Posts Tagged ‘Nick Clegg’

UK election results

The second question is easier to answer than the first. No, we were not. We predicted no overall majority with the Conservatives as the largest party, and they actually won an overall majority. So we have broken our winning run since 1979. Boo-hoo.

But we were almost right. We said that UKIP would win almost no seats, which was right. We said the Greens would only win one, ditto. We predicted the SNP would have a stellar night but not win Orkney and Shetland – correct. And we predicted that the Lib Dems would face a near wipeout, as we have been predicting like Mystic Meg for more than three years now. Correct. Indeed, their result was even worse than we had feared – while party grandees were blathering on about 20-30 seats or even 30-40 we were certain they would win under 20 – and their failure to keep their own seats was key to the whole election result, because if they had won 10 more of the seats they lost in swathes to the Tories throughout the West and South of the country they would probably now be in Government again. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

You will find below the results of the Lord Ashcroft poll taken AFTER people had voted, asking them how, but more importantly, why. People have no reason to fudge or obscure their actions and reasons after they have taken place, so this type of poll is usually infinitely more accurate than pre-election polls.

Microsoft Word - LORD ASHCROFT POLLS - Post-vote poll summary.do

Microsoft Word - LORD ASHCROFT POLLS - Post-vote poll summary.do

Consistently one of the more accurate pollsters, Ashcroft himself would be the first to admit that he didn’t see a Tory majority coming either. Indeed, no one did. (This fact makes us feel slightly less aggrieved with ourselves.) But his post poll explains what happened with great perception. So before the myth making begins, this is what really happened last Thursday:

  • Fully 31% of the electorate decided who to vote for in the last week, with more than one in ten as they entered the poling booth. This shows that, certainly as far as Labour and the Tories were concerned, there was all to play for right up to the end.
  • Lib Dem votes from 2010 went flying everywhere – some to Tories, some to Labour, some to the Greens, and many to UKIP. The Lib Dem vote is thus revealed as very “soft”, ie not “ironed on”. Desertions from the party to major parties went almost equally to the Tories and Labour.
  • The slide of votes from the Lib Dems to UKIP simply reflects the obvious fact that a third party is a natural home for voters who are disaffected with the status quo, and this time round these “protest” voters found a newer and more dynamic home within UKIP. This effect can also be discerned with “swinging voters”.
  • The collapse in trust for the Lib Dems is highlighted by the fact that their “trusted their motives and values” measurement is the lowest of all the parties, with nearly a third of the electorate rejecting the party on this basis. The fact that their candidates were respected locally merely makes the loss of so many sitting MPs even more galling for the party. In simple terms, one factor outweighed the other in how people made their decision.
  • A large number of UKIP voters slid back to the Tories as their minds focused on a likely general election result and who they wanted as PM.
  • Question seven reveals that, as always, bread and butter issues dominated what mattered to people, the highest being Improving the NHS, Getting the economy growing and creating jobs, and Controlling Immigration (which is incorrectly, in our view, conflated with the previous issue in many peoples’ minds), and then a bunch of others.Interestingly, though, when the issue is switched from the “whole country” to “me and my family”, Immigration disappears off the top 3 list to be replaced by Tackling the cost of living crisis. Or in other words, many people have been doing it tough, and they blame that (erroneously, in our view, but consistently) on Immigration.
  • Then again, fully 88% bought Cameron’s view that they were either feeling an economic recovery or believed they would. Thus Milliband and Labour continually bleating about the effects of austerity measures was aiming at the wrong target. Indeed, a very large number of Conservative voters believe austerity measures should be continued (84%) although 54% of the population as a whole believe it has either gone on long enough, or should never have been employed.
  • Partly as a result of this, David Cameron was much preferred by voters as PM, Ed Milliband scored very poorly at 37%. In modern elections the “Presidential” element has become increasingly important.
    Like him or loathe him, Cameron had a good war.

    Like him or loathe him, Cameron had a good war.

    This factor in boosting the Conservative’s overall result cannot be under-estimated. Only 39% of Labour voters preferred Milliband as PM, less than 20% of Lib Dem voters thought Clegg would make a better PM. And staggeringly, only 26% of Labour voters thought Milliband’s senior advisers would make a good government – goodbye Ed Balls, nice to have known you.

    For these reasons we pick the following factors as the crucial, game-changing stats in last Thursday’s cataclysmic event.

  • The collapse in trust for the Lib Dems.
  • The failure of leadership to appeal to the public for both – crucially – the Labour Party, and also the Lib Dems.
  • A very creditable performance by David Cameron, in comparison, and especially in the last week. We saw one very combative performance he gave in a public gathering a few days before the election and thought “Wow, he’s got the bit between his teeth”. Maybe Central Office polling was giving him good news. He now has some political capital of his own he can burn if needs be, although a week, as Harold Wilson once remarked, is a long time in politics, and he would be wise to spend that capital in small increments on things that really matter to him.
  • A feeling that things aren’t quite as bad as they’ve been painted – a certain latent, if sceptical, optimism in the electorate.

Last but not least, of course, there is always the near impossibility for UKIP (or any minor party) to beat the antiquated FPTP electoral system. For the Lib Dems, in particular, the patient accumulation of respect and thus better prospects, assembled over a generation of community campaigning, has been almost totally washed away.

Whilst Labour will be distressed at having done, in reality, quite poorly, of all the parties the Lib Dems’ is perhaps the most bitter bill to swallow.

Interestingly, though, since election night, over 4,000 new members have joined the party, in an act of defiance and hope that is really quite impressive – to this writer, at least.

LGIt is too early to write their political obituary, although it would be equally foolish not to acknowledge that as a force, British Liberalism, that great and honourable political philosophy of Gladstone, Asquith, Lloyd George, Jo Grimond, David Steel and others, is currently looking pretty sickly on life support.

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The 2010 result - next Thursday will be wildly different.

The 2010 result – next Thursday will be wildly different.

Dear Reader, we have often claimed a 100% record for our election predictions around the world since around 1979. Of course, the fact that we haven’t managed to parlay these into a cushy job standing around in an ill-fitting suit on TV on election night is another matter altogether. Still, it’s a fun game: half political nous, half consumer insight, and half instinct.

Thus friends who have been following our prognostications for half a lifetime or more have been urging us to put up or shut up. Mostly, we suspect, shut up.

But this election in the UK is proving notoriously difficult to call accurately.

For those of you who aren’t following it with the same obsessive pleasure as your indefatigable correspondent, we will lay out the basic issues.

A majority government after next Thursday?

Will either Labour or the Conservatives get an overall majority of seats?

This is the easy one. No. The reasons are many and varied, but the essentials are that no one party is particularly popular in a country that is ravaged by political division and has endured tough times in recent years.

Normally, tough times would usher in the Opposition, on the basis that Oppositions don’t win elections, Governments lose them.

But there is the rather odd situation this time where none of the major party leaders are genuinely popular, and the electorate is also keenly aware of the fact that no major party seems to have a very clear idea of what to do to combat the general economic malaise affecting a Europe stricken with structural debt and over-spending, matched to low levels of productivity and innovation.

Labour would have won the election in the good old bad old days, but the seemingly unstoppable rise and rise of the populist, quasi-socialist Scottish National Party (and to a lesser extent their Welsh equivalent) will rob them of the seats in the major urban areas of of the Celtic states that they historically thought they “owned”.

The Lib Dems, although they have done a little better in the last week thanks to a creeping decline in the UKIP vote as the anti-immigration party come under greater scrutiny and a good performance from party leader Nick Clegg in a TV debate, will not win enough seats to make another straight Tory/Lib Dem Coalition a possibility.

So who will be the next Prime Minister?

That’s probably a rather easier one. If one adds the likely SNP wins to the likely Labour wins, then it will be Ed Milliband of Labour. Except that he has gone out of his way to insist (without any credibility) that he will not even consider an agreement where the SNP guarantee supply, let alone a full-blown coalition, so there is still some uncertainty. If Labour wins the popular vote (say by 35-34%) in the old days that would have seen them within a seat or two of a majority given the current standing of the Lib Dems and UKIP. The rise of the SNP is a new political reality that Westminster has to grapple with.

As we cannot predict with any certainty what politicians will do behind closed doors – who would have bet on the Lib Dems backing the pro-austerity Euro-sceptic Tories last time rather than their more amenable centre-left Labour colleagues? – we cannot predict what will happen after Thursday. But we suspect the outcome may be as follows, or something like it:

As the leader of the largest party, and the sitting PM, the Queen will invite David Cameron to try and form a majority Government – which may need to be tested on the floor of the Commons – but he will fail to pass a vote of confidence. The Lib Dems won’t have enough seats to get him over the line, even with the support of the protestants from Northern Ireland and a couple of UKIP MPs, and anyway they will abstain because of the current Tory insistence on an “in out” referendum on the EU.

The Queen will then invite Ed Milliband to do the same, and his motion WILL pass, but without a formal agreement with the SNP, putting him in power as a genuine minority Government – a situation almost unknown in British governmental history. Why will it pass? Simply because the SNP will calculate that they have more chance of negotiating successfully and informally with Labour, with whom they share many policy objectives, than they would with the Conservatives, who are anathema to them and their supporters. In effect – and this may be Milliband’s current calculation – they are pretty much caught in the cleft stick of their own anti-Tory rhetoric.

This process could take a long time, and will be the subject of fevered discussion in the media and the country. If you thought post-2010 was chaotic, it’ll be nothing compared to this.

So why not just call the election now? Isn’t that what you’re doing?

Well, sort of. Except when we make predictions we like them to be as accurate as possible, and there’s one factor that prevents a rush to final judgement.

The last weekend

One of the things most misunderstood by political pundits and commentators that have never actually been politically active themselves is the effect of the “ground game”, as the Americans call it. The Obama ground game – making sure one’s own supporters get out and vote in sufficient numbers, and getting waverers back into the fold – was the main reason he won re-election in 2012, for example, and it went to pot in the 2014 mid-terms, which is why the Republicans did so much better then.

(That’s a deep simplification, and other factors were at play in both elections, but it’s essentially a very true and much-ignored fact.)

Yes, the all-important ground game: that’s the effect on the electorate of the work done by political parties in each constituency. These can produce utterly skewed results, seat by seat. Taken over the country as a whole, they can affect the result significantly.

We won’t know the effect of the last weekend’s campaigning until polls are taken on Sunday night (by telephone) in key marginals, hopefully picking up any last minute impacts.

Similarly, whilst it might be hard for those of us obsessed with such matters to believe it, politics isn’t the most important factor in many people’s lives. So many people make their mind up in the last few days of an election, including, in the UK, whether to vote or not at all. We would normally suggest a low turnout for this poll, given the unpopularity of the main parties, but two other factors suggest it will be an average or even slightly higher turnout. One: other options now exist for disenchanted voters to express a protest vote, such as UKIP, the Greens and the Nationalists. Two: everyone understands the election is close, and therefore people feel their individual vote may carry more weight than usual. Those people are not yet reflected in polls – unless they are “Don’t Knows” – and in a tight election working out what they might do is central to understanding what will happen.

Sanders

For those of you who may never have lived in a marginal seat, here’s a brilliant example of what’s known as a “Last minute squeeze leaflet” employed by sitting Lib Dem MP in Torbay, Devon, Adrian Sanders. Normally, one would expect Sanders to be in trouble in this seat, which was a Tory fiefdom for decades, despite the fact that he is a hard-working local MP who is well-respected. But this leaflet makes it clear to all those who intend voting that only the Lib Dems or the Tories have a realistic chance of winning. Voters like being on the winning side – messages like this, if conveyed successfully, produce so-called “tactical voting” (aka I want the MP I least dislike) – which can boost the result for one of the main contenders or another.

Of course, the Tories can employ the same tactic against intending UKIP voters – and will, in this seat and others. Both Tory and Labour candidates will ruthlessly “squeeze” Lib Dem candidates and others in seats where they are going head to head.

How well each party makes this argument, seat by seat, will have a profound effect on the result. Pollsters will be seeking to track that effect from Sunday night onwards, which is why we will reserve our final prediction for a day or so.

We will note these general trends, which we expect to show up more clearly in polls over the next few days.

  • The number of “Don’t Knows” is falling, and this will increase as next Thursday approaches. Opinion polls that combine face-to-face interviewing with telephone interviewing, and which include constituency-specific data in their polling, will be more accurate, and are the ones to follow.
  • UKIP’s vote has peaked and is in decline. They have had, essentially, a poor campaign. Will probably only win two seats in England.
  • The SNP will probably not win all the seats in Scotland, as people have so breathlessly been reporting, but they will win a great many. The Lib Dems will retain Orkney and Shetland and maybe one more seat.
  • Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats is now marginally less likely to lose his seat of Sheffield Hallam than he was a couple of weeks back. The Lib Dem vote is trending up again, inch by laborious inch, and we expect it to end up on or near 9-10% nationally. Predicting their result nationally is fiendishly difficult because there are some seats – Eastleigh is a good example – where their ground game and local Government presence makes it almost impossible for them to lose, whereas on notional national swings they could. We have said all along they will end up with 20 seats or less – which will be a disaster for them – but we concede that other wise heads predict 20-to-30. We think we’re nearer right than wrong.
  • The Greens will only hold one seat after the election, the one they hold now in Brighton.

More news as it comes to hand. We will make our fearless prediction on Monday or Tuesday. Maybe.

Interestingly, The Independent newspaper’s poll of polls where they consult the heads of the ten largest polling organisations is headlined “A Tory lead but a Labour Government” and includes this very apposite comment from one of the pollsters, Michelle Harrison of TNS:

This election represents what happens when a country is not confident about its economic future, unsure of its place in the world, and fed up with the state of its politics.

The political stalemate at the centre, and the fragmentation of the traditional party system, has left us with a set of polls incapable of telling what will ultimately happen, when there are so many potential scenarios. What we can feel confident about though is that Thursday will be a seismic night for politics in Scotland. When the votes are counted, we expect the Tories to be the largest party, but that Labour should still have the greatest chance of forming a government. But how do we measure the advantage for the Conservatives of already being in No 10 in the days after the general election? The real drama will start on Friday.

We agree. Meanwhile, if you think you know better, put your assumptions into this rather excellent Election Predictor, one of many around. Here’s another good one. Hours of innocent fun for all the family …

Incidentally, putting an average of the most recent polls into predictors today (using different figures for Scotland of course) gives this result which would mean our predictions over the last year about most of the result have been well-nigh spot on. Long way to go yet though:

National Prediction: Conservative short 46 of majority

Party 2010 Votes 2010 Seats Pred Votes Gains Losses Pred Seats
CON 37.0% 307 33.5% 18 45 280
LAB 29.7% 258 31.5% 53 33 278
LIB 23.6% 57 10.0% 0 40 17
UKIP 3.2% 0 13.8% 2 0 2
Green 1.0% 1 5.1% 0 0 1
SNP 1.7% 6 4.1% 45 0 51
PlaidC 0.6% 3 0.6% 0 0 3
Minor 3.4% 0 1.4% 0 0 0
N.Ire 18 0 0 18
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg may face a challenge.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg may face a challenge.

Most of the coverage of last night’s Newark by-election will focus on the failure of UKIP to win the seat from the Conservatives and what that says, or doesn’t say, about the fortunes of the newly successful right-wing party.

At the Wellthisiswhatithink political desk we happen to believe that the UKIP protest vote has peaked and will now steadily decline, mostly to the advantage of the Labour Party which is gradually regaining credibility, but we could be wrong, and if a week is a long time in politics then the more than a year before the next General Election is a positive aeon.

UKIP will certainly be trying to paint the by-election result as a great success, although they should pause and consider that on the basis of recent local election results this was a seat they “won” two weeks ago, and also that the low (just over 50% turnout) betokens both a weariness in the community and points to a lack of election-fighting capacity in the new party.

The Liberal Democrats too have seen a dramatic change in their political fortunes, although much less favourable than UKIP.

They won a fifth of all votes in the Newark seat four years ago but on Thursday their support was all but wiped out, with their candidate coming sixth behind both an independent and the Green Party, and losing their deposit in the process. For a party which is notable for being the by-election experts of the British political scene, with huge by-election fighting capacity in the past, the result could hardly have been more depressing.

It is the latest in a run of bad results for the beleaguered party and will do nothing to bolster support for its leader, Nick Clegg, who in an appalling display of political cowardice failed to make even a single appearance in Newark during the short campaign.

Granted, this may not be a Lib Dem target seat – and when it comes to the general election they will focus effort where they have already got support on the ground – but the fact they were not even in this race shows just how much work they have to do nationally. A nascent movement to remove the leader (who currently shows no signs of resigning) continues to gather pace in this most polite and middle-class party where such nastiness would generally be avoided. But the run of terrible results for the Lib Dems may tip some who would otherwise be horrified at a leadership spill into the activist “something must be done” camp.

If for not other reason that another 1,000+ LD Councillors are up for re-election next May, and as things stands currently the vast majority of them will be ex-Councillors in short order.

And for the record, we have been in favour of Mr Clegg either upping his game dramatically or moving aside for more than two years now. The fact that so many now agree with us brings us no joy. It would be heartily better if the running sore of his incompetent leadership was lanced immediately.

Lib Dem members who feel a change of Leader is inevitable can voice their opinion at libdems4change.org.

Froth and bubble: the UK is engaged in a double election. But what do the results mean?

Froth and bubble: the UK is engaged in a double election. But what do the results mean?

The Local Council elections in the UK can be seen, pretty much, as an excellent opinion poll for the state of the major parties in the UK. But that comment must also be taken with a whoppingly large pinch of salt. They are historically much better at showing trends rather than accurately forecasting a future general election.

For one think, local factors can and do count. In a Borough like Eastleigh, for example, where the Liberal Democrat “machine” is well established, the Lib Dems just held all their seats and even gained one from an Independent. That result for that party is, however, very unlikely to be repeated elsewhere. They have lost control of Kingston upon Thames, for example, a “flagship” authority for them.

Various results are in and many more are not, but as at about 5 am it appears that certain matters are clearly becoming obvious, even if the analysis is still very much “broad brushstroke”, and subject to change.

Um. Er. Well. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg faces an uncomfortable future.

Um. Er. Well. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg faces an uncomfortable future.

Labour is doing moderately well, although not as well as it needed to, to look like a convincing alternative Government, hoovering up seats from the Lib Dems in particular.

The Conservatives are doing moderately badly, leaking seats to UKIP. But UKIP are also picking up seats (and missing many others narrowly) in all sorts of strange places against all the parties, including Labour.

The Lib Dems are currently looking to lose about a third of their Councillors, not quite as bad as the half that we predicted, but still a very poor result.

Which will do nothing to lessen the pressure on their embattled leader Nick Clegg. Who may well go down in history as “embattled Nick Clegg”, the phrase is being used so often now. Anyhow, here are the current standings:

 

Councils Seats
Party Total Change+/- Total Change+/-
Labour 20 -1 429 +54
Conservative 14 -7 374 -87
Liberal Democrat 1 0 96 -57
United Kingdom Independence Party 0 0 84 +83
Independent 0 0 30 +7

 

Euro election results will not be released until Sunday, and here again they are a good “opinion poll”, but will be skewed by the very nature of the body being elected. Thus we expect UKIP to do even better than they have done in the local elections, because of the particular focus their party places on Europe, and the widespread disapproval of much of the EU’s behaviour in recent years.

More news as it comes to hand for those political tragics, like us, who find much to ponder in these things. And if our early call ends up looking inaccurate, we will issue a new bulletin. We would also be delighted to hear “war stories” from the front line from any candidates or campaigners in the UK.

Tony_Abbott_-_2010And just as an aside, Dear Reader, the Washington Post has just christened Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott as the most unpopular leader in the free world, after a swingeing “austerity budget” delivered a week ago, which is sitting somewhat uncomfortably on the shoulders of the population of the richest country in the Western world which is not at all sure it needs an austerity budget at all, thank you very much.

There’s now even an irreverent hashtag #MorePopularThanAbbott, which suggests that both toilet paper and flat tires are more popular than the conservative prime minister. Our favourite #MorePopularThanAbbott so far as been “the HIV virus”. #onetermtony is also trending well. This for a Government elected less than a year ago on a wave of enthusiasm.

Electorates are getting much more fickle. As Harold Wilson once remarked, “a week is a long time in politics”.

And those crowing at the moment in the UK might also carer to consider that other favourite aphorism: “Today’s rooster, tomorrow’s feather duster.”

 

It’s an important day today (well, tomorrow, over there, as we post this from Melbourne), for UK voters.

The furore over the rise and rise of the extraordinarily right wing and virulently anti-EU UK Independence Party – and its charismatic but somewhat questionable leader Nigel Farage – has kept us both mildly horrified, fascinated and occasionally amused.

As you know, Dear Reader, we like to be helpful, so we supply this very helpful chart from Huffpost UK to all those uncertain whether they should place their “X” against UKIP in the Euro and Local elections. Very funny, and thank you to them.

 

Image

 

At the Wellthisiswhatithink desk, we are the “pick and stick” types. We are on record (for nearly forty years now) as supporting the most pro-European party, the Liberal Democrats, and we have often written pro-EU columns (and then ducked and run for cover as the brickbats inevitably come flying from an electorate thoroughly sick of some of the nonsense that admittedly goes on in Brussels). We are, frankly, old enough to remember – if not the war itself – then the ripple effects of the war, and we profoundly believe in the “European project” as a matter of principle.

UK voting

Nick Clegg, this is going to be ugly.

But we are also on record as being of the opinion that the Lib Dems are heading for an absolute shellacking under the woeful current party leadership and especially that of Nick Clegg, the Leader himself.

We strongly suspect the party we love and believe in (still) will go close to being wiped out in some areas, perhaps many areas – and we bitterly regret what will be the unwarranted loss of many hard-working Lib Dem Councillors who have done nothing wrong and much right in faithfully representing their local wards – and that they will also endure a thoroughly humiliating performance in the EU elections.

So although results will be patchy, and the leadership will talk up all Lib Dem successes for all they are worth – and although we are fervently not hoping for a bad result for the LDs, just expecting it – we are sure we will be proven right.

And we expect a leadership spill with Nick Clegg “tapped on the shoulder” soon after, too. You heard it here first.

Incidentally, one serious word of advice to all intending UKIP voters.

Remember, any decision to leave the EU cannot be taken in Brussels, it must be taken in Westminster. So voting UKIP in the EU elections will achieve, er, precisely nothing, if you are in the “get out at all costs” brigade.

Except, of course, to give a bloody nose to the major parties. Which, as many have pointed out, is probably precisely what you are intending to do. And probably why, precisely, you will return to voting Labour and Conservative at the next General Election, and to a lesser extent Lib Dem, Plaid Cymru and Scots Nats, despite all the “gosh wow look what happens if we extrapolate that vote to a Westminster election” coverage that UKIPs successes will lead to tomorrow.

And you heard that here first, too.

"You have sat there too long for any good you may do. For God's sake, go!"

“You have sat there too long for any good you may do. For God’s sake, go!”

The following comments were posted on Facebook by Peter Chegwyn, not only one of the most astute men I know, but also one of the Liberal Party’s (and then the Liberal Democrats’) most highly credentialled campaign organisers and managers.

So… a lost deposit in Manchester Wythenshawe, vote down from 22.3% to under 5%, BNP & Greens beaten by just 400 votes, Lib. Dem. vote just 1/3 of the Tory vote and 1/4 of the UKIP vote, all this in a seat where we polled better than the national average in both 2005 & 2010 and, in normal circumstances, could have expected to finish a respectable 2nd this time.

No doubt we’ll hear the usual from the leadership… ‘This is a seat we were never going to win’ (true), ‘We wouldn’t expect to poll well here’ (untrue), ‘We’ll do better in seats we hold’ etc. etc. etc.

How long before people wake up and smell the coffee?

Will it take a hammering in the European & local elections in May or even then will people still stick their heads in the sand as 2015 fast approaches?

Note, the Lib Dems lost their deposit having previously held more than a fifth of the vote in the seat. Their vote collapsed by more than 17%. Repeat that result across all the LD’s current seats. Go on, I dare you.

I endorse entirely what Peter says, and I extrapolate it to its logical conclusion.

Whether we like it or not, politics in the modern media era is increasingly “presidential” in style.

The Lib Dems leader, Nick Clegg, is now electoral poison. He is way past his use by date. If the LD’s persist with him, they will be slaughtered at not only the upcoming local Council and European elections (losing some very fine people in the process through no fault of theirs, which does no one any good, specifically the good people they represent) but at the next General Election they will be reduced to an irrelevant rump of seats – back to the dark days of the 1950s-1970s.

And his credibility is not going to be helped by breaking stories like this.

Anyhow, apparently, a request by 75 constituency parties for a leadership spill can trigger an election. Moves are afoot amongst seasoned party campaigners to test that possibility.

But it would be much better, faster and cleaner if those who believe in the future of the party – we are not entirely convinced Clegg does, which is why he may be less concerned than many others – were to “tap him on the shoulder”. “Come on chum, nice try.  Sword on the table in the ante-room. There’s a good fellow. Fall on it.”

Your correspondent, Dear Reader, is clear.

Clegg. Must. Go. Now.

Period.

Tony Benn

Those who think being “business friendly” (or “Conservative Lite” as I like to call it) is the way forward for the UK Liberal Democrats should keep a close eye on the German Federal Election this weekend.

The Lib-Dems’ long-term European ally the Free Democrats may be effectively wiped out at the election by failing to meet the 5% hurdle to enter Parliament and remain in the governing Coalition.

Essentially the FDP’s support has either drifted to the majority party with whom it has been in Coalition on and off for a generation (the CDU under Angela Merkel) or it has wandered off to a variety of other options on both left and right, according to whichever way members of the party’s somewhat amorphous supporter base lean.

The same fate applied to the Australian Democrats a while back, when they got too close to the then Conservative government and passed a regressive tax package, although leadership wrangling played just as much of a role in their demise.

Back to the future: the day Tony Benn predicted the Lib-Dem’s current crisis to me.

I well remember chatting for some time to Tony Benn at a Liberal Party conference at Harrogate deep in the last millennium, at which he was addressing a fringe meeting.

Opinions on Benn differ – I considered and still consider him a national treasure, and I read his famous diaries voraciously – in a discursive conversation that especially covered his views on the essential non-independence of elected Governments, which his Wikipedia entry summaries as follows:

By the end of the 1970s, Benn had migrated to the left wing of the Labour Party. He attributed this political shift to his experience as a Cabinet Minister in the 1964–1970 Labour Government.

Four lessons

Benn quoted four lessons:

1) how “the Civil Service can frustrate the policies and decisions of popularly elected governments”;

2) the centralised nature of the Labour Party allowing to the Leader to run “the Party almost as if it were his personal kingdom”;

3) “the power of industrialists and bankers to get their way by use of the crudest form of economic pressure, even blackmail, against a Labour Government”; and

4) the power of the media, which “like the power of the medieveal Church, ensures that events of the day are always presented from the point of the view of those who enjoy economic privilege.

As regards the power of industrialists and bankers, Benn remarked:

“Compared to this, the pressure brought to bear in industrial disputes by the unions is minuscule. This power was revealed even more clearly in 1976 when the IMF secured cuts in our public expenditure.

These [four] lessons led me to the conclusion that the UK is only superficially governed by MPs and the voters who elect them. Parliamentary democracy is, in truth, little more than a means of securing a periodical change in the management team, which is then allowed to preside over a system that remains in essence intact. If the British people were ever to ask themselves what power they truly enjoyed under our political system they would be amazed to discover how little it is, and some new Chartist agitation might be born and might quickly gather momentum.”

That was essentially Benn’s thesis as we talked. He shared a few examples which it would be inappropriate for me to repeat here, as it was a private conversation. I was left profoundly convinced that – even though I disagreed with much of his prescriptions to solve these obvious problems – his analysis of the hidden state-behind-the-state that influenced the public behaviour of governments was totally accurate.

I genuinely don’t think it was his obvious charisma and passion that led me to conclude he was correct, although Benn is undoubtedly a very attractive and convincing individual, especially for a young Parliamentary candidate in his twenties. It was more that the stories he told me simply “rang true”.

As I nursed a pint and Benn enjoyed his perennial mug of strong tea and a pipe – he has been both a lifelong teetotaller and longtime pipe smoker – the conversation moved onto the manner in which essentially left wing parties may nevertheless sometimes be required to enact unpopular social policies, specifically cutting public expenditure as the wider macro-economic situation demanded.

I have never forgotten these words

And Benn said something to me that I have never forgotten, and which I later heard him repeat on various occasions on TV in the coming years, especially as Labour sunk deeper and deeper into the Blairite fog.

I am paraphrasing, but it ran thus:

“We are not the bastards” he said, somewhat whimsically. “The public know we are not the bastards. When we try and act like bastards, we do a poor job of it, and the public know our heart is not really in it. If they want the bastards, they’ll vote for the real ones – the Tories. If we try and pretend to be Tories, they’ll simply kick us out and go get the real thing.”

This weekend, the FDP will pay the ultimate price for deserting their community-focused, small business friendly, “small is beautiful”, environmentally aware, co-operative roots. They will be decimated, and may well end up a footnote to history.

Nice Clegg

The Liberal Democrats led by Nick Clegg and the right-leaning cabal he has gathered around him – or the Lib Dems led by someone else – should listen and learn, or they will face the same fate – and frankly, what’s more, they will deserve to.

“They don’t want us to pretend to be the bastards.

If they want the bastards, they’ll vote for them.”

Liberal Democrats: you have been warned. Don’t say you weren’t.

UPDATE

"What's the similarity between Becks and the FDP? They've both got 4.9%."  Oh, those crazy whacky Germans.

“What’s the similarity between Becks and the FDP? They’ve both got 4.9%.” Oh, those crazy whacky Germans, eh? How cruel to say they don’t have a sense of humour.

Well, our direst forecasts have proven correct. As has Benn’s essential thesis. Some 2.2 million FDP voters switched directly from the FDP to Merkel’s ruling CDU to deliver her one of the biggest election victories since the war.

(An interesting aside: If she stays in power for the next four years, as she has said she intends to, she will pass Margaret Thatcher’s record as the longest serving female leader in modern European electoral history.)

The FDP’s vote collapsed to 4.9%, tantalisingly close to the 5% they needed to ensure survival, and denying it seats in the lower house of the Bundestag, effectively making them and the country’s Vice Chancellor Philipp Roesler (ironic, huh? Vice Chancellor … Deputy Prime Minister … geddit?) utterly irrelevant to Germany moving forward.

And by the by, denying Merkel a natural coalition partner despite her electoral triumph; she will now have to laboriously try and stitch together either a “Grand Coalition” with her natural rivals the SDP, or cobble together an arrangement with the Greens.

Both options look problematical. Ironically, Merkel now has both unparalleled authority in her country, and a real chance that she may struggle to govern effectively, which given Germany’s key role in re-shaping the Eurozone is hardly good news both for Europeans and the rest of the world who are hoping that the economies Greece, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Portugal et al are going to continue to avoid collapsing entirely, which would plunge the world back into a credit crisis.

Vince Cable - a burr under Clegg's saddle, but wisely so.

Vince Cable – a burr under Clegg’s saddle, but wisely so.

After four years of bickering and failure to deliver on its tax-cutting pledges German voters overwhelmingly bled to the “real bastards” (exactly as explained above) and for those who couldn’t make that switch there were a variety of more left-wing options to try. What they didn’t do was stay with a party that didn’t seem to know why it exists.

We maintain the Lib Dems need to work much harder on effectively differentiating themselves from their larger Coalition partner or face the same fate.

Buying the Tories’ free market schtick holus bolus is most certainly not the way to do that.

Senior economic spokesman Vince Cable is often criticised by those on the right of the party for his often mournful warnings that the Tories talk at least as much crap as they do good sense about reducing deficits and applying austerity measures to cure the country of its bloated welfare culture.

As Cable has appositely pointed out, Jeremiah might have been a miserable old curmurdgeon, but his famously depressing prophesies were correct.

Er ...

Er …

Meanwhile, Merkel’s continuing onward march gives us an excuse to tell again our very favourite completely politically incorrect joke.

So Angela Merkel turns up in her stretched Mercedes at the border with Greece.

An Immigration Officer wanders over to the car. “Name?”

“Angela Merkel,” says the Chancellor as she passes over her passport.

“Occupation?” asks the officer, as he flips through the pages.

“No, ” smiles Merkel sweetly, “just a holiday this time.”

FOOTNOTE: We were saddened to see that the seemingly indomitable Tony Benn was admitted to hospital this week after feeling unwell. Let us hope he recovers fully and our thoughts are with him and his family. Agree with him or not, his contribution to modern political debate in the UK and beyond has been colossal. We are also reminded of his famous quip in 2001 that he was retiring as an MP “to concentrate on politics”. Maybe Nick Clegg should view the Deputy Prime ministership with similar askance humour sometime soon.

It certainly seems so. Coming on top of losing the appallingly mis-handled referendum on PR for the UK Parliament, they also recently lost Council seats in the UK by the bucketload, confirming that it is they, rather than the majority partner in the governing Coalition – the Conservative Party – that is wearing the opprobrium of the public for the austerity measures currently wracking the country.

 

From smiling chumminess in the garden at No 10 with his new mate David Cameron to contemplating the worst Council election results in his party’s history – is this mid-terms blues or is the party really over for Nick Clegg?

 

As nobody ever expects the Tories to do anything but ruthlessly “cut, cut, cut” when they are in power, (especially when they inherit Government from an utterly profligate and incompetent Labour Government), and the Liberal Democrats have for years portrayed themselves as nice, warm, wooly middle-class people who are in favour of just about everything sugary and nice and against anything nasty and pooh-bum-ish, then when they were pitchforked into the maelstrom of handling an economic crisis this outcome was, of course, utterly predictable.

As the inestimably wonderful Tony Benn once said to me over a beer in Harrogate  – although, as a teetotaler, he was drinking a mug of tea, of course – “The people don’t want us to be the Bastards, Stephen, they know we’re no good at it. If they want the Bastards, they’ll go for the proper Bastards. The ones who do it naturally. Left wing parties have no job being Bastards. Not you, not Labour.”

And he was spot on.

I sent an email to a friend commenting that the very good Lib Dem candidate for the London mayoralty really shouldn’t have come fourth behind the Greens. He commented by return:

You think London is bad? In Edinburgh (where the Lib Dems were the largest party until Thursday), one Lib Dem candidate received fewer votes than “Professor Pongoo, the Six-Foot Penguin”.

Well, I have endured some pretty awful election results as a Liberal in my time. However, I am pleased to say I was never beaten by a Six-Foot Penguin, no matter what his level of academic achievement. It reminds one fearfully of the wonderful Monty Python “Election Night Special”.

Eerily prescient. Anyway, since almost the very day that the deal was done between Clegg and Cameron and the Coalition came to power, worried Lib Dem campaigners with generations of experience have been tearing their hair out to convince the left-of-centre party’s central leadership that they need to be effectively – note, effectively – differentiated from their bigger Coalition partners or inevitably face an electoral backlash of considerable proportions.

The problem is, the Lib Dem leadership (with a very few exceptions) generally seem to show every sign of being perfectly convinced that the Government’s parsimony is the only way forward for Britain, when what was needed, of course, was an intelligent re-direction of spending priorities away from massive, flabby bureaucracy but back into the economy, to ensure adequate investment in national infrastructure which would duly trickle through to a variety of private enterprises.

Yes, the country must live within its means, or at least, very close to them. Ultimately, all countries must. However, there was and is still a deal of work to be done deciding exactly what that entails. Economies are like hungry bellies – they need feeding or they grind to a halt. Private business just doesn’t pick up the slack. Sticking up a few stadia for the upcoming Olympics will not cut it: on the basis of its transport infrastructure alone, for example, the UK lags far behind its European competitors. What was needed was a measured, thoughtful re-direction of investment. What Britain got was a wholesale panic shut down of Government spending.

In short, Clegg has singularly failed to convince anyone that his party is doing a smart job of ameliorating the Government’s excesses, or of creating smart outcomes that lock in a future for Britain as an innovative, manufacturing nation. He is now a figure of sarcastic fun, and electorally tainted – probably, in my opinion, damaged goods beyond repair.  There will be a gradually growing pressure for change within the party from the “ABC”  tendency – “Anyone But Clegg”  – not that many of the leading Lib Dems look well poised to take over.

In the historic scheme of things, the Lib Dems will recover from this experience – eventually – although they may have reached their modern high water mark at the last two general elections. In future, what positive effect they have on legislation is unclear, and probably subject to the concomitant electoral success of an eclectic bunch of nationalists, greens and anti-European bombasts, who will all make uncomfortable ginger-group colleagues.

(Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the UK Independence Party is that they are not the British National Party, which did very badly at the Council elections. However, those who enjoy watching the fringes of British politics might like to consider this story before they try and keep their kippers and toast down.)

In our opinion the Lib Dems should have resisted joining a coalition and supported legislation on a case by case basis, playing honest brokers between the two major parties, and demonstrating what it is that makes them different from the big boys.

Yes, it would have been messy, untidy and complicated, and the arrangement would have been roundly criticised for not being “stable”  enough.

But on the other hand the British public might have learned something about non-majority Government, (as Australia has in the last two years), and they would have kept their soul, and their uniquely independent and refreshing view of the political landscape in the UK. I know I will be accused of 20-20 hindsight, but I did say it at the time.

In the end, though, the lure of the Government benches was too strong. Being treated like grown ups for the first time in three generations was a heady brew.

Sadly, though, the hangover may go on for a very long time.