It's over for Nick Clegg and his Orange Bookers. Photo: Getty
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The Lib Dems have a future, but Clegg’s neo-liberals are finished

In rediscovering the value of wielding influence rather than power, the Lib Dems should reconnect with their social democratic heritage.

Where did it all go wrong for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats? Therein lies a tale. Was it their vote to treble tuition fees, when they shredded their pre-election pledge to scrap them? How about their failure to deliver change to the election system with the humiliating two-to-one loss of the 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote? Or was it the very moment they entered into coalition with the Conservatives?

How about going a bit further back, all the way to July 2004 and publication of a harmless-sounding collection of essays from party luminaries? Yet The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism in fact marked a sea change in the direction of the party, one that now curses Nick Clegg and his acolytes.

The tenth anniversary earlier this month was a low-key affair. However, at the time, the book provided the intellectual ammunition to return the Lib Dems to their historical roots as a Gladstonian liberal party. In so doing, Clegg and his ultras junked the party’s social democratic heritage and embraced neo-liberalism, becoming much more antagonistic to Labour in the process. It is no exaggeration to say that the Orange Book paved the way for the coalition deal with the Tories. (Tellingly, eight of the ten chapter authors have served as ministers in the coalition).

Unfortunately (for Clegg at least), there is simply no space in British politics for a narrow neo-liberal party. Of course there are plenty of neo-liberals floating around in British politics, but the key difference between them and the Orange Bookers is that the Blairites and Cameroons never managed to subdue the other traditions within their parties in the same way the Orange Bookers have done to the Lib Dems. A well-organised cabal in a small party is evidently more successful than in a large one.

Their legacy – and central mistake – has been to wrench their party out of its familiar orbit as the nice and slightly wacky home for mavericks, eccentrics, single-issue purists, political spleen-venters and those voting tactically against one of the other two big parties. Yes, Clegg and the Orange Bookers made the party harder-edged, but they lost some of the ambiguity that made the Lib Dems such an effective sponge for soaking-up disparate groups of voters.

For the party’s poor bloody infantry, the Orange Book has been a false prospectus ever since it was published. Indeed, it is conveniently forgotten by his political assassins that it was Charles Kennedy, and not Clegg, who took the Lib Dems to their highest ever representation in the House of Commons, winning 62 seats in 2005.

With that incorrigible old social democrat out of the picture, Clegg actually went on to win five fewer seats in 2010. But those were heady days compared to what faces the party now they have to defend their neo-liberal record at the polls.

Last month’s European elections saw them dumped in fourth place, losing nine of their 11 MEPs in the process (in some regions, the Lib Dems actually fell to fifth place behind the Greens). In the north of England, where they once boasted of challenging Labour, they are in terminal decline. Just a handful of years ago they ran big cities like Liverpool and Sheffield. Now they have lost every single one of their councillors in Manchester and the second group leader in a row lost his council seat in Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam seat.

Further pain beckons. A recent poll of four Lib Dem/Labour marginal seats by Lord Ashcroft shows their share of the vote has halved from 38 to 19 per cent since 2010. In Lib Dem/Tory marginals, the story is the same, dropping 15 points to 28 per cent. Wipeout is a realistic prospect.

The promise of a new style of politics during that Downing Street Rose Garden love-in back in 2010 has been reduced to David Cameron reportedly making a contemptuous remark about “green crap” while helping scupper the Alternative Vote referendum and offering nothing else on constitutional reform. Clegg is left raking through the embers for proof that this experience has been worth the effort and the sacrifice. No wonder he doesn’t want his kids to go into politics.

To those critics in his party bold enough to stand up to him, it simply hasn’t been worth it. Matthew Oakeshott, a social democratic thorn in Clegg’s flesh for the past four years, quit the party last month, warning of impending apocalypse after his (admittedly cack-handed) attempts to engineer a coup against his leader.

The short term is beyond rescue. Clegg’s power-hungry neo-liberals are finished. Instead, ambitious Lib Dems need to look to the medium term and the election after next. A possible future lies in settling for being a party of ideas and values, seeking to influence the political debate. They should forget aspirations of governing again. The collateral damage inflicted on a junior coalition partner in the bear pit of British politics means it isn’t worth it.

In rediscovering the value of wielding influence rather than power, the Lib Dems should reconnect with their social democratic heritage. The first thing Tim Farron should do when he becomes party leader in the autumn of 2015, is pick up the phone to Lord Oakeshott.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.