David Cameron and Nick Clegg address a press conference at 10 Downing Street on July 10, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

How the Lib Dems' attacks on the Tories help Labour

The two-against-one dynamic harms the Tories while exposing Clegg's party to the charge of hypocrisy. 

In the early months of the coalition, Labour figures frequently lamented the two-against-one dynamic that allowed the Tories and the Lib Dems to pin the blame for the financial crisis on them. The argument that it was overspending by the last government that "got us into this mess" gained credibility by being made by both parties. 

In recent days, it has felt as if this dynamic has been reversed. Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander have sounded like opposition politicians as they have accused the Tories of planning to "inflict unnecessary pain" on the country (Alexander) and of "kidding" voters over the feasibility of their deficit reduction plan (Clegg). After the Autumn Statement, and just five months away from the election, the Lib Dems are seeking to differentiate themselves from the Conservatives in two respects: their willingness to impose tax rises on the wealthy to eliminate the remainder of the deficit, rather than cuts alone, and their preparedness to borrow for investment. Both of these stances are shared by Labour, which has also pledged to introduce a mansion tax on properties above £2m and has left room for deficit-funded capital spending. 

Although there are differences with Ed Miliband's party too - the Lib Dems would follow the Tories in eliminating the structural current deficit by 2017-18, rather than by "the end of the next parliament" - Clegg is focusing on distinguishing his party from the Conservatives. There is a specific psephological reason for this. Of the Lib Dems' 56 seats, the Conservatives are in second place in 37. To hold on to these constituencies, the party needs to focus on winning tactical votes from left-leaning Labour and Green supporters (as it has done in the past). By talking up the dangers of a future Tory government, it hopes to persuade progressive voters that the safest option is to vote Lib Dem.

There are two important ways in which this helps Labour. The first is that the party's positions gain greater credibility by being supported by the Lib Dems. It is harder for the Tories to dismiss Labour's economic stances as nonsense when they are endorsed by the people they have been in government with for more than four years. When the Conservatives refuse to introduce any further tax rises on the wealthy and reject calls to borrow to invest in housing, they look like the odd ones out. Moderate Tory MPs have long complained that the Lib Dems have "retoxified" their brand by taking credit for the "nice" things the government has done and blaming them for the "nasty" things. 

The second is that the Lib Dems' attacks on their coalition partners expose them to the charge of hypocrisy and inconsistency (one swiftly made by George Osborne yesterday). When Clegg's party complains about the "unncessary pain" planned by the Conservatives, Labour will remind voters that they supported the bedroom tax, the tripling of tuition fees and the top-down reorganisation of the NHS. If the Tories are as nasty as the Lib Dems suggest, why vote for the people who have sat in cabinet with them since 2010?

It is this argument that troubles Lib Dems such as Jeremy Browne, who argue that Clegg has made a dangerous error by distancing the Lib Dems from the government (for instance through his absence at last week's Autumn Statement). Rather than attacking the Tories, they argue that the party should devote more time to claiming credit for the coalition's achievements. Browne told the Huffington Post that the "biggest danger for the Lib Dems is having one foot in government, and one foot out" and warned against moving from "being a party of protest to a party of protest-in-government." It is notable that, far from recovering in the polls, the Lib Dems have lost further support since embarking on "aggressive differentiation" from the Tories. Based on the results so far, Labour should hope that it long continues. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.