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Labour's little wins are not adding up to victory

There are heaps of voters who blame the governing parties for their problems. Not enough of them are looking to Ed Miliband for solutions.

Labour are making gains, which doesn't mean they are winning. Ed Miliband’s party has nearly 300 more council seats than it had on Thursday morning. So progress. But no-one I have spoken to seriously claims these results put the opposition on a safe trajectory towards a general election triumph.

The reason lots of people voted Ukip will be analysed enough over the next few days – and will no doubt give Labour people ample cause to demand the things they were demanding anyway from the leadership, chiefly "boldness", "clarity" and "radicalism". (I have yet to meet an MP who wishes the leader would be more timid, opaque and incremental.)

In terms of Labour’s vote share, with less than a year before a general election, what matters is that not enough people who hate the main incumbent governing party express that feeling as endorsement of the main opposition party. Plenty think the Tories are a problem; too few think Ed Miliband’s Labour party is the solution.

Labour’s beacon of strength is London, where Ukip were less competitive and where there was plenty of low-hanging Lib Dem fruit to be plucked. There are a couple of other explanations around as to why the capital turned red. It is liberal-left and cosmopolitan by inclination, which is the blend of Labour brew that Miliband serves with ease. Also, crucially, the London Labour party has lots of members – it is a healthy part of the organisation and was well-organised.

Where there are more boots on the ground, more doors are knocked on and more support mobilised. Labour’s Get Out the Vote (GOTV) operation is generally reputed to be in good shape and the capital benefited disproportionately. (Manchester too, by some accounts). But that is less encouraging for Miliband than it might be. It suggests gains made in spite of his performances rather than because of them. Some GOTV is mining core support and mobiliing Clegg-hating refugees who have been on board since 2010. Some is communty activism that indicates a bona fide renaissance of grassroots Labour. In neither case does it reflect a broad shift in the national mood towards a change of government, nor is it a sign that Britain's huge standing army of sceptical and disengaged voters is getting the Miliband message.

A fierce argument is already under way behind the scenes about the focus and organisation of the campaign, much of which is displacement activity to avoid confronting the problem of Miliband’s failure as an evangelist. It is true, as some MPs have grumbled, that Labour’s upper echelons were relaxed for too long about Farage because he was doing such sterling work undermining David Cameron and nibbling away at the Tory vote in key marginals. Yet it is also true, as senior figures in the campaign point out, that Labour would hardly have transformed its position in the past fortnight with an abrupt lurch into foam-flecked and transparently panic-induced cynical anti-immigration rhetoric.

The reason the opposition is febrile is not a fear that it is campaigning with the wrong script. There is plenty of policy and, underpinning that, a plausible analysis of the salient issues in the lives of target voters. There really is a cost if living crisis, so it makes sense for the opposition to talk about it. MPs have various reservations about the emphasis and preferences about what needs to be said more and louder. That is inevitable in any campaign. But those reservations are exaggerated because it is easier to complain about the message than it is to confront the issue of an unconvincing messenger.

Miliband’s lack of campaign mojo was a source great comfort to the Tories in the past week. It was remarkable to see how senior Conservatives sustained a buoyant mood while marching towards a poll where they entirely expected to be butchered. The reason is twofold. First, they know that incumbents can be punished in local and European elections and still win general elections within a year. Second, they are starting to see how the whole Farage phenomenon can work to their advantage – or, rather, how it might be contained.

The key is drawing a sense of equivalence between Ukip as the crazy insurgent opposition and Labour as the flaky old spendthrift opposition, with Cameron as the only grown-up in the middle.

We saw the outline of this argument made by the Chancellor in a speech at the CBI last week. To his right, he depicted the forces of rabid anti-European Farageism, determined to pull up the drawbridge against modern civilsation. To his left, he conjured the spectre of Socialist Milibandism, itching to snuff out Britain’s enterprising spirit under a heap of taxes, price controls and clunky regulations. This configuration will be expanded into a wider general election campaign: Ukip and Labour will be presented as peddlers of different brands of snake oil, while Cameron is the only qualified physician in the house with – it will be claimed – a proven record of healing a crisis-stricken economy.

It has potential as a bid for re-election (although Labour strategists naturally insist it will unravel on contact with the reality of how meagre the rewards from a dodgy millionaire-friendly recovery will be for most people). The big problem for the Tories remains matching a theoretical appeal to the many voters who don’t trust Labour to run the economy onto actual constituencies where the arithmetic stacks up in Cameron’s favour.

In that respect, the latest batch of local election results doesn’t offer much inspiration. Not only are Ukip taking votes from the Tories, they are picking up votes of non-Tories and Labour defectors that the Tories need to recruit. Conservatives have sounded firm on immigration and eager for a European referendum, yet people who are receptive to exactly that message in principle, don’t want to hear it from Cameron. Tory MPs privately admit that on the doorstep no-one believes it. The dilemma remains much as it has been for the duration of this parliament. Cameron badly needs the votes of people who respond to Ukip’s agenda but the more his party sounds like Ukip, the less credible becomes its claim to be the sensible force of centre-hugging sound economic stewardship.

In the last week of the campaign, moderate Tories were glad to see Farage put on the spot about his distaste for living in proximity to foreigners in general and Romanians in particular. Much of the research effort feeding media reports of extremist views and far-right flirtations in Ukip’s ranks has come from CCHQ. Downing Street wants Farage to be contaminated with the whiff of disreputable xenophobia, if not outright racism, but also wants it to be someone other than senior Tories saying it.

This is why it is madness for Conservative back benchers to start once again raising the prospect of a pact with Ukip and why cabinet ministers have thoroughly rejected the notion. The No10 strategy is to make Ukip look like a fringe phenomenon – a pressure valve that releases public anger and frustration in local and European polls but is unsuited to the business of serious government. (Judging by recent precedent, it is a safe assumption that somewhere in Farage’s new haul of councillors will be people with appalling comments and sinister pamphlets lurking in their back catalogues and social media profiles.)

Of course, this is all before we know the results of the European elections. Labour nerves will be calmed if Ukip do not top that poll; and rightwing Tory tempers will be all the more stoked if coming third brings no consoling humiliation for Miliband.

But, from what we have seen so far, the local poll appears to confirm what Labour strategists have been saying for years: the four-party arithmetic and the unresolved problems with the Conservative brand make it hard to see where Cameron finds enough seats to form a majority. And Labour’s pedestrian advance outside the capital appears to confirm the Downing Street  analysis, which is that the country is not turning with any enthusiasm to Ed Miliband – and the opposition look low on ammunition. Cameron may not be making obvious gains; that doesn't mean he isn't winning.

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

Anoosh Chakelian
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“We need an anti-Conservative force”: Nick Clegg wants to work with Labour after the election

On the campaign trail in Sheffield Hallam, the former Deputy Prime Minister talks about how to challenge Brexit and the “Boudicca” Theresa May.

It’s pouring with rain and Nick Clegg has forgotten his coat. “It was so nice this morning,” he groans, looking doubtfully down at his outfit – a navy v-neck, pale shirt, rumpled blue blazer and dark trousers with some dried dirt splattered on the ankles. Yesterday evening, he and his team of activists had decamped to a pub after the rain became too heavy for doorknocking.

We are taking shelter in the Lib Dem campaign office in Sheffield (this interview took place before the Manchester attack). Teetering towers of envelopes and flyers, rubber bands and canvass papers enclose a handful of volunteers sipping tea and eating mini flapjacks. Giant diamond-shaped orange placards – “Liberal Democrats Winning Here” – are stacked against every spare bit of wall.

Clegg has represented Sheffield Hallam, a largely affluent and residential constituency on the west edge of the south Yorkshire city, for 12 years. It has stayed with him throughout his “Cleggmania” popularity as Lib Dem leader in opposition and his difficult days as Deputy Prime Minister in coalition with the Tories. Now he hopes to win it over as a vocal anti-Brexit champion.

After a relentless campaign by the local Labour party in a bid to “decapitate” the Lib Dems in 2015, Clegg’s majority fell from 15,284 to 2,353. He is hoping Labour is unable to further chip away at his support this time round.

“I’m confident but I’m not complacent,” he tells me, nursing a cup of tea as we wait to go canvassing. He believes voters who punished him last time – for going into government with the Conservatives, and breaking his tuition fees pledge – are changing heart.

“I was a target with a great big cross on me,” he says, tracing across himself with his finger. “I personally always think it was this odd cartoon caricature both made of me but also of how people view me... People stop listening to what you have to say – I distinctly was aware at one point when I literally could’ve said ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ and it would’ve made no difference. Whereas now, people are very keen to listen again.

“Those who were critical in the past now take a more nuanced view, perhaps, than they did of what I’ve tried to do in politics, and feel I have a role to play in the big debate on Brexit.”

“I was a target with a great big cross on me”

Even when he’s not raging against Brexit, Clegg exudes Proud European. He uses a Norwegian weather app – “they’ve invented something better than the BBC one!” – on his phone (which appears to have failed him today), and keeps stifling yawns because he was up until 2am reading a Hungarian novel called Portraits of a Marriage. “I really recommend it. It’s by Sándor Márai,” he tells me, eagerly spelling out his name. “Of course, I’m reading it in translation.”

Although Sheffield Hallam voted Remain as a constituency (calculated at about 65 per cent), Clegg is still having trouble with his anti-Brexit message among voters. “It’s a very British attitude,” he smiles. “Lots of people who voted Remain sort of say, ‘oh, come on’. The phrase I keep hearing is: ‘We’d better make the best of it.’”

We encounter this attitude when out doorknocking in Lodge Moor, Fullwood, on the rural edge of the constituency. The streets we visit are inhabited by elderly couples and families in detached bungalows with low, steep rooves and immaculate driveways, and rows of whitewashed semi-detached houses.

One father opens the door, as his young son drags an overzealous yellow labrador away from the threshold. He is an occupational therapist and his wife is a teacher. They also have a child with special needs. Although “Brexit’s a bit of a stress”, he says his family’s priorities are education and the NHS. “I haven’t made my mind up who to vote for,” he tells Clegg. “I do know that I won’t be voting Conservative, but I want to vote for an independent.”

“I’m very keen on staying in Europe but I can’t see a way around it,” says a retired man with fine white hair in a scarlet jumper who lives on the road opposite. Clegg counters: “It may all be too late, it may all be hopeless, but I wouldn’t underestimate how public opinion may shift.” The man will vote Lib Dem, but sees battling Brexit as futile.

“Labour’s days as a party of national government have ended”

“The frustrating thing for us, as Lib Dems” – Clegg tells me – “is I would lay a fairly big wager that it will be precisely those people who will then say in a year or two’s time that this Brexit’s an absolute nonsense,” though he does admit it’s “politically tough” for his party to make Brexit central to its campaign.

“It would be much better if you were leader,” the retired man’s wife chips in, pulling on a blue cardigan as she joins them at the doorway. “Tim [Farron] – he’s a nice man, but he’s not quite the same.”

Clegg as an individual gets a lot of love at almost every doorstep. “You should come to Knit and Natter,” beams one woman involved in the local church. “You don’t have to knit – as long as you can natter!”

When I ask whether he feels nostalgic for Cleggmania, Clegg says he does not “hanker after past glories”. He does, however, miss being in government – and compares Theresa May’s current persona with the woman he knew and worked with in cabinet.

“She has been converted from what I found to be a rather conventional, not wildly exceptional politician by the sort of hysterical sycophancy of the Daily Mail and others into this colossal political figure, this sort of Boudicca,” he splutters. “I’m sure she would say this about herself – she has very little peripheral vision. She’s not an innovative politician. She’s not a big picture politician.”

Although Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has ruled out coalition deals with May’s Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, Clegg urges his party to work with Labour following the election. “The Labour party is still operating under this illusion that it can win an election – it can’t!” he cries. “It’s irrelevant who’s leader. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Jeremy Corbyn or David Miliband – there is no way that the Labour party can beat the Conservatives under this electoral system . . . It’s impossible.”

“I am self-evidently a pluralist – why else would I go into coalition?”

He believes that because the “pendulum of politics” is stuck on the right that “we can’t continue with business-as-usual after 8 June”.

“If we all just carry on talking to ourselves in our own rabbit hutches, all that will happen is we will carry on with this dreary, soulless, almost perpetual one-party domination by the Conservatives,” he warns. “The dam needs to break within the Labour party, and the moment they understand that they can never win again – that their days as a party of national government have ended – can you start thinking about how to mount a proper challenge to Conservative hegemony.”

Clegg clearly wants an active role in future cooperation. “I am self-evidently a pluralist – why else would I go into coalition?” he asks. “I’ll always be happy to play my part in doing what I think is right, which is that we need a proper anti-Conservative force or forces in British politics.”

Labour’s campaign in Sheffield Hallam is not spooking local Lib Dems as much as in 2015, when it was polling ahead of them in the build-up to the election. Concerns about Corbyn’s leadership and Labour’s vote in favour of Article 50 appear to have dented its once surging support here.

“I’m voting Lib Dem,” declares a middle-aged man in big aviator-framed glasses and a silver chain, opening the door and looking distinctly unimpressed. “But not because it’s you.”

“Ah,” grins Clegg.

“I’m voting Lib Dem because I don’t want Labour in. I don’t want anybody in at the moment; I don’t like anybody’s politics,” he rumbles. “But it made me cringe when I heard Corbyn speak. Because he’s got the giant-sized ripe-flavoured carrots out, and people don’t realise they’ve got to pay for them.”

Clegg will be relying on such voters to keep his seat. But even if he doesn’t win, don’t expect him to disappear from political life until the Brexit negotiations have well and truly concluded. “It would be a dereliction of duty to the country to fall in line with the conspiracy of silence on the terms of Brexit both Labour and the Conservatives are trying to smother this election campaign with,” he says. “It’s the question of the day.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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