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Leader: The question for the Lib Dems is if not Clegg, then who?

With Clegg fatally damaged, the party should look to Vince Cable to limit the damage,

As the Liberal Democrats gather for their third annual conference since entering government, the question they will ask is: “was it worth it?” Support for the party has more than halved from 23 per cent to 8 per cent, a figure that, if repeated at the election, would leave it with just 15 of its 57 MPs. Over the same period, party membership has declined by a quarter and the number of Liberal Democrat councillors has fallen below 3,000, the lowest level for two decades. Alarmed by these figures, half of party members now believe Nick Clegg should be replaced as leader before the next general election, according to a poll by the website Liberal Democrat Voice. Vince Cable, the Business Secretary who will be 70 in May, remains the most plausible alternative leader. He has made it clear that he is available should a vacancy arise.

In his essay on page 26, Richard Reeves, who served as the Lib Dem leader’s director of strategy from 2010 until April of this year, rightly identifies the debate over Mr Clegg’s future as a proxy for a deeper one: “Liberal or not Liberal?” If the party is to be liberal, he writes, “it has to be Clegg. If not, it should be almost anyone but.” He argues that the Lib Dems should jettison their social democratic heritage and reposition themselves as a party of the radical centre, truly liberal, more socially progressive than the Conservatives and more fiscally responsible than Labour.

All political parties are coalitions but this is truer of the Lib Dems than most. Classical liberals such as education minister David Laws, who favour a drastically reduced state (he has called for public spending to be cut to 35 per cent of GDP), sit alongside social democrats such as deputy leader Simon Hughes and party president Tim Farron, who favour an expansive welfare state and Scandinavian levels of public spending. In Mr Reeves’s view, the party’s ideological dilemma must be firmly resolved in favour of the liberals. He derides those who “yearn to pull the party back to the left” and argues that the Lib Dems should abandon any attempt to win over the millions of voters who have deserted them since the election. “The left-wing voters ‘borrowed’ from Labour in 2010 will not be available in 2015,” he declares. “New ones must be found.”

There is something admirable about Mr Reeves’s intellectual ambition, but his political strategy, explicitly adopted by Mr Clegg, is dubious. Psephologically speaking, he may be right to contend that many of the party’s former left-leaning supporters will not return but, almost three years away from the election, it is reckless to abandon them to Labour.

Should such fatalism prove appropriate, however, it is worth restating that the party’s collapse in support was not inevitable. The decision to enter coalition with the Conservatives and the return of Labour to opposition was always likely to squeeze the Lib Dem vote but, through a series of political blunders, Mr Clegg intensified the damage. He needlessly alienated many of the party’s natural supporters by presenting the coalition as an ideological marriage with the Conservatives, rather than as a temporary pact. As a result, his sporadic attempts at differentiation, most recently in the form of a proposed wealth tax, have been unconvincing. This original error was compounded by his decision to sign up to a deficit reduction programme that lacked a complementary plan for growth and his inept handling of the tuition fees row. He went on to approve Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms, for which the government had no mandate, without, according to Shirley Williams, taking the time to read the bill, and agreed to the abolition of the 50p income tax rate without securing a “mansion tax” in return, thus making the Lib Dems complicit in a giveaway to the richest. Along the way, Britain has been isolated in Europe, the Alternative Vote referendum has been lost, and House of Lords reform has been abandoned. Faced with this record, an increase in the income tax threshold is scant consolation.

Mr Clegg is now fatally damaged and it is in the Lib Dems’ best interests to replace him as leader before the next general election. It is to Mr Cable, who stands in the social liberal tradition exemplified by Hobhouse, Beveridge and Keynes, that the party should look to restore support. Were he made leader, according to one poll, the party would claw back four points, entirely from Labour, and retain 39 of its 57 MPs. There is room in British politics for a party that combines social democratic economics with a stronger commitment to constitutional reform and civil liberties than Labour. If the Lib Dems recognise as much, they could yet avert the disastrous general election result that otherwise awaits them.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Lib Dem special

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

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

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide