Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat party leader, at a public event where he is wearing safety goggles. Photo: Getty Images
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Lib Dem torment is not all good news for Labour

Ed Miliband benefits when leftwing voters desert Nick Clegg but he suffers when moderate positions on Europe and immigration are shunted to the margins.

Not long ago, a shadow cabinet minister told me this joke that was doing the rounds in the parliamentary Labour party:

Q: A Lib Dem and a Tory are standing on the edge of a cliff. Who do you push first?

A: The Tory. Business before pleasure.

The sufferings of Nick Clegg have been a source of consolation to the opposition since the formation of the coalition. At an emotional level, it is morale-boosting to see a party that for many years challenged Labour from the pious left mangled in soul-shredding alliance with the Conservatives. At a practical level, the defection to Ed Miliband’s camp of voters that preferred the old, protest-oriented Lib Dems explains most of Labour’s lead in opinion polls, when it still has one.

It was predictable that this year’s local and European elections would bring another round of butchery to the Cleggites but that didn’t diminish the gratification such a spectacle afforded to their enemies. The Lib Dems were nearly evicted from the European parliament altogether and their councillors came similarly close to banishment from inner London boroughs. Labour gained at their expense. Opposition strategists, defending the decision to target Clegg in the campaign, now claim a degree of vindication. It was, says one Miliband advisor, important “having put the Lib Dems back in their box, to keep them there.” Once it is clear that the junior coalition partner is kaput, the path is clearer to take on the bigger Tory beast in a general election battle. Pleasure before business.

And it makes sense in terms of electoral arithmetic for Labour to grind the Lib Dems down. But politics is about more than boundaries and maths. Most voters certainly don’t see it that way. Zoom out and what you observe in the crushing of Clegg’s forces is the crippling of arguments that, broadly speaking, Labour would like to see strengthened. The Lib Dems were unabashedly the party of “in” on the question of European Union membership. They have taken a liberal line on immigration, relative to Cameron’s stance. They have also pushed back (a bit) against ever deeper cuts to the welfare budget.

At this point, the Labour tribalists snort with derision. Clegg has done nothing to soften the blow of austerity, goes the opposition mantra. He is an accomplice to Cameron’s callousness, not a brake on Tory excess. The Lib Dems would like to position themselves as the moderating element in the coalition but – says Labour – no-one buys it and it certainly isn’t in Miliband’s interests to bolster Clegg’s bogus progressive credentials.

Even if it could be proved that the Lib Dems have managed to restrain the Tories in some areas (and the Conservative back benchers certainly think they have) there is the additional problem of Clegg’s personal credibility. He may be spoiling arguments merely by touching them. This is certainly the view that Labour’s more ardent pro-Europeans took when watching the deputy Prime Minister beaten by Farage in televised debates on EU membership. It is also a view that is rapidly spreading through Lib Dem ranks – the image of their leader as the Jonah of liberal politics whose best contribution to the cause might be hurling himself overboard.

But the supposed toxicity of one liberal candidate cannot account for the defeat of pro-Europeanism nor for the surge in hostility to immigration represented by Ukip’s performance last Thursday. Those trends have been building over a long period and have a complex genesis. (I looked at some of it at more length in this essay earlier in the year.) It will take just as long to rebuild the case for the politics of openness and tolerance. The process will take even longer if the Lib Dems are annihilated. Labour may not like it, but Clegg’s party is on the same side in an emerging culture war against illiberalism and xenophobia.

For most of this parliament, Miliband’s interests appear to have been served by the dereliction of what used to be called the third party and is now slipping further down the league. That is certainly true if politics is described purely in terms of who poaches votes from whom in which seats in order to scrape over the finish line. Obviously it is good for Labour to be locking down anti-Clegg defectors in marginal constituencies. It is not so helpful if the price of that arithmetical advantage is a cultural drift in British politics towards bitter nationalism, characterised by the view that toughness is the only legitimate policy on immigration and exit the only popular stance towards Europe.

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

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.