Don’t let contempt for Clegg blind you to the Lib Dem threat

by John Woodcock

My twitter feed may not be quite as representative as an IPSOS-MORI poll, but it was still striking to witness the outpouring of abuse when Nick Clegg briefly honed into view at the champions league final on Saturday night.

The excellent John Park MSP summed it up: “Nick Clegg was on our telly and the whole pub burst into laughter: #nowayback”.

It is important to guard against seeing the world purely through the Labour rose-tinted spectacles of your friends and supporters, but John may well be right.

The X-Factor-style rise and fall of the Liberal Democrat leader has been much remarked already. But the hapless man has managed to intensify people’s annoyance at his broken promises still further by maintaining a peculiarly grating tone of injured sanctimony (hat tip, Adrian McMenamin’s twitter) through his transition from chief critic of the “broken politics of Westminster” to epitome of said broken politics.

It is possible that he will spring back again, but it seems increasingly unlikely.

Now, I could happily devote the rest of this column to Clegg-bashing and feel a lot better for it. And, admit it, you have clicked on this link in the hope that it will provide fuel for one of the Winston Smith-inspired two minute hate sessions in which you have been indulging for the past year.

All very well. But the important thing to consider, and consider now, is where the fall of Nick Clegg is likely to leave us going into the next election.

It is hard to see the deputy prime minister and his most robustly pro-coalition Liberal Democrat ministers pulling away from the alliance with the Conservatives which has consumed them over the past year.

Granted, they could manufacture some whopping great split, such as over the renewal of the UK’s nuclear deterrent. On that front, it was interesting to note that the Lib Dems apparently insisted that their review of alternatives to the current submarine-launched ballistic missile system should last a full 18 months – kicking it into the long grass and potentially providing a convenient break point closer to the end of the parliament.

But before that decision point were reached, they would surely realise how badly the public would react to them letting their response to the ultimate global security issue be driven by the need to massage internal party politics. So with no easy way out for the party as a whole, we must be alive to the possibility of a schism within the Lib Dems. Its members are understandably hostile to outsiders who suggest change, but it cannot be outside the realms of possibility that a party, which has of course only existed in its current form for less than three decades, could see a split between those ministers who cannot credibly abandon the arrangement they have chosen and those who have maintained a greater degree of separation from their Conservative partners.

There has already been a great deal of focus on whether more Liberal Democrat elected representatives and activists could co-operate with Labour on particular issues. I very much hope they do, as I hope we can respond to the challenge of opening up to those who, for whatever reason, have turned away from Labour in the past.

But we must not make the mistake of thinking that a fracturing of the Liberals and subsequent strengthening of the progressive alliance around the Labour party necessarily will mean we cruise to victory at the next election.

Imagine for a moment that a group of Liberal Democrat MPs and a majority of their activists do decide that at some point before the election that they can no longer maintain their place alongside the Tories. A rump around Clegg would be left – potentially prompting a revival of the “coupon” agreement seen under David Lloyd George, in which Liberals remaining loyal to the coalition government were not challenged by Conservative candidates.

We would rightly claim that such a seismic event endorsed Labour’s central argument that the current administration is not governing in the best interests of the British people. But David Cameron would claim to be strengthened too. After all, he would be going into the next election effectively defending more seats than he had started out with.

And Cameron would seek to make the central dividing line at that election between those he claimed were willing to make difficult and unpopular decisions in the national interest, and those not up for the fight. That argument would be entirely bogus, but it could be seductive and we should prepare for it.

John Woodcock is Labour and Cooperative MP for Barrow and Furness and a shadow transport minister.

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6 Responses to “Don’t let contempt for Clegg blind you to the Lib Dem threat”

  1. paul barker says:

    The 3 big threats to Labour are all of your own making-

    1st the collosal mess you have made of your own finances

    2nd the slow leakage of members

    3rd your willingness to hate each other almost as much as you hate outsiders.

  2. LegoHawk says:

    Where have the Blairite wing of the party gone?

  3. A Lib Dem says:

    I doubt the LDs will split – more likely is that Clegg steps down for some international job late in the term of the government (there’s a vacancy for a Euro commissioner in 2014, for example) and then after a long election campaign, the new leader (most probably Tim Farron) decides to leave the coalition just before the 2015 General Election (perhaps in January or February before polling day in May). But let’s run with your suggestion:

    Most Lib Dem MPs have the Tories in second place in their seat. If there were a few Coalition Liberals, backed by the Tories, then Labour would have very little chance of coming from third to win those seats. It’s possible that the official Lib Dems (the anti-Clegg faction – they won’t split the party unless they can win control of the machine and the money; Clegg could be propped up by the Tories without the official machine, but the rebels can’t build quickly enough from scratch – and there will be a General Election within weeks of the rebels seizing control of the Lib Dems) might be able to challenge and win in those seats, but the inevitable split in the local membership (between those loyal to the party and those loyal to the local MP) is likely to debilitate them too, especially as there would be two left candidates (official Lib Dem and Labour) and one right candidate (Coalition Liberal) in those seats. Unless… could Labour step down too in those seats and leave them as a Lib Dem v Lib Dem fight? Every coalition liberal bar Clegg would lose, and Clegg would be no better than 50-50. You might want to consider planning for that, ie stepping down where (a) an LD is on the coupon and (b) Labour was third in the 2010 notionals. I doubt it would be more than a dozen seats, and it would break the advantage that the coupon liberals would give the Tories.

    For those reasons, the only non-Scottish seats with LD MPs that Labour has a good chance of taking are the ten* where Labour are second – and if there is a pro/anti Tory split, then I would guess that all of those MPs would end up on the anti-Tory side – so don’t count on gains (beyond what the boundaries bring) from there either. Mind you, the boundary changes are likely to be good for Labour there – only one of those 10 borders another LD seat, and I think most are completely surrounded by Labour-held seats, so any ward added to one of those is going to be heavily Labour and will shift the vote in that direction – and there aren’t exactly a load of big majorities in there.

    I’m leaving Scotland aside because only Danny Alexander would take the coupon (though others might step down rather than pick sides) and the political revolution of the SNP victory makes predicting what happens down there a mug’s game.

    * Manchester Withington, Bermondsey and Old Southwark, Birmingham Yardley, Bradford East, Brent Central, Bristol West, Burnley, Cardiff Central, Hornsey and Wood Green, Norwich South

  4. paul barker says:

    Im sure all this stuff about The Libdems looks perfectly reasonable from The Labour side but from our side it looks nuts. Theres a small minority who want to leave The Coalition but Ive never met anyone who wants to merge with The Tories. Why would we dump the 1st leader to lead us into Government ?

    From our side we see a Labour burdened with massive debts & badly split, we dont see much to envy.

  5. Gracie says:

    @ Paul Barker – labour have put on 58.000 new members since taking a heavy defeat at last year’s poll.

  6. David Hall says:

    The ‘threat’ from the Lib Dems is that, in two or three years time, they are able to say they influenced something for the better and people’s memories are short. At the moment they are an incompetent, contradictory, embarrasing joke. However, to pull off this rehabilitation they would need to overcome the frustrated bulk of Tories who are currently thankful that they are the fall guys for the whole Government’s cuts, mistakes and incompetence but are increasingly annoyed at them as time goes on for trying to take credit for anything and everything that moves and claiming to be a restraining hand on Goverment (despite obvious evidence to the contrary). What will do for the Lib Dems is not their fickle councillors (part labour, part tories, all confused), or being deserted by floating/tactical voters, or their own complete ignorance and incompetence, but instead their allies sticking the knife in once their usefulness has expired in the coming years.

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