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  1. Politics
11 March 2012

Protest at the Lib Dem conference

How the coalition's policies have sparked a movement against Nick Clegg.

From Shields Road in Newcastle, where the Clegg Off! collection of anti-Lib Dem campaigners gathered yesterday morning, it’s possible to see the famous Byker Wall estate. A large proportion of those living in the multicoloured brick and concrete estate are low income or unemployed, dyed in the wool left-wingers. In fact, disregarding income or class level, the region mostly swings the same way. One Byker Wall resident, when asked this morning which way she voted in 2010, replied “Labour. Always.”

Look at any electoral map and you’ll see very little blue in the north-east of England. From the moment Margaret Thatcher sealed off northern coal mines in the 1980s, there has been a strong and resolute left-leaning groupthink in the region. In the 2010 election, the north-east was almost evenly split between red and yellow.

But association with the Conservatives, and a series of perceived electoral backtracks by the Liberal Democrats, has seen the 1 per cent swing of support to Nick Clegg’s party in the last election evaporate and decline since joining the government. It’s not just national disaffection which has affected the Lib Dems: a seven year reign as the majority party in Newcastle city council was brought to an end in 2011 when local voters realised that the national party they voted for as an anti-establishment option became (by proximity to power) a fully functioning part of the political system.

Rafael Behr wrote on The Staggers on Friday about the difficulty Clegg is having turning “something distinctly British, mildly eccentric, contrarian, and comfortable in opposition […] into a technocratic, professional party of coalition.” To extend Clegg’s conference-opening speech metaphor a little too far, while he’s busy tearing off the rear view mirror he’s also finding plenty of angry mob-shaped bumps in the road.

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The Clegg Off! campaign is just one of many anti-Lib Dem movements which have sprung up in the past two years. With power comes responsibility, and a growing vocal coalition of students, activists and trade unionists believe that Clegg’s party is shirking its duties. At this weekend’s spring conference, a rabble of Geordies have decided to make their feelings known to the Deputy Prime Minister.

Leaflets were distributed throughout Newcastle two weeks before the Lib Dem conference, with distributors eagerly pressing paper into shoppers’ palms with shouts of “let’s stick it to the Lib Dems!” The literature is clear about the Clegg Off! campaign’s unrest:

No more toadying to the Tories. We didn’t vote for austerity. We march in protest against the party which:
– is privatising our NHS
– sold out over tuition fees and student finance
– is doing nothing about the 2.7 million unemployed
– instead refuses to invest in real jobs
– yet enslaves the unemployed for no pay through “workfare”
– is cutting welfare to the most vulnerable in our society

This is not just a regional grumble, either. A YouGov survey for The Sun carried out between 29 February-1 March found that the Lib Dems best fit the bill for the statement that they “seem to chop and change all the time: you can never be quite sure what [they] stand for.” In the same poll, the Lib Dems gained only 8 per cent of a potential vote were it held then and there; amongst 18-24 year olds, that proportion was only 3 per cent. In the North, 7% of voters would theoretically cast their ballots for Nick Clegg’s party.

Ed Whitby, who headed yesterday’s march, is definitely not one of the 7 per cent of voters Lib Dems can call upon. “They lied to help increase their vote amongst students,” he said. Those protesting today did so because they “wrongly thought that Lib Dem promises meant something. It’s clear,” he goes on, “that the people of Newcastle said no to Lib Dems [in 2011 local elections] in response to their action in government.”

The Clegg Off! campaign (a branch of the nationwide Anti Cuts Network) claims it is not party political, and is instead an issues campaign. In the north east, where this past Thursday Newcastle city council announced 360 job cuts as part of £30 million worth of cuts for 2012-13, this issue seems to be gaining traction. Newcastle is not alone in the north east: Gateshead town council announced cuts of £22 million for the same time period. More than anything else, it is the government’s 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review – and its aftershocks – that the protestors marched against today.

Fifteen different local and national groups supported the march. “It’s a cause the disparate groups of the left can unite around – for perhaps the first time in 20 or more years,” said Joe Barton, a postgraduate student at Newcastle University who joined the marchers. A heavy police presence, present since early on Friday morning, studiously watched the group as they brandished their placards. When feelings boiled over into scuffles, some protestors were arrested to jeers and boos.

The marchers made their voices heard as they marched down Shields Road and into the centre of Newcastle. Ed Whitby was proud that it was not just the usual anti-government groups on the march; “we’ve a good number of local people from Byker, sick of the government’s lies.” Some locals were less welcoming on the marchers, however. Local resident Graham Smith’s car was left at a standstill as the protest spilled out onto the road. “I can understand why people are angry but I don’t understand why they do this. I think the Lib Dems were put in a difficult position, and I think they made the right choice.” On reflection, Smith believed he would vote Lib Dem again.

At a factory visit in Sunderland on Friday, Nick Clegg was asked by the BBC for his thoughts on the barrage of protestors they knew were waiting 12 miles up the road. His response? “Just because people demonstrate, it doesn’t always mean they’re right.” Those who marched would disagree.

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