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

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.