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What is the point of the Liberal Democrat campaign?

I’ll admit it. I simply don’t “get” the Liberal Democrat campaign.

I’ll admit it. I simply don’t “get” the Liberal Democrat campaign.

I understand their ground strategy; to rigorously and ruthlessly target their resources on the seats they think they can hold, mostly within those areas where they remain in control at a local and national level.

It may be at this point that they’ve simply decided that nothing they say at a national level will get a fair hearing but, for appearances’ sake if nothing else, they have to maintain the impression of a full-fledged campaign. Because as an attempt to win voters it simply doesn’t make sense.

Nick Clegg tells the Guardian:

“The looming question in the next phase of this campaign is whether there is to be a coalition of grievance, or of conscience. The last thing the British economy needs is the instability and factionalism that those coalitions of grievance of right and left represents.”

For anyone who found that impenetrable, a “coalition of grievance” equals any coalition backed up by Ukip or the SNP. A coalition of conscience is one supported by the Liberal Democrats. Now Ukip take more votes from the Liberal Democrats than you might think – around 20 to 30 per cent of Ukip voters backed that party in 2010 – and while the SNP won’t take that many votes from Clegg’s party they are on course to win ten seats from the Liberals in Scotland. But the votes that they have lost to Ukip are the votes of people who don’t want to support a governing party at all; that Ukip are shut out by the electoral system is a feature, not a bug as far as these voters are concerned. They cannot compete with Nigel Farage’s outfit on that.

The votes they have lost to the SNP, meanwhile, are voters who are either disgusted with their alliance with the Tories or who want to leave the United Kingdom. The Liberals cannot compete with the Nationalists on Tory-bashing and they don’t want to leave the United Kingdom.

And the central message – vote Liberal Democrat to avoid a coalition with the SNP or Ukip – is, if anything, a better argument for voting for one of the big two than it is to vote Liberal. If you prefer a Labour government free of SNP influence, your best bet is to vote Labour, almost regardless of where you live. If you prefer a Conservative administration shorn of Ukip, again, there’s little reason to vote Liberal Democrat.

It comes back to that question from Jeremy Browne that the Liberals still can’t seem to answer:

“Every political party and every politician has to be able to answer the question, ‘If you didn’t exist why would it be necessary to invent you?’ I’m not sure it would be necessary to invent an ill-defined moderating centrist party that believed that its primary purpose was to dilute the policies of other political parties.”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

Photo: Getty Images
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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.