Douglas Carswell: Free Liberal – How it might have been (pt. 3)

This is the concluding part of a trilogy of counterfactual pieces previously published on LDV.

For Part 1 and Part 2, including the full results of the by-elections in Clacton and Heywood & Middleton in this continuity, please click the links.

…while some on principles baptized/To strict party platforms ties/
Social clubs in drag disguise/Outsiders they can freely criticize/
Tell nothing except who to idolize….”

-‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’, Bob Dylan

The dual results in in Clacton and Heywood & Middleton on 9th October threw UK Politics into complete disarray.

Douglas Carswell had been re-elected (fairly narrowly) in Clacton as a ‘Free Liberal’ MP. He had evidently managed to rally Eurosceptic Tories, reformist Labour voters, despairing Liberal Democrats and previous non-voters beneath his inspirationally-zealous (and vaguely-defined) banner. He had also been helped (although he himself would make frequent denials of this) by a significant amount of support for the controversial Britain First. Taking advantage of UKIP’s abstention, the BF candidate, in a close result, may have prevented the Conservatives from retaining the seat.

Carswell’s majority was slight, and in no way guaranteed him the retention of the seat in 2015. The man himself was acutely aware of this, and privately was reported to be operating under aBreaking Bad’ strategy’, as he put it to friends – acting like a man who knew he might not have long to make gains. With rhetoric drenched with Wycliffe and Gladstone, he threw himself straight into the latest efforts at the ill-fated Recall bill….

He was joined in the Commons by another narrowly-victorious insurgent, UKIP’s John Bickley, who had just scraped an exhilarating win from Labour in Heywood & Middleton. Farage’s insurgency, freed up by its decision made back in late August not to fight Eurosceptic Carswell in Clacton on the same day, had put in the effort and the resources and benefited from Labour’s complacency to make history. Labour had been beaten, in what should have been a safe seat, and Bickley, unsuccessful candidate in Wythenshawe & Sale East earlier in the year, had become UKIP’s first elected MP. Bickley in his victory speech was more than a little rough-edged on immigration and ‘Labour leeches’ Farage crowed in the papers, and the only UKIP member who seemed slightly put out was Mark Reckless, Farage’s previous trophy defector, who was campaigning in Rochester & Strood to keep his seat, but had been denied his chance to become UKIP’s first elected Parliamentary presence. If he seethed, he seethed in private.

A time-bomb which had seemed to be David Cameron’s problem for most of the parliament had exploded spectacularly on Miliband’s doorstep. The response from the Labour Leadership was decisive, but detrimental. Miliband needed to take some radical action lest he be considered to be hand-waving away the result, and opted for a plan that he had reportedly been mulling in private for a long time. It was also, arguably, the worst thing he could have done at this stage, although we have yet to fully discern the long-term costs to Labour. He sacked Ed Balls as Shadow Chancellor, replacing him with an ascendant Chukka Umunna. It was diplomatically framed (as a step sidewise to ‘Primary Strategist’) but Balls’ icy, unconvincing surface-loyalty in exile spoke volumes. One thing was clear: Labour’s period of illusory unity had ended seven months early. Briefings, sniping and press leaks were once again the order of the day. Although Balls was probably done as a direct challenger to Miliband, he shared a home with an MP who stood well placed to succeed. Labour were split, and along multiple lines; the resignation of Johann Lamont as Scottish Leader, fairly inevitable though it may have been post Referendum, illustrated another glowing chasm of mistrust. The SNP, not to mention the Tories, made hay while the Red sun sputtered and spun.

For the Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, it was finally undeniably time for existential surgery. Only days from the chaos of their Conference, which the loose alliance of Carswell and Jeremy Browne had circled like arch, media-savvy carrion, the two by-elections had sounded two rings of the cloister bell. In Clacton, the Party’s firing ideology had been cannily appropriated and re-shod by Carswell to win a platform for his idiosyncratic libertarian reform agenda, whilst the Lib Dem vote had collapsed to just 97, a historically embarrassing result. Carswell had not so much split the Liberal vote as cleanly absconded with it. In Heywood and Middleton, the Lib Dem vote, formerly respectable, had been reduced and then split by a ‘Liberal Conscience’ candidate, Donna Tyler, a disgruntled former member and activist, inspired by Carswell but much more representative of the anti-Coalition ‘Social-Liberal’ wing of the Party. The Lib Dems had not only been beaten by their rival ‘Liberals’ in both seats, they had, it almost went without saying, been overtaken handily by the Greens.

Lib Dems members generally retained their typical mix of stoicism, gallows humour and oncoming-train fatalism, for the most part. But one man, at least, had finally had enough. It is unclear as yet whether ‘a word was had’ by senior parliamentary colleagues, or whether the decision was purely one of delayed principle, or, rather, of unpostponable pragmatism. Whatever the truth, on 13th October, having spent the weekend following the by-elections in seclusion, Nick Clegg emerged to the waiting photographers to announce his resignation as Leader of the Liberal Democrats. His speech was gracious, politely unrepentant, and conciliatory, claiming “that the Party deserves a stronger hearing, and a fairer shot.” He simultaneously resigned the office of Deputy Prime Minister, which was left vacant.

The Lib Dems now faced the moment many of them had prayed for since May 2010. But they faced it with half a year to go until the General Election. Many members cursed Clegg for not going in May 2014, after the Euro results, or at many other points previously. Others cursed him for going now, and not taking the full hit of the electorate on his own person. What kind of leadership election could take place now, under these circumstances, whilst the Coalition remained in place? An election for a war leader, it became instantly clear. And one in which the ‘big hitters’, who one might have expected to stand after a scything of the Party in May 2015, would bide their time, as had always been likely.

The decision was taken to combine the leadership election with the already upcoming Party Presidential ballot to replace Tim Farron, for cost and expediency. Farron was one of those who would refuse to become drafted into the Leadership race, using his position as the still-current President to claim constitutional neutrality. Other, such as Lynne Featherstone, Simon Hughes, Norman Lamb and John Leech also refused to stand, most citing defence of their marginal seats as a priority.

Jeremy Browne, who might well have stood as the candidate of the Right if his patience had lasted, was of course preparing for a by-election in Taunton Deane as a ‘New Liberal’, set for early December. The Lib Dem candidate selected to fight him was definitely on the Left of the Party, setting up the contest as a proxy ‘Liberal civil-war’, much to many commentators’ delight. It was forecast that the Conservatives would end up coming through the middle and claiming the seat. Jeremy Browne appeared cheerfully, almost nihilistically indifferent, claiming that ’10 years in Parliament was a long time already, either way’ and positing himself as a one-term candidate of principle.

For Lib Dem members (and MPs), factional decisions had to be made quickly. In the end, three candidates were put forward, and they could be summarised as the Coalition Candidate, the Popular Candidate, and the Rebirth Candidate. They were, respectively, Danny Alexander, Vince Cable and Jo Swinson.

Pragmatism was the flag all three draped themselves in, although they all painted it differently. Alexander stressed the need to take credit for Coalition achievements on the Economy (a predictably Cleggite position) whilst Cable modestly proclaimed his proven appeal to the electorate, citing the 2010 Chancellor’s debate, and allowing aides to refer to him in the press as ‘the War Doctor’. Swinson represented more of an ‘all-or-nothing’ approach, relatively inexperienced, but providing a refreshing face, and a break with recent Party history, attitude and policy. Her biggest downside was also her strongest motivation – her ultra-vulnerable seat in Scotland, which was also probably a factor in Alexander’s efforts. Compared to these younger, more precarious challengers, Cable could afford to look more relaxed, somewhat understandably. But this may finally have become a negative for the old performer, risking making him appear smugly complacent.

As the autumn wore on, UK politics continued to shift, with one clear blue benefactor. An average of the November polls put the Conservatives in the lead on 36%, with Labour, divided and rocky, falling to 29%, UKIP staying steady at 18% and the Lib Dems trailing along at respirator levels of 4%, with the Greens regularly bettering them. Talk of an overall Conservative majority in 2015 started to become common wisdom. David Cameron was starting to look like the clear victor of the events Carswell had set in motion. Not only had UKIP become perceived in the media as a Labour problem, against some evidence, but the Lib Dems’ early crisis had left the Tories as the only party capable of coherently claiming credit for recent economic good news. In effect, the Coalition had been rinsed blue, with the remaining Lib Dem Cabinet Ministers as dormant hostages waiting for instructions from their new leader.

Even Reckless’ victory in Rochester for UKIP on 20th November didn’t seem to rattle the new narrative. Reckless’ margin of victory was extremely narrow, less than a thousand: they could always swat that particular fly in May. Besides, a flailing Labour had performed worse than expectations, and had dominated the news agenda with an extremely ill-advised tweet. Carswell, approached with this interpretation of his choice and its impact, seemed dismissive, and more than a little disingenuous, stating “my path was always clear – to listen to the people’.

The Lib Dem Leadership results, after an impassioned but unexpectedly disciplined campaign, were announced in late November. Unsurprisingly, Alexander had come last, with Coalition continuity being very few member’s preferred course, when presented with real alternatives. Perhaps more surprisingly, when all second preferences had been reallocated, the Party had narrowly gone for a relative gamble, not the ‘War Doctor’. Some painted Swinson, alongside the new Party President (another surprise result) as a regenerative saviour; others as a sacrificial lamb to the psephological slaughter of the impending election. Still others merely shrugged, reasoning that, either way, there wouldn’t be long to wait to find out.

As December 2014 dawned, a new poll put the Conservatives on 36%, with Labour dropping to 28% UKIP remaining at 18% and the Lib Dems experiencing a slight ‘Swinson Boost’ up to 8%. Whether it would continue was anyone’s guess. It was an irony lost on no-one that Carswell, perhaps David Cameron’s most rebellious backbencher had by defecting and draping himself in the versatile cloak of ‘Liberalism’ done more to secure the chance of a second Cameron ministry than anyone else.  But all was still in flux. The New Year approached…

In an interview for the Guardian after the Clacton result, Carswell was asked why, if he believed in tighter immigration controls and freedom from EU fetters, had he not defected to UKIP?

Carswell laughed, perhaps wistfully: “Well, I toyed with the idea…”

* David Faggiani is a young-ish Liberal living in London, ex-smoker and co-founder of 'Game of Seats' political discussion group on Facebook and Twitter.

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7 Comments

  • David Evershed 8th Dec '14 - 4:27pm

    Lib Dem supporters (not activisits) have always been found amongst the more thoughtful voters rather than from tribal, die in a ditch Lib Dems.

    That people should vote each time on the merits of the policies and candidates rather than on unthinking tribal loyalty is obviously a good thing. The above article reflects this trend.

    If the fall in loyalty amongst Conservative and Labour party supporters means people thinking more freely about which party and candidate to support then may the best man win.

  • SIMON BANKS 9th Dec '14 - 11:02am

    So, David, those of us who have thought long and hard about politics in the widest sense and have through that become deep Liberals, are tribal?

    That voters should think about policies before voting is obviously a good thing, though few do it; but particular policies frequently change from election to election. The activists you disparage, plus many people who aren’t activists but have regularly voted Liberal or Liberal Democrat with pride, can’t switch from party to party at every election, so they seek some underlying culture or philosophy that is likely to guide the development of policies. For me, that’s Liberalism. For you?

    Oh, and if Carswell is any kind of Liberal, Stalin was a Welsh Nationalist.

  • Simon Banks
    Much of Liberal history is about liberty, holding those in power to account, a small government, absence of debt( Gladstone wanted to pay off the national debt before coal ran out ) , absence of patronage and privilege and devolving power to the lowest level of government . Keeping government off one’s back and it’s nose out of one’s business. Much of Carswell’s outlook is traditional mid 19C Liberalism- very close to Manchester Free Trade Liberals.

  • Malcolm Todd 10th Dec '14 - 10:54am

    Definitely Alien Space Bats. Thank you, Nick Barlow, for a very useful term!

  • David Faggiani 14th Dec '14 - 11:01pm

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