Not long ago, a shadow cabinet minister told me this joke that was doing the rounds in the parliamentary Labour party:
Q: A Lib Dem and a Tory are standing on the edge of a cliff. Who do you push first?
A: 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. At an emotional level, it is morale-boosting to see a party that for many years challenged Labour from the pious left mangled in soul-shredding alliance with the Conservatives. At a practical level, the defection to Ed Miliband’s camp of voters that preferred the old, protest-oriented Lib Dems explains most of Labour’s lead in opinion polls, when it still has one.
It was predictable that this year’s 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. The Lib Dems were nearly evicted from the European parliament altogether and their councillors came similarly close to banishment from inner London boroughs. Labour gained at their expense. Opposition strategists, defending the decision to target Clegg in the campaign, now claim a degree of vindication. It was, says one Miliband advisor, 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 is clearer to take on the bigger Tory beast in a general election battle. Pleasure before business.
And it makes sense in terms of electoral arithmetic for Labour to grind the Lib Dems down. But politics is about more than boundaries and maths. Most voters certainly don’t see it that way. Zoom out 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 ever deeper 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. He is an accomplice to Cameron’s callousness, not a brake on Tory excess. The Lib Dems would like to position themselves as the moderating element in the coalition but – says Labour – no-one buys it and it certainly isn’t in Miliband’s interests to bolster Clegg’s bogus progressive credentials.
Even if it could be proved that the Lib Dems have managed to restrain the Tories in some areas (and the Conservative back benchers certainly think they have) there is the additional problem of Clegg’s personal credibility. He may be spoiling arguments merely by touching them. This is certainly the view that Labour’s more ardent pro-Europeans took when watching the deputy Prime Minister beaten by Farage in televised debates on EU membership. It is also a view that is rapidly spreading through Lib Dem ranks – the image of their leader as the Jonah of liberal politics whose best contribution to the cause might be hurling himself overboard.
But the supposed toxicity of one liberal candidate cannot account for the defeat of pro-Europeanism nor for the surge in hostility to immigration represented by Ukip’s performance last Thursday. Those trends have been building over a long period and have a complex genesis. (I looked at some of it at more length in this essay earlier in the year.) 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 and is now slipping further down the league. 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. Obviously 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.