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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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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