Andrew Rawnsley: “The real reasons why Nick threw down the gauntlet to Nigel”

Andrew Rawnsley has made some interesting comments in today’s Observer on Nick Clegg’s debate challenge to Nigel Farage.

He makes the obligatory point that the party’s poor position in the polls and concern over the consequences of a bad result for Clegg’s leadership  but makes the point that it only takes a relatively small shift to protect the position of Liberal Democrat MEPs.

Senior Lib Dems privately confide that their goal is quite modest: to lift their vote share by three to four points above their current poll ratings. When you are bumping along at low levels of support, just a few extra points of vote share can make a life-or-death difference when the seats are awarded on a proportional basis. For example: to win one seat in the Yorkshire region, the Lib Dems need to secure between 10% and 12% of the vote. A strategist for a rival party even goes so far as to call the Clegg gambit “smart”.

This is part of a strategy, he argues, to get the Lib Dems noticed, positioned as the only reliable alternative to UKIP.

The Clegg gambit also seeks to turn the Euro elections into a stark argument about being in or being out of Europe, a reframing of the contest that the Lib Dem believes should advantage his party. According to one of his strategists, their essential message will be: “If you want to stop these dangerous rightwingers, you need to vote Lib Dem.”

This is in contrast to Labour’s position. It’s in their interest, he argues, not to talk about Europe, in the same way that the Lib Dems used to ignore it, and to make the European elections a referendum on the Coalition. The last thing he wants is his future premiership being dominated by an EU in/out referendum:

Mr Clegg has decided that there is no mileage to be had from approaching the Euro elections in a defensive way. Even if he were minded to enter a competition for Europhobic voters with the Tories and Ukip, that was not a contest his party could ever win. As for Labour, Ed Miliband’s party remains committed to membership, but is wary about saying so too often or too enthusiastically when much of the public is in a hostile mood. Mr Miliband has declined to match David Cameron’s pledge of an in/out referendum in the next parliament. That may be strategically smart. The Labour leader has thought hard about what a referendum commitment could mean for him in government and foreseen that it would very likely turn into a nightmare. At best, the first two years of his premiership would be consumed by winning the plebiscite. At worst, he’d lose the vote and go down in history as the man who took Britain out against his own wishes. Quite possibly, he could be forced out of Number 10 as well.

 This lack of enthusiasm presents an opportunity for Nick Clegg to pick up support for the party:
 When we last asked Opinium to poll attitudes towards Europe, 26% of respondents said that they regarded the EU as “a good thing” overall and 36% said they would vote to remain a member of the EU. That means about three times as many people have a good opinion of the EU as currently feel positive about the Lib Dems. About four times as many people would vote to stay within the EU as currently say they would vote for the Lib Dems. So it makes sense for Nick Clegg to fish in this sea. By presenting these elections as a chance to halt the rise of rightwing Europhobia, he hopes to attract some votes from pro-European Labour people and some support from pro-European Tories.
One point he doesn’t make is that that Ukip doing well helps the Lib Dems. Labour and the Tories are desperate to get the political stage back to themselves – that’s why Labour sniffily suggested last week that the UK General Election debates should be between potential Prime Ministers. The very last thing we need is a reversion to the old two-party system. The debate with Farage shows a relevance for a wider range of voices. We know that UKIP take fewer votes from us than they do from Labour and the Tories so tactically it’s smart for Clegg to help up their public profile.
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  • Bill Chapman 23rd Feb '14 - 12:47pm

    I’m sorry to see the Liberal Democrats dancing to UKIP’s tune. I suppose that ifgyou are competing for the protest vote, you have to.

  • Eddie Sammon 23rd Feb '14 - 1:11pm

    I think after the Wythenshawe mutiny it is time to get back behind the party. Just under three months to go to the local and European elections.

  • The thing about UKIP is that they have no substantive answers or solutions to much but because of their status as the main anti-politics vessel allows them to avoid scrutiny and for the time being many voters like them. Last time I checked they were running Ramsey Town Council in Cambridgeshire so it’s impossible to use that as an example of where they have any real power.

    I think if people really (and I mean really) sat down and considered how important EU membership is to the UK, they would think again. In part I don’t blame UKIP for rising to success, because as an institution it is seen as distant, elitist and middle class. But life outside it would demonstrate clearly why it’s important to remain in, while obviously making reforms which allow people to feel a part of it.

    Nick Clegg may not be popular at all, but it’s worth a shot to take on Nigel Farage. It shocks me how none of the more moderate Conservative frontbench has said anything yet. It is feebleness that David Cameron has caved in to every myth and airy fairy anecdote by UKIP and the right of his own party. Labour doesn’t want to be seen as too pro-EU after the Blair years, although there is a small rump of the PLP that have always been Eurosceptic.

  • paul barker 23rd Feb '14 - 1:18pm

    Its actually quite reasonable to portray The Euros as a 2-horse-race between us & UKIP because neither of the “main” Parties have a clear position on Europe, for different reasons.

  • I completely disagree with your cynical statement that “it’s tactically smart for Clegg to help up (UKIP’s public) profile” on the grounds that they take more votes from Labour and the Tories than from us. I know what Lord Ashcroft’s polling says, but those are aggregate figures. Where we have historically been strong UKIP are a massive danger to us too. At last year’s county elections UKIP gained 10 seats in Hampshire – three of those were from us in Eastleigh and a number of the others were in divisions which we have held in the recent past. Whatever my view of Clegg I am quite certain that he did not issue this challenge in order to boost UKIP: he is a European and a liberal and recognises that UKIP’s credibility needs to be destroyed in order to preserve both liberalism in this country and our place as a fully functioning member of the EU.

  • “Its actually quite reasonable to portray The Euros as a 2-horse-race between us & UKIP …”

    Now I’ve heard it all.

  • I’m guessing that the Clegg~Farage debate will be on TV rather than radio.?
    Many TV programmes now have a simultaneous phone vote, with the public vote result at the end. I’m hoping the network that does the program has the nous to do a phone vote asking IN or OUT of the EU?
    That would be very interesting to see the public mood for the EU, based on the performance of the two participants, don’t you think?

  • Rebecca – Not only Farage had a pretty negative view of the UKIP 2010 manifesto. The then Leader of UKIP Lord Pearson comprehensively let himself and his party down at the time, by apparently not knowing what large parts of it said, and admitted “I am not very good at this”.

  • Most of the media love Farage .
    Most of the media do not love Clegg.
    Guess how the media will report the Clegg Farage debate?
    For a clue as to how they will report it — see the cartoon in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph.
    It is not impossible that Clegg with will win by a knockout, but anything less will be reported as a win for Farage.

  • Nick’s last peak was during the leaders’ debates. Now, he badly needs some boost, and obviously cant get that through any kind of policy announcement or government initiative. So he’s repeating his last big moment, but can’t debate Cameron obviously, and can’t debate Miliband (as that might make it awkward later on if he’s fishing for a coalition with Labour). So who else is there? Ooh, Farage! He’ll have to do!

  • @ John Tilley

    “It is not impossible that Clegg with will win by a knockout, but anything less will be reported as a win for Farage.”

    Gosh, we agree on something. Hallelujah. I agree that Clegg is almost always viewed through a negative distorting lens by the media and that that will be applied during the debate as well. It will have to be a total walk over for Clegg to have even a chance of a fair verdict being made.

    Such a pity that this media hostility and scapegoating has been absorbed by all too many party members and supporters though.

  • @ Simon

    “but can’t debate Cameron obviously, and can’t debate Miliband”

    Cameron and Miliband have many pros and cons, but it is Europe that is being debated, not Cameron or Miliband.

  • peter tyzack 24th Feb '14 - 10:19am

    RC is so right. Clegg is playing a blinder here.
    Sceptics should now back the Leader or go away and let the Party get on with the difficult job it is doing so well..
    .. and anyway, how arrogant of Labour to refer to the potential PMs without including Clegg.. there is no way we shall return to the two party system because of social media, so all is to play for.. and we must play to win.

  • Our leader has nothing to lose and much to gain by debating with UKIP’s man with a fag and a pint. At present, it appears that the EU elections will produce very poor results for our candidates. It should be easy for Mr Clegg to present a well-reasoned case for Britain’s membership of the EU while also demolishing Mr Farage’s second-rate saloon bar philosophy. This might produce a small electoral bounce for LibDem candidates. Press responses following the Clegg-Farage debate will be irrelevant – with two or three sound and sensible exceptions, UK national newspapers loathe the EU.

  • I’m amazed that people are expecting this to be a triumph for Clegg while at the same time accepting that the media are likely to portray him negatively whatever happens in the debate, Most people are not going to hear more than the odd soundbite from this debate, and will form their conclusions about it from what the media say.

    As for the chances of Clegg “winning by a knockout”, he will be fighting with at least one hand tied behind his back because of his support for an ‘in/out’ referendum in the last parliament. If I were Farage, I would focus the debate as far as possible not on the EU as such, but on the proposition that the people – not the Westminster establishment – should have the right to decide. Given the things Clegg has said in the past, he will find it very difficult to produce any arguments at all against that proposition, let alone land a knockout blow.

  • “Cameron and Miliband have many pros and cons, but it is Europe that is being debated, not Cameron or Miliband.”

    And why is Europe the topic of debate? There’s a whole load of other stuff going on in the country as well. And it was announced so out-of-the-blue, a sudden challenge to the UKIP leader! Because he can’t debate anyone else. So the topic has to be Europe, because 1-no-one knows any other UKIP policy, and 2- Nick can’t really debate any other major subject pertaining to the UK (well he could, but the subtext to every answer would be “and then I’ll get everyone to vote how Dave tells me to”).

    It’s a publicity stunt.

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