Morning Call: pick of the papers

The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

1. When prisoners mean profit, the numbers don't go down (Guardian)

Cracking down on Sky TV for inmates is easy, writes Zoe Williams. Solving the paradox of a privatised prison service is going to be a lot harder.

2. Voters should learn the lesson of history and back a Tory (Daily Telegraph)

Stealing votes from the Tories guarantees the election of a pro-European Labour Party in thrall to the unions, says Peter Oborne.

3. Bangladesh's tragedies must stop (Financial Times)

Western companies should not withdraw from the country but work to raise standards, writes John Gapper.

4. MMR is the Hillsborough of my profession (Times)

In a crime worse than phone hacking, journalists of all stripes put sensationalism before science and misled the public, writes David Aaronovitch.

5. Whatever you think of fracking, this isn't the way forward (Guardian)

An energy policy based on buying off hostility to fracking by building badminton courts won't keep our lights on, says Michael Hanlon.

6. Which side is Cameron's new team on? (Daily Telegraph)

His backbench advisers may find their loyalties divided between No 10 and the Commons, writes Sue Cameron.

7. Austerity is not the only answer to debt (Financial Times)

Keynes was not dismissive of debt, write Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart. Why should we be?

8. Dave won't back down on aid. But wily ministers are finding ways to get him out of the mire (Daily Mail)

Sinuous ministers such as Philip Hammond are searching for legitimate ways to raid the aid budget, writes Stephen Glover.

9. Like the unions before it, the press has shown us who really governs Britain (Guardian)

Cameron has failed a generation by allowing Leveson to go under, says Martin Kettle. Media barons have bent parliament to their will.

10. This pensioner isn’t giving his benefits back (Independent)

I cannot send off cheques to the very people, ministers and civil servants alike, who are so bad at their jobs that we have had to invent a word to describe their failings, says Andreas Whittam Smith.

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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.