The Case for Keeping Clegg (Even in Opposition)

Unless something dramatic happens between now and election day it appears as if we are in for a hung parliament. Unlike the previous one, there will be no obvious match between the parties; a right-of-centre coalition of the type we have enjoyed/endured (delete as applicable) will be difficult to achieve given the culling of Lib Dem seats. What is more likely is either a grand coalition of the left, or a minority Labour government lurching from vote to vote on the goodwill of SNP, Plaid, Green and Lib Dem votes.

Whichever way the election goes, leaders that are not deemed winners are for the chop. The Tories are sharpening their knives ready to take out Cameron, a dethroning they have been dreaming of for years. They held back from realising this desire due to the delusion that he could easily defeat Miliband and Cameron’s failure to do so has made Miliband’s position stronger than it was a month or so ago. However, a last minute swing to the Conservatives could set back the recent good-will Miliband’s garnered within his party, and if the Tories managed to form a government he too would be finished. Even the smaller party leaders such as Farage and Bennett face potential peril. Both have enjoyed an almost perfect scenario for minor parties to have any hope of breaking through in the First-Past-The-Post system. If they fail to capitalise, questions will be asked as to how they were allowed to blow it.

But the most likely to fall is the most hated man in British politics Nick Clegg. Since going into coalition with their arch-enemy, the party’s ratings have plummeted. Estimates range between the Lib-Dems returning 20 and 30 seats (down from 56) though Lib Dems usually face an election day slump as voters flee back to the safety of the two main parties, in which case they may sink lower than that. With as few as 25 MPs the party won’t have enough to negotiate a coalition with the Conservatives, nor an exclusive one with Labour. Instead they will be merely one of many small parties doing vote by vote deals.

With a reduced presence, a hammering in the polls, and a left leaning parliament, it makes sense for Clegg to go, right? Consistently he’s shown to be a drag on the Lib Dem ticket, with candidates leaving him off their election material. It would only be right for him to step down and leave the party in the hands of someone like Vince Cable or Tim Farron, both hailing from the Social-Democratic wing of the party and better placed to negotiate with Labour.

I put the alternative to you, however: this approach would be a mistake. Whilst ditching Clegg would give the Lib Dems quick east boost in the opinion polls, a long term strategy might be worth considering:

If Miliband makes it into Number 10, Cameron is bound to resign his party’s leadership. Similarly, other familiar faces of the current campaign may also vanish; if Farage fails to win his seat, he may well resign leadership and hand over the reins to Douglas Carswell; if the Greens fail to take anything other than Brighton Pavilion they might turn back to the eminently more media-savvy Caroline Lucas.

These fresh faces (in terms of leadership – not actual freshness) would be in for a bumpy parliament. Whether successful or not, a grand informal coalition of the left would soon turn bitter as each side struggles for influence. The public are unlikely to support it for long.

Which brings us back to the question of Nick Clegg’s fate. In such a tumultuous parliament a party leader well-known to the public and experienced in government will be of the upmost importance. With Cameron gone, Clegg would represent and speak up for the previous government. Right now this suggestion would be the last thing the party membership would like, but after a year or so of failed votes and indecisive leadership the memory of the Liberal-Conservative coalition might well be a vote winner. Clegg reminding the public of economic growth and stability might well work, whereas Tim Farron, known only to political junkies, won’t even get the air-time.

Eventually Clegg will need to go, but to dump him unceremoniously in the wake of a bad election result would be for the party to run to the left and turn its back on what it has managed to achieve in government. Like it or not, the Lib Dems have become a centrist party, not a party of the hard-left. It can keep Clegg and remain the sensible voice of the centre or they can go into a full-blown rout. I fear to do the latter would mean that when the public grow tired of Labour’s minority they wouldn’t have the Lib Dems to turn to for stable pragmatic government; instead they will identify them with haphazard left-wing bartering, or worse, something not worth considering at all.

Divided We Surely Fall

There are only two sides to the EU debate: those that believe that the EU is beyond saving and want out, and those that believe that the EU is worth saving and want in. For the sake of simplicity we’ll call these camps anti-EU and pro-EU. All three of the major parties in British politics are pro-EU in that they all agree that the EU needs reform, but is a good thing for Britain. Sure they bicker about individual items of legislation, and for political convenience it is in their favour to appear more or less in favour of the EU depending upon what slice of the electorate they’re canvassing, but in terms of the grand EU debate, they are all on the same side. Only Farage sits on the other.

So it seems strange that the political establishment can’t win this in a slam dunk. Surely the combined weight of the conservative party, the labour party, and the liberal democrats should be enough to explain to the electorate precisely why an imperfect EU is better than a non-existent one. The Nick Clegg v Nigel Farage debate was a perfect opportunity for the pro-Eu camp to unify, and yet the opposite happened. Today David Cameron appeared on television calling Nick Clegg an extremist, the Labour party have been distancing themselves as far as possible from the subject lest negative fallout stains their trousers, and even the Green party – a party whose objectives are solely dependent upon the EU and global cooperation – couldn’t resist the opportunity to resort to petty politics and opportunism. If our political parties cannot unite when presented with such a basic proposition, is it any wonder that demagogues like Farage triumph?

We see this time and again with the liberal left. The AV referendum was lost because rather than unite to improve an outdated electoral system, the Labour party used it as an opportunity to steal votes from the Lib Dems. I’ll say this for the conservatives, they know how to pull together for the bigger picture, the left simply cannot get past its own factional squabbling.

Take this party political broadcast by the Green party in response to the debate. The Greens have an almost identical outlook on Europe as the Lib Dems, but to gain political advantage they paint them as the very non-existent caricature dreamt up by the daily mail: a sycophantic slave to faceless EU bureaucrats. Pro-EU camps should be arguing that this stereotype doesn’t exist, that it is a paranoid fantasy, but the Greens have cynically promoted it, betraying their own cause. It is yet another sad sign of the continued decline of a once promising party.

Cooperating is a virtue in politics, but Britain is yet to break out of its juvenile mentality and realise this. If we don’t soon change, Farage, may well win by default.

Cameron’s Painful Swing

It has been a while since we discussed politics on this wee blog. Since then we’ve had a local elections, a revolt over Europe, bitter division over gay marriage and the resurgence of terrorism as a political punch-bag. The big picture is one of a nation whose political parties are becoming gross caricatures of their former selves, lurching to extremes rather than straddling the often uncomfortable centre ground where elections were won.

So first off: the local elections. The big shocker of the night was just how crazy the electorate are willing to be to teach the political classes a lesson. UKIP, the cuddly face of the bitter right, managed to poll 23%. Pretty impressive, given that their vote was considered a “wasted vote”, but despite this they polled strong, coming in third behind Labour 29% and the Conservatives on 25%. The Liberal Democrats whimpered into 4th with 14%, disappointing but actually above what they usually poll nationally.

So why care? It’s not as if Nigel Farage’s eurosceptic party managed to gain control of any councils, and with that share of the vote they aren’t going to form the next government. Hell, with our awful first-past-the-post system they are unlikely to secure a single seat. But, as subtle a shift as it had been to the nation at large, to the political classes the shift was seismic.

You see, those loonies that voted UKIP used to vote Conservative. They were Cameron’s loonies, and the party had grown lazy depending upon them to turn out every five or so years to keep up the fight against Labour and the Liberals. Suddenly, the right wing swivel-eyed loon vote is split and now we’re into a four horse race, and this simple change in the landscape has caused all the nonsense we’ve had since.

It has always been Cameron’s agenda to move the Conservative party to the centre right. That was the reason for those painful huskie shots during his time in opposition. Unfortunately the centre is not a place his party likes to sit, as in the centre you can still catch the odd whiff of the unwashed left. And now that their ranks are breaking for UKIP, the pressure has been to follow them, ceding the centre ground to the despised liberals. This panic led them to rebel over their own Queen’s Speech, attempt to sign into law an in-out Europe referendum, try to bring down the gay marriage legislation and lately to stand tough over terrorism with a badly thought through ‘snooper’s charter’.

But it ironic that of all the things that Cameron has got spectacularly wrong, the move towards the centre is one of the few things he got ri… er.. correct. The right of British politics is similar to its left counterpart, the domain of the political pariah. The tory party (against the wisdom of its leadership) is banking on being able to move right and scoop back up the UKIP vote whilst still holding the rest of its support, but this assumption is terribly flawed. A conservative move to the right would allow the liberals to strengthen by appealing to pro-business centre-right conservatives reluctant to support a party that could pull us out of the EU. Moving right would also allow the Labour party to sneak into the centre, saving them from the leftist-protest persona they have fallen into.

David Cameron has become trapped. He needs to stop the UKIP threat, but he has no tools to fight them. So far every attempt by his back benchers to move the party right has simply handed UKIP better poll ratings. If he can’t convince his party of political realities soon they will find themselves in opposition in 2015. Tee hee.

Yummy Polls

It has been a while since we’ve discussed politics and my secret love: opinion polls. Yes, those dreary meaningless statistics that bear little relation to the real world are the small skirmishes between the battles and one such battle is approaching – Thursday’s local elections. Yesterday’s ComRes poll has the Conservatives on 32%, Labour 38%, UKIP 13% and Liberal Democrats trailing with 9%, but of course that is nationally and the elections that are taking place will not be fought under proportional representation. No indeed, these elections are going to be decided with good ole fashioned utterly bonkers first-past-the-post.

As a believer in electoral reform I should be shaking my head in disgust at how skewed the results on Thursday are likely to be, but there is a certain element of chickens coming home to roost, as it is the Conservatives who are about to taste a mouthful of feathers from the upstart right wing UKIP. The left has spent at least three decades being split and now it is the turn of the right. Even though support for right wing policies are on the rise (euro-scepticism, anti-immigration), having the vote split between two parties will help the liberals and labour parties in areas that they are consolidated enough not to bring down each other, a problem they and their supporters have grown accustomed to through years of bloody battles.

So ironically the Lib Dems best hope is Farage, and right now they should be delivering UKIP’s leaflets as well as their own. The more the Conservatives pull to the right to steal UKIP votes, the more sensible conservatives will flock to centrist Liberal Democrats, and the more to the left the Tories pull to defeat Lib Dems, the more they will lose to UKIP.

The only party that seems excluded from all this fun is Labour, who are still stuck with the same share of the vote they have had for ages with little impetus either way. Ed Miliband has been accused of turning his party into the party of protest (simply saying boo to cuts without giving any solution) but if that was his aim the plan backfired. No one wants to register their protest vote with Labour.

And then there’s the Greens who somehow, in a time of global warming, widespread disaffection with politics and grossly unpopular cuts, have managed to make themselves entirely irrelevant.