The man for me. Photo:Getty Images
Show Hide image

Tuition fees were the Liberal Democrat Iraq. Only Tim Farron can turn the page

I don't want just to be right - I want to win again. That's why Tim Farron is the man for me, says Adam Bennett. 

What are the Liberal Democrats for in 2015? This is a question that probably hasn’t been discussed quite as much over the course of our party’s leadership election campaign as it perhaps should have been. We’ve had plenty of defiance and pride concerning our record in government (and rightly so), but that key existential question that any defeated political party must confront still hangs over us. Why did we all sign up to this party in the first place? What is it about the Liberal Democrats that makes our survival so essential to the good of British politics? As a relatively young political party, we know perhaps better than most that we do not have a god-given right to exist, and frankly the next five years are shaping up to be exactly that: a fight for our political existence.

Apologies if that all sounds rather downbeat to any liberals reading this. For what it’s worth, I have every faith that no matter who is elected out of Tim Farron or Norman Lamb our party will continue fighting for the liberal values that have defined us for years. However, the uncomfortable question that we cannot afford to leave unanswered is this: “How can we make people believe in us again?” If we do not answer this question, our message will not be heard.

So, how do we stand out in an increasingly crowded political marketplace? The one thing we cannot do now is be seen to simply go through the motions as a party, appearing on Andrew Marr or Question Time to deflect questions, which we were perhaps guilty of during the Coalition years. Ultimately, we cannot be seen to be a standard, ‘professional’ political party. We can no longer be part of the ‘Westminster Elite’ that Ukip, the SNP and the Greens have vilified to such an effective extent. This is because our credibility as a political party has been totally destroyed thanks to tuition fees. It doesn’t matter what we say, it can always be shut down by our opponents with a glib comment along the lines of “well we all know how far we can trust a Lib Dem, eh students?”

For what it’s worth, I think this situation is disastrously unfair. Not only is the current fees system better than the one we inherited, it’s also far fairer than what we would have got had we not entered Coalition. Thanks to the Lib Dems, fees are paid back at a more reasonable rate, only after you earn £21,000 and there are no up-front fees. But nobody wants to hear that, because the tuition fees story isn’t about tuition fees at all. It’s about trust, and we need to elect a leader who recognises that.

Our reluctance to face up to the tuition-fee-shaped elephant in the room during the last election was summed up for me by a chance conversation I had with Nick Clegg. As a student at the time, I had been talking to a lot of people who said they had no idea the Lib Dems made the changes I mentioned in the previous paragraph, and that having learned this they felt much more positive about the party and would consider voting for them (I even managed to persuade two of them to volunteer). When I saw Nick Clegg, I thought I would never forgive myself if I didn’t share my winning formula with him. Upon hearing my advice, he listened politely but said twelve words that I still remember to this day: “thanks, but I don’t want to make this election about tuition fees”. 

Now, Nick Clegg may not have wanted to make the Lib Dem campaign about tuition fees, but it WAS about tuition fees. In fact, it was all anyone I spoke to seemed to want to talk about. As preposterous as this sounds, it really was our Iraq. It was the moment at which we were seen to sell our political souls to the devil. It was so frustrating to me that this obstacle could be overcome but our leadership seemed to think that there was no obstacle worth overcoming. 

Turning now to our leadership election, I see one candidate who unfortunately perhaps had no choice but to vote in favour of tuition fees in order to keep his ministerial position, from which he did much good. However, I see another who was brave enough to defy the party whip to vote against tuition fees, and the bedroom tax to boot. Tim Farron’s record is one of firm liberal principles, and rightly or wrongly that is what we need in order to rebuild the public’s trust. Norman Lamb’s work in government, particularly on mental health, cannot be understated and as a former employee, party member and volunteer I am hugely proud of his record. But people like Norman will never be able to affect that kind of change again if we don’t win enough seats.

I don’t want to just be right, I want to be right and win. 

So what are the Liberal Democrats for in 2015? Well for me it’s simple. We are the party of progressive change. We are the party who would change the voting system to make it fairer. We are the party who would never allow £12bn to be cut from those who cannot afford to pay it when such a sum could easily be recouped from tax avoidance. We are the party who would rebalance our economy to make it greener and less exploitative. We are the party who would bring power back to the people through further devolution. We are the party who would commit to building the houses we so desperately need.

That is a message worth shouting about. We have no choice but to elect a leader who has the political credibility to shout it. 

Adam Bennett worked as correspondence assistant to Nick Clegg and worked for the Liberal Democrats until the election. 

Getty
Show Hide image

Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.