Nick Clegg and his wife, Miriam Gonzales Durantez, on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty Images
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What happened to the Lib Dems - and will they be back?

The Liberal Democrats went down to an epochal defeat - and they might never recover. 

“If we lose Cheltenham, we’re in real trouble,” Liberal Democrat strategists told each other before the election. So when the early polling returns in Cheltenham suggested that Martin Horwood had been trounced, the Lib Dems faced the worst election result in their history: 57 seats won in 2010 became just eight in 2015. “The little party always gets smashed!” Angela Merkel told David Cameron in 2010. She was right.

The Lib Dems had long known that the election would be brutal – just not this brutal. Within a few months of the coalition being formed, the party had quietly written off several seats. Yet until the exit poll came out at 10pm on election night, senior Lib Dems, backed up by internal polling, were convinced that the party would retain upwards of 20 seats. Constituency polling by Lord Ashcroft suggested the same.

National polls were similarly deceptive. Had the polls reflected what was actually happening, the electorate might have been more receptive to warnings about the dangers of a majority Tory government. “If the polls they had shown the Conservatives ahead all the way through the campaign, the message we were pushing would have had much more traction,” asserts Paddy Ashdown, Chair of the Lib Dems’ General Election Committee.

Flawed opinion polls also allowed the Conservatives to stoke fears of the SNP allying with an unpopular Ed Miliband. The line particularly resonated in the 27 Lib Dem sears that went blue, including 14 between Cheltenham and St Ives, causing those who voted Lib Dem in 2010 to switch to the Tories.

“It was happening on the doorstep in every one of these seats across the country,” an insider says. Panicky conference calls were held between Lib Dem HQ and MPs and campaign teams across the Southwest. While the Conservatives had a simple solution – get a Tory majority to stop Labour and the SNP – the Lib Dem message was never going to be as powerful, despite their insistence they would avoid any deal with the SNP. A senior source believes that the fear of the SNP alone cost the Lib Dems a dozen seats.

National fears trumped the usual Lib Dem strength of assiduous local MPs. In strongholds like the Southwest, the Lib Dem campaign was as energetic as ever. It wasn’t enough. “Incumbency wasn't the magic wand that we all thought it would be,” Stephen Williams, ousted as MP for Bristol West, reflects. He believes that the use of social media and direct marketing in the campaign renders old-fashioned door-knocking comparatively less important. Ashdown also suggests that Tory challengers were helped by “the extraordinary financial imbalance in modern politics - they had £50 million to throw at their election campaign, I had less than £3 million.” Those organising the Lib Dem campaign on the ground report being outspent by the Conservatives like never before. They also had no money left to conduct polls during the campaign; by May 7, the Lib Dems were allocating their limited resources based on internal polls that were almost two months old.

For all the furore over the SNP, many – perhaps even most - 2010 Lib Dem voters had long been lost. Those who backed the Lib Dems as a left-wing alternative to Labour were aghast at the very formation of a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. The initial ‘coaliscious’ phase, designed to alleviate concerns that coalition was inherently unstable, went rather too far, creating the impression that the Lib Dems had chosen to align with the Tories out of affection.

In the second half of the Parliament, partly at the behest of Clegg’s South African election strategist Ryan Coetzee, the Rose Garden marriage gave way to ostentatious ‘differentiation’: the act of publicly picking fights with the Conservatives, epitomised by Nick Clegg’s conference speech in 2013, in which he bragged about 16 Tory policies that the Lib Dems had blocked. This risked overcompensating for the warmth of the coalition’s early existence and letting the Conservatives claim all the credit for the successes of the government, as Jeremy Browne repeatedly warned. “No crystal ball was necessary, but I was speaking to myself,” he reflects.

In a sense the Lib Dem approach was the worst of both worlds. “If you spend the first half of Parliament alienating the centre-left and the second half suggesting to centre-right people that you don't really like the Conservatives very much you run the risk of alienating everybody,” believes a senior insider.

After the grand promise to transform British politics in 2010, the Lib Dems fought a deeply defensive campaign, vowing to give Labour a head and the Conservatives a heart. It seemed centrism based mostly on belief in ‘splitting-the-difference’ for its own sake: “entirely negative” and “the most ‘small c’ conservative party”, as Browne had said earlier this year. “We were not clear about what we were for,” a senior source laments, seeing 341 lost deposits – compared with none in 2010 – as evidence of a party the public thought “had nothing to say.” A campaign insider in the Southwest bemoans: “People just didn't believe we’d stopped things or delivered things.”

Yet alternative strategies might not have been any better. In the European elections a year ago, the Lib Dems fought an unabashedly positive campaign as the party of in – and did even worse. And while aligning more strongly with the Conservatives might have helped some Lib Dems in the Southwest cling on, this tactic would have risked being seen as a mere addendum to the Tories. “It would be saying that this party is now becoming centre-right,” an insider says. “It would compromise the purpose of the party: to be a liberal party.”

Among the party’s two leadership contenders, there is conflict about where the party should go next. Norman Lamb represents a continuation of the equidistance strategy, while Tim Farron, the strong favourite, is obviously far more aligned with the centre-left.

For all the disagreement over where the party goes next – and universal condemnation of how the tuition fees increase was handled five years ago – the tone of Lib Dem debate is notable for the lack of acrimony. “In the end no matter what we did it just wasn’t going to make a difference,” Williams reflects. There is a running Lib Dem joke that only a coupon election, as in 1918, would have saved the party.

But for a party that ended just 25,000 votes short of a wipeout, Lib Dems are oddly defiant. One insider describes the scale of the party’s losses as “cathartic” for MPs and the public alike; “Our stock price is so low that it offers a buying opportunity,” Vince Cable quipped in the New Statesman. Over 13,500 members – including a high proportion of the professional middle-classes who once embraced the SDP - have joined since May 7, providing an antidote to the gloom. “This is our SNP moment,” proclaims Paddy Ashdown. “People suddenly understand what we stand for - more by our defeat than when we were fighting the election.” If the Conservatives lurch to the right, it will provide the best advert for the Lib Dems’ worth. “It’s very hard to prove a negative,” an insider reflects. “Well, we can prove it now.” Conservative governments on the retreat – as in 1970-74 and 1992-97 – have provided the best conditions for the party to grow in the past.

Even so, senior Lib Dems already accept that winning 15-20 seats would be a good result at the next election. What an insider calls the party’s existential question – “How do we get into power without compromising ourselves electorally?” – may not need answering for a long time yet. As a senior figure puts it: “We should be encouraged by the fightbacks of the past but nothing is inevitable. We might fail.” 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.