The controversial campaign literature. Photo: Twitter/@guardian
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"It's sad they've sunk to such depths": Tories use Ukip candidate's Turkish name on a leaflet

The Conservatives in Thurrock have been accused of "cheap" tactics by putting Ukip candidate Tim Aker's little-used full Turkish name on a campaign leaflet.

The constituency of Thurrock is going to be a tough battle in the build up to May. It has become a three-way marginal, with Ukip polling top and Labour scrabbling to beat it to unseating the Conservative MP, Jackie Doyle-Price, who has a majority of just 92 votes.

Perhaps in this messy political tangle, dirty campaigning is only to be expected. And indeed, the Conservatives in Thurrock have been accused of "incredibly cheap" tactics, by sending round a leaflet calling the Ukip candidate in the seat, Tim Aker, by his little-used full Turkish name, "Timür Aker". This is thought to be an incendiary move, considering the sensitive immigration concerns pervading the constituency.

"We feel it pretty sad that they've sunk to such depths," a Ukip source close to Aker tells me.

The Guardian has tweeted a picture of the leaflet, which also includes pictures of the radical clerics Abu Qatada and Abu Hamza:

Tim Aker, who is also an MEP for the southeast and Ukip's Policy Unit chief, is quoted in the Guardian giving his reaction to the leaflet:

I think they are just getting desperate. They will find anything. It is incredibly cheap of them. But freedom of speech is what it is and the public will judge them on it.

I am not calling on them to stop using the leaflet. They can carry on doing what they do. I am not going to try and stifle their rights to freedom of speech. But they have got to bear the responsibility for it.

Aker, whose father is Turkish, began to shorten his name to "Tim" when he was at school. His name is very rarely written in full, which is why it is thought to be a pointed move by the Tories on their campaign literature. However, Doyle-Price told the Telegraph that she does not consider this a "big deal". Although she admitted it was "childish", she said:

Frankly, I don't consider this a big deal at all . . .

If I'm honest with you I think by referring to his Turkish heritage we've actually given him credibility because frankly having roots from overseas is nothing to be ashamed of. Actually they are something to be proud of.

What we've done is actually broadcast the fact that Tim is just as much a citizen with diverse roots as anybody else in this country. It's probably going to do him a favour.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.