Nick Clegg speaks during the launch of the Lib Dems' European election campaign at Colchester United's Weston Homes Community Stadium. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Labour's election broadcast shows it fears a Lib Dem revival

The party is determined to deny Clegg the chance to make a fresh appeal.

After yesterday's volley of attacks on the Lib Dems, Labour has continued the theme with its new party election broadcast, which depicts Nick Clegg as the "un-credible shrinking man". In the black and white film, the Lib Dem leader is shown diminishing in size as his Tory superiors overrule him and triple tuition fees, raise VAT  introduce the bedroom tax and cut taxes for millionaires.

Opinion on the broadcast's artistic merits is divided (it's not the best PEB I've seen, but far from the worst), but what about the politics? My former NS colleague Mehdi Hasan asks why Labour is bothering to attack a party that currently sits in fifth place in the European election polls. But a year away from the general election, the film is a signal that Labour recognises the importance of retaining the support of the electorally crucial group of Lib Dem defectors.

With around 25 per cent of 2010 Lib Dems currently supporting the opposition, it can't risk going soft on Clegg and handing them "permission" to return (as some already have). In addition to those seats that Labour can hope to win directly from the Lib Dems, strategists point out that in 86 of the party's 87 Tory targets, the Lib Dem vote share in 2010 was larger than the Conservative majority. In 37, it is more than twice as large. Even if Clegg's party partially recovers before 2015, Labour stands to make sweeping gains.

The Lib Dems' decision not to replace Clegg with a more left-wing figure such as Vince Cable or Tim Farron has limited the potential for the party to make a fresh appeal to the electorate. But with both coalition parties increasingly obsessed with differentation, Labour clearly recognises the potential for the Lib Dems to recover ground as May 2015 approaches. With two polls today putting them just a point ahead, they can't afford to allow Clegg the opportunity to do so.

A third of 2010 Lib Dems are undecided, with one in five considering UKIP. Which side they come down on will be crucial to determining whether Labour wins.

In his conference speech last year, Clegg memorably listed 16 "heartless" Conservative policies he had blocked. Labour's mission is to remind voters of those he has enabled (one party source ridiculed his claim to be "equidistant"). When you study the numbers, it's not hard to work out why.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.