their obligations to a wider society, and those who think it is clever to avoid them. In English radical history, the notion of the common weal held that the measure of the powerful was how well they looked after the commons. It has a powerful resonance today and Labour needs to mine it more.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University