It's over for Nick Clegg and his Orange Bookers. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.