The Kennedy conundrum

On the eve of the Liberal Democrats’ most keenly anticipated conference since they were founded in

On Monday 6 September, a delegation of senior MPs and peers filed into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on King Charles Street. Hosting the meeting was the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, who had taken time out from his schedule to discuss the coalition government's foreign policy, despite days of rampant speculation about his private life and political judgement. Hague was persuasive. "He was very impressive and in absolute control of his brief," says a peer who was there. What was notable about the occasion was that all the parliamentarians present were Liberal Democrats.

Across Whitehall, similar meetings are being held at which Lib Dem backbenchers are being hugged close by Conservative ministers - especially the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, who has been impressing sceptics with his plans for "free schools", often in one-on-one meetings. The co-chairs of various Lib Dem policy teams have been invited to attend the regular "forward looks" that Tory cabinet ministers hold with departmental colleagues.

These charm offensives reflect the Tory high command's keenness to make the coalition gel for the lifetime of this parliament and, in the words of one senior Lib Dem to whom we spoke, David Cameron's desire to use the smaller party "as a counterweight to the Tory right".

Some coalition outriders want it to go further. Nick Boles, the "modernising" Tory MP for Grantham and Stamford who is a close friend and ally of the Prime Minister, went public on 13 September with a proposal that would bind the two parties in an electoral pact by the end of the year. Boles, a former member of Cameron's "implementation unit" before the general election, said that the coalition partners should give each other a free run in the seats they hold.

Simon Hughes, the Lib Dem deputy leader, was quick to reject the idea, saying that his party would "take on all comers" at the next election, including the Conservatives. But, for some senior Lib Dems, the proposal may seem attractive in the long run, as it would secure the Lib Dems' new-found role as a credible, centrist party of government.

Others on the dormant left of the party, however, see it as a "trap" - a plan to destroy the Lib Dems as an independent political force and subsume them into the Cameron-led Conservative Party. "I would oppose such a move with every fibre of my body," says David Hall-Matthews, a former parliamentary candidate and chair of the influential centre-left pressure group the Social Liberal Forum, founded by Lib Dem members and campaigners.

Gathering storm

According to a recent ComRes poll, the party has lost the support of almost four in ten of the people who voted for it on 6 May, with more than one in five people who backed the Lib Dems at the general election telling pollsters that they would now vote Labour. Overall, the Lib Dems' poll rating has shrunk to 12 per cent, down from 23 per cent at the election.

Meanwhile, even among Lib Dem activists, dissatisfaction is on the rise. A recent survey of nearly 600 party members showed that net support for the coalition fell to 45 per cent in August from 57 per cent in July.

Between 18 and 22 September, the Lib Dems are gathering in Liverpool for the most eagerly awaited conference in the party's 22-year history. More than 7,000 delegates are travelling to the event - far eclipsing the usual attendance of 6,000; the number of journalists attending has leapt by 500 to 1,500. It is the "biggest Lib Dem conference ever", in the words of the Liberal Democrat Voice blog.

As MPs, members and activists gather in Liverpool, there is no sign yet of serious unrest. We are four months in to the coalition and not a single MP wants to break with the Tories. Take Bob Russell, Lib Dem MP for Colchester and a well-known backbench rebel. On 13 September, he "dragged", in his own words, the Chancellor, George Osborne, to the Commons to explain his latest round of benefit cuts, accusing him of being "unethical" and "immature". But Russell now tells us: "The coalition will last the full five years. Of course it will."

Yet, beneath the surface, there is growing uncertainty about the party's electoral future and about what one MP describes as "an identity crisis".
"The mood is a mixture of excitement and growing anxiety," agrees Hall-Matthews. "I wouldn't expect there to be outright hostility towards theleadership but people will be coming to the conference with questions about how we retain our distinctiveness as a party while working in the coalition."

Another senior Liberal Democrat on the left of the party says he is "very uncomfortable with the rhetoric from the party leadership. Nick Clegg seems to think that this is a coalition built on ideological coherence, rather than just two parties working together." He adds: "I do believe in consensus politics, but I don't want to pretend there is ideological coherence with the Tories and it doesn't electorally help us to pretend it does."

Perhaps it is not a pretence. "You have no idea of the extent of the behind-the-scenes bonding that has gone on between Nick and Cameron, as well as Nick and other Tories like Osborne," says a well-connected Lib Dem frontbencher. "They've all been slagging off Labour together like there's no tomorrow."

It's a long way from Charles Kennedy's leadership of the party, when the Lib Dems were much closer to Labour. Though a figurehead for the party's left, Kennedy himself is refusing to stoke any revolts. He has denied claims that he would consider defecting to Labour, despite making it clear that he opposed his party's alliance with the Tories. But friends of Kennedy say that he does see a future role for himself in the party, if not as leader for a second time, then, at least, in a very senior role on the Lib Dem front bench.

“When Charles went, our support haemorrhaged," says a leading Lib Dem peer. "It took us years of careful work to get that back. Now we've thrown it all away again. We may have to call on Charles again one day."

Intriguingly, similar sentiments were expressed at a private 80th birthday party for Shirley Williams on 8 September at the Savile Club in London. The gathering served as a reunion of the old Social Democratic Party (SDP). Bill Rodgers, who, along with Williams, was one of the original Gang of Four that broke from Labour to create the SDP, had planned the party. Tom McNally, a minister in the Department of Justice, was the sole representative from the coalition. No cabinet ministers were present, least of all the Deputy PM, Nick Clegg.

At the party, Kennedy gave a characteristically witty speech about Williams before leaving to vote in the Commons. After he left, Williams paid fulsome tribute to the popular former leader and argued that he still had a "big future role" to play in the party. "It was very striking how effusive Shirley was about Charles - and not just about his past record but the role she thought he might play in the coming months," said one of the guests.

The reckoning

A rising star to look out for at the party's conference is the backbencher Tim Farron. The MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale lost out to Simon Hughes for the post of deputy leader but is preparing to challenge for another influential job: that of party president. Lib Dem insiders tell us Farron is the clear favourite - which might worry Clegg: he has been one of the most vocal Lib Dem critics of the coalition, condemning the Conservatives as possessing a "toxic brand" that is being given "cover" by the Lib Dems. He is also supporting a contentious conference motion that calls on Lib Dem ministers to look into the "viability and practicalities of increasing taxation on wealth - including land values".

But the most controversial issue at the conference and beyond is likely to be university tuition fees. Before the election, 55 out of the 57 Lib Dem MPs signed a pledge to vote against any increase in fees. In July, the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, floated the idea of instituting a graduate tax in a speech at South Bank University in London. But the review into higher-education funding, chaired by the former BP chief executive Lord (John) Browne and scheduled to publish its findings on 11 October, is expected to reject a graduate tax and instead propose a rise in fees to around £7,000.

Despite the terse statement in the coalition agreement that "arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote" on proposals from Browne with which they disagree, numerous backbenchers - including the former leader Menzies Campbell - have let it be known that they plan to rebel if the party performs a U-turn in government on fees. Insiders suggest the number could easily be a majority of the parliamentary party. "If Browne recommends lifting or raising the cap on fees, I expect there'll be blood on the carpet," says a senior party source.

Meanwhile, MPs and activists alike are beginning to ask searching questions of the party leadership. On what platform, for example, will the Liberal Democrats fight the next election? Hughes has said they will fight "in every seat", but on what basis will they stand against their Conservative allies? Come 2015, will Clegg be able to challenge or confront Cameron in the television debates as he did so forcefully in spring this year?

When we asked a senior Lib Dem frontbencher whether Clegg could "attack" Cameron at the next election, he replied: "Of course not. How could he?"

So, can Clegg carry his anxious party with him through to 2015? On Monday in Liverpool, he may be greeted as a hero by the faithful, still euphoric over the Lib Dems' entry into government, but the real reckoning will come in 2011. Not only will the effect of the coalition's public spending cuts have set in, but the party is preparing for losses at the local elections in May. To compound matters, party members are also having to come to terms with the likelihood that they will lose the "glittering prize" from a referendum on electoral reform.

“I hate this government," a senior Lib Dem peer was overheard to remark recently while walking out of the House of Lords chamber. For now, however, such mutterings are kept quiet. Next year could be very different.

This article first appeared in the 20 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Catholicism in crisis

BRIAN ADCOCK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Divided Britain: how the EU referendum exposed Britain’s new culture war

The EU referendum exposed a gaping fault line in our society – and it’s not between left and right.

There are streets in Hampstead, the wealthy northern suburb of London, where the pro-EU posters outnumber cars. A red “Vote Remain” in one. A “Green Yes” in another. The red, white and blue flag of the official campaign sits happily next to a poster from the left-wing campaign Another Europe Is Possible proclaiming that the world already has too many borders.

If you were looking for an equivalent street in Hull, in the north of England, you would look for a long time. In the city centre when I visited one recent morning, the only outward evidence that there was a referendum going on was the special edition of Wetherspoon News plastered on the walls of the William Wilberforce pub in Trinity Wharf. Most of the customers agreed with the message from the chain’s founder, Tim Martin: Britain was better off outside the European Union.

“Far too much Hampstead and not enough Hull” – that was the accusation levelled at the Remain campaign by Andy Burnham in the final weeks of the campaign. He wasn’t talking about geography; Remain’s voice is persuasive to residents of Newland Avenue in Hull, where I drank a latte as I eavesdropped on a couple who were fretting that “racists” would vote to take Britain out of the EU.

Rather, Burnham was talking about an idea, the “Hampstead” that occupies a special place in right-wing demonology as a haven of wealthy liberals who have the temerity to vote in the interests of the poor. The playwright and novelist Michael Frayn, in his 1963 essay on the Festival of Britain, called them “the Herbivores”:

“. . . the radical middle classes, the do-gooders; the readers of the News Chronicle, the Guardian, and the Observer; the signers of petitions; the backbone of the BBC . . . who look out from the lush pastures which are their natural station in life with eyes full of sorrow for less fortunate creatures, guiltily conscious of their advantages, though not usually ceasing to eat the grass.”

For Hampstead then, read swaths of Islington, Hackney, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Oxford today – all areas that were most strongly in favour of Remain and where Jeremy Corbyn is popular. But Remain never found a tone that won over the other half of Labour England; the campaign struck as duff a note among the diminishing band of pensioners on Hampstead’s remaining council estates as it did on Hull’s Orchard Park Estate.

The rift between “Hampstead and Hull”, in the sense that Andy Burnham meant it, is one that has stealthily divided Britain for years, but it has been brought into sharp focus by the debate over Europe.

Academics use various kinds of shorthand for it: the beer drinkers v the wine drinkers, or the cosmopolitans v the “left behind”. “It’s not just that [Britain] is div­ided between people who buy organic and people who buy own-brand,” says Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, “but between people who wouldn’t understand how anyone could buy own-brand and people who wouldn’t buy organic if you put a gun to their head.” Equating political preferences with shopping habits might sound flippant, but on 21 June the retail research company Verdict estimated that “half of Waitrose shoppers backed a Remain vote, against just over a third of Morrisons customers”.

The referendum has shown that there is another chasm in British politics, beyond left and right, beyond social conservatism v liberalism, and beyond arguments about the size of the state. The new culture war is about class, and income, and education, but also about culture, race, nationalism and optimism about the future (or lack of it). This divide explains why Ukip’s message has been seductive to former Labour voters and to Tories, and why Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian, led a campaign that purported to despise “elites” and “experts” and spoke of “wanting our country back”.

***

At the start of the campaign, the question that most accurately predicted whether you would back Remain or Leave was consistently: “Are you a graduate?” (Those who answered yes were much more likely to vote in favour of staying in the EU.) Stronger In never found a way to change that and win over those who left education at 18 or earlier. Pollsters also suggested that the much-vaunted Euroscepticism of older voters reflects generations where only one in ten people went to university.

This fissure has been growing for the best part of a decade and a half, but Britain’s first-past-the-post system, which deters newcomers and maintains entrenched parties, has provided a degree of insulation to Labour that its European cousins have lacked. Yet even here in the UK the mid-Noughties brought the brief rise of the British National Party, powered by voter defections from Labour in its strongholds in east London and Yorkshire, as well as the election of the Greens’ first MP on the back of progressive disillusionment with the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

In office, both Blair and Brown calculated, wrongly, that Labour’s core vote had “nowhere else to go”. In opposition under Ed Miliband, the party calculated, again wrongly, that discontent with immigration, and the rise of Ukip powered by that discontent, was a problem for the Conservative Party alone.

In a 2014 pamphlet for the Fabian Society, ­Revolt on the Left, the activist Marcus Roberts, the academic Rob Ford and the analyst Ian Warren warned that Labour had “few reasons to cheer about the Ukip insurgency and plenty to worry about”. When the votes were cast in the general election the following year, that prediction turned out to be dispiritingly accurate. Defections from Labour to Ukip led to Labour losing seats to the Conservatives in Gower, Southampton Itchen, Telford and Plymouth Moor View.

For the most part, however, first-past-the-post papered over the cracks in Labour’s broad coalition: cracks that, in the harsh light of the EU referendum, have become obvious. The divide isn’t simply one of class, or income. The social profile and culture of voters in Cumbria are no different from that of voters on the other side of the border – but Scots in the Borders backed a Remain vote while their English peers in the border areas opted for Brexit. Inhospitality towards Brexit proved a stronger indication of city status than a mere cathedral: Vote Leave generally found Britain’s great cities more difficult terrain than the surrounding towns and countryside.

The problem of the fracturing vote is particularly acute for the Labour Party, which for much of the 20th century was able to rely on the Herbivores. In concert with Frayn’s “less fortunate creatures”, they have been enough to guarantee Labour close to 250 seats in the House of Commons and roughly one-third of the popular vote, even in difficult years. But Britain’s EU referendum placed Hampstead and Hull on opposing sides for the first time in modern British political history.

It was Tony Blair who, in his final speech to the Trades Union Congress as Labour leader in September 2006, said that the new debate in politics was not left against right, but “open v closed” – openness to immigration, to diversity, to the idea of Europe. Driven by their commitment to openness, Blair’s outriders dreamed of reshaping Labour as a mirror of the US Democrats – though, ironically, it was Ed Miliband, who repudiated much of Blair’s approach and politics, who achieved this.

At the 2015 election Labour’s coalition was drawn from the young, ethnic minorities and the well educated: the groups that powered Barack Obama’s two election wins in 2008 and 2012. The party was repudiated in the Midlands, went backwards in Wales and was all but wiped out in the east of England. (Scotland was another matter altogether.) Its best results came in Britain’s big cities and university towns.

The Remain campaign gave Labour a glimpse of how Miliband’s manifesto might have fared without the reassuring imprimatur of a red rosette. Britain Stronger In Europe has been rejected in the Midlands and struggled in the east of England. But it also failed to inspire passion in Sunderland, Oldham and Hull – all areas that, for now, return Labour MPs.

***

In appearance, Hull’s city centre is built on blood and sandstone, dotted with memorials to a lost empire and postwar replacements for bombed buildings, all ringed by suburban housing built by the private sector in the 1930s and the state in the 1950s and 1960s. It could be Bristol without the excessive hills, or a smaller Glasgow with a different accent. Unlike in Glasgow or Bristol, however, the residents of Hull are largely hostile to the European Union. Unlike Glasgow and Bristol, Hull is a post-imperial city that has yet to experience a post-colonial second act.

The William Wilberforce is named after a native son who helped destroy the British slave trade, the engine of Hull’s prosperity in the 18th century. The destruction of another local industry – fishing – drives resentment among the pub’s ageing clientele, who were there for breakfast and a bit of company when I visited. They blame its demise squarely on the EU.

Although the Labour Party now has only one MP in Scotland, the back rooms of the labour movement host an outsized Scottish contingent. For that reason – and the continuing threat that the loss of Labour’s seats in Scotland poses to the party’s chances of winning a majority at Westminster – the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 loomed large for Labour throughout the EU campaign.

From the outset, Britain Stronger In struggled to replicate the success of the Scottish No campaign, in part because the price of victory was one that Labour regarded as too high to pay a second time. In Glasgow, in the week before the Scottish referendum, everyone knew where Labour stood on independence – consequently, many voters were already planning to take revenge. The proprietor of one café told me that Labour was “finished in this city, for ever”.

Predictions of this sort were thin on the ground in Hull. Alan Johnson, the head of Labour’s EU campaign, is one of the three Labour MPs whom Hull sent to Westminster in 2015. But even late in the campaign, in his own constituency, I found uncertainty about the party’s official position on the referendum. For that reason, if nothing else, it didn’t have the feeling of a city preparing to break with a half-century-plus of Labour rule, as Glasgow did in 2014. In Scotland, most people I spoke to believed that they were on the brink of independence, which made the eventual result a big blow.

Only among Hull’s pro-European minority could I find any conviction that Britain might actually leave the EU. In September 2014 Kenneth Clarke remarked that Ukip’s supporters were “largely . . . the disappointed elderly, the grumpy old men, people who’ve had a bit of a hard time in life”. To listen to Hull’s Leave voters is to hear tales of the same frustrated potential: they feel that politicians of all stripes have lives entirely removed from theirs. In their defence, they are right – just 4 per cent of MPs in 2010 were from working-class backgrounds.

As for Ken Clarke, he has carved out a second career as every left-winger’s favourite Tory, but that tone of indifference towards the “disappointed lives” of globalisation’s casualties recalls his younger days as a rising star of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

Hull’s residents have been dismissed, first as the regrettable but inevitable consequence of Thatcherite economics, and now as small-minded opponents of social progress and racial diversity. Unsurprisingly, people who feel that their wishes have been ignored and in some cases actively squashed by successive governments of left and right did not expect to wake up on the morning of 24 June to discover that this time, their votes really had changed something.

Equally unsurprisingly, the Remain campaign’s warnings of economic collapse lacked force for people for whom the world’s end had been and gone.

In Glasgow in 2014 Scottish independence was a question of identity in itself, whereas in Hull, hostility towards Europe is the by-product of other identities that feel beleaguered or under threat: fishing, Englishness and whiteness, for the most part.

In Hampstead, a vote for Remain feels more like a statement about the world as you see it. One woman, who walks off before I can probe further, tells me: “Of course I’m voting to stay In. I buy Fairtrade.”

***

Immigration, not the European Union, is the issue that moves voters in Hull. “Britain is full” was the most frequent explanation they gave for an Out vote. Knowing that immigration, rather than the abstract question of sovereignty, would be crucial to winning the contest, Vote Leave tried from the beginning to make it a referendum on border control. Leave’s main theme: the threat of Turkey joining the European Union and, with it, the prospect of all 75 million Turks gaining the right to live and work in Britain.

Although Turkey’s chances of joining the EU are somewhere only just north of its hopes of launching a manned mission to Mars, the tactic worked: according to an ­Ipsos MORI poll released on the morning of 16 June, 45 per cent of Britons believed that Turkey will be fast-tracked into the Union.

That same morning, Nigel Farage posed in front of a poster showing refugees – mostly from Syria and most of them non-white – on the border between Croatia and Slovenia, with a slogan warning that uncontrolled immigration was leaving Britain at “breaking point”. But the row over the poster came to an unpleasant halt just a few hours later as news began to break that Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, had been shot and stabbed on her way out of a constituency surgery. She died of her injuries a little over an hour later. On 19 June Thomas Mair, who was arrested in connection with the killing, gave his name at Westminster Magistrates’ Court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.

The circumstances of the killing felt familiar. A little after midnight on 5 June 1968, Robert Kennedy was returning to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in high spirits. He had just won a crucial victory in the California primary and was well placed to secure the Democratic nomination to run in that year’s presidential election. Going through the kitchen in order to avoid cheering crowds and get straight to his press conference, he was ambushed by a man called Sirhan Sirhan, who fired six shots from a revolver. Kennedy was rushed to hospital, where he died early the following morning.

Five months later Richard Nixon was elected president. The American right held on to the White House for 20 years out of the next 25. Jo Cox’s killing, amid the nativist howling from Farage et al, felt like the beginning of a similar chapter of right-wing advance in the UK.

Labour’s problem, and that of its social-democratic cousins throughout Europe, is the same as the American left’s was in the 1960s. Its founding coalition – of trade unions, the socially concerned middle classes and minorities, ethnic and cultural – is united (barely) on economic issues but irrevocably split on questions of identity. Outside crisis-stricken Greece and Spain, the left looks trapped in permanent opposition, with no politician able to reconsolidate its old base and take power again.

***

When I arrive in Hull, preparations are under way for a vigil in Jo Cox’s honour, but it is the nation of Turkey that is weighing on the minds of undecided voters. On Park Street, residents are divided. Those who have exercised their right to buy and are concerned about their mortgages are flirting with an Out vote but are terrified about negative equity. Those who remain in social housing or the private rented sector are untouched by stories of soaring mortgages. To many residents, the Treasury’s dire warnings seem to be the concerns of people from a different planet, not merely another part of the country. As Rachel, a woman in her mid-fifties who lives alone, puts it: “They say I’d lose four grand a month. I don’t know who they think is earning four grand a month but it certainly isn’t me.”

As Vote Leave knew, the promise that an Out vote will allow people to “take control” always had a particular appeal for those with precious little control – of their rent, of next week’s shift, of whether or not they will be able to afford to turn the heating on next week. Never mind that the control envisaged by Vote Leave would be exercised by the conservative right: the campaign found a message that was able to resonate across class and region, at least to an extent that could yet create a force to be reckoned with under first-past-the-post in Britain.

Four grand a month isn’t a bad salary, even in leafy Hampstead, but in that prosperous corner of north London fears of an Out vote, and what will come after, gained a tight purchase. The worry was coupled with resentment, too, over what would come, should the Outers triumph.

The great risk for the left is that herbivorous resentment is already curdling into contempt towards the people of Hull and the other bastions of Brexitism. That contempt threatens the commodity on which Labour has always relied to get Hull and Hampstead to vote and work together – solidarity. The referendum leaves the Conservatives divided at Westminster. That will give little comfort to Labour if the long-term outcome of the vote is to leave its own ranks divided outside it.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain