Not long ago, a shadow cabinet minister told me a joke that was doing the rounds in the Parliamentary Labour Party. It went like this: a Lib Dem and a Tory are standing on the edge of a cliff. Whom do you push first? The Tory – business before pleasure.
The sufferings of Nick Clegg have been a source of consolation to the opposition since the formation of the coalition. It is morale-boosting to see a party that for many years challenged Labour from the pious left mangled in a soul-shredding alliance with the Conservatives. At a practical level, the defection to Ed Miliband’s camp of voters who preferred the old, protest-oriented Lib Dems explains most of Labour’s lead in the opinion polls, when it still has one.
It was predictable that the local and European elections would bring another round of butchery to the Cleggites but that didn’t diminish the gratification such a spectacle afforded to their enemies. Opposition strategists, defending the decision to target Clegg in the campaign, now claim a degree of vindication. It was, says one Miliband adviser, important, “having put the Lib Dems back in their box, to keep them there”. Once it is clear that the junior coalition partner is kaput, the path will be clearer to take on the bigger Tory beast in a general election battle. Pleasure before business.
Zoom out, however, and what you observe in the crushing of Clegg’s forces is the crippling of arguments that, broadly speaking, Labour would like to see strengthened. The Lib Dems were unabashedly the party of “in” on the question of European Union membership. They have taken a liberal line on immigration, relative to Cameron’s stance. They have also pushed back (a bit) against cuts to the welfare budget.
At this point, the Labour tribalists snort with derision. Clegg has done nothing to soften the blow of austerity, goes the opposition mantra. The Lib Dems might like to position themselves as the moderating element in the coalition but, says Labour, no one buys it.
There is the additional problem of Clegg’s personal credibility: he may be spoiling arguments merely by touching them. It is a view that is rapidly spreading through Lib Dem ranks – the image of their leader as the Jonah of liberal politics whose best contribution might be to hurl himself overboard.
But Clegg’s supposed toxicity cannot account for the defeat of pro-Europeanism, nor for the surge in hostility to immigration represented by Ukip’s performance. Those trends have a long and complex genesis. It will take just as long to rebuild the case for the politics of openness and tolerance. The process will take even longer if the Lib Dems are annihilated. Labour may not like it but Clegg’s party is on the same side in an emerging culture war against illiberalism and xenophobia.
For most of this parliament, Miliband’s interests appear to have been served by the dereliction of what used to be called “the third party”. That is certainly true if politics is described purely in terms of who poaches votes from whom in which seats in order to scrape over the finish line. It is good for Labour to be locking down anti-Clegg defectors in marginal constituencies. It is not so helpful if the price of that arithmetical advantage is a cultural drift in British politics towards bitter nationalism, characterised by the view that toughness is the only legitimate policy on immigration and exit the only popular stance towards Europe.