Opinion: Nick v Nigel – Cheer up Liberal Democrats (and other pro-Europeans)

Farage cleggSome Liberal Democrats, and other pro-Europeans, seem to be rather down about the outcome of the Nick v Nigel debate. Certainly it is depressing to see your fellow citizens support a man who professes admiration for Vladimir Putin. But Nick Clegg really was up against first-class populism on Wednesday night. Farage dropped every conceivable fear or concern about the modern world at the door of the European Union. Would you like an end to war, waste, politicians, people speaking foreign on the train and every problem the outside world bothers us with? Just leave the EU and you’ve got it. Not a great deal more complicated than that.

If, on the other hand, a not hugely popular Minister from a governing party made an impassioned plea for internationalism and the benefits of the European Union and won the debate, well that really would be a political earthquake. And that is the point. Some are reading far too much into these debates as an indicator for the outcome of an In-Out referendum. The only cause for disappointment on that score is that Nick Clegg cannot use two hours to single-handedly sway the British public in favour of the EU against an accomplished, populist opponent, following decades of media hostility to the EU. We probably knew that already.

So let’s keep two things separate. There are conclusions for Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, and there are conclusions for the wider In-Out debate. First, for the Liberal Democrats, it is perhaps worth recalling the party’s 2009 European Election campaign, if you are one of the few who can. The party was committed to a punchy, avowedly pro-European campaign. In the end, however, it delivered about half a column inch of print. Such was the interest in the third party’s views on Europe.

Compare that with recent coverage. We have Nick Clegg on primetime TV persuading around a third of the public to back his argument, winning over 40% of Labour voters, and some 20% of Tory voters. If only a small proportion of these voters switch their votes to the Liberal Democrats in the European elections it will have been worth it. Of course, Nick might have done better or worse in the debates. But it was the right move, and created a platform the party could only have dreamt of in 2009.

The second issue is the wider In-Out debate. Here, pro-Europeans seem worried that the debate signals that our compatriots will be swayed sufficiently by Farage’s arguments to vote to leave the EU in a referendum. Yet, according to Open Europe, on the question of ‘In or Out?’, opinion still remains finely balanced, shifting only slightly to ‘Out’ following the debate. Again, this should not come as a surprise. Clegg was not leading a one-man referendum campaign. In a referendum, 51% is enough to win and the concerns of the waverers, not the die-hards, are targeted. Clegg was pitching to convinced or sympathetic pro-Europeans.

Lib Dems would have preferred a win, or a closer-run result. But Nick v Nigel has achieved what it was meant to achieve. It has provided the platform for a big pitch for pro-European votes. It may even put the issue of Europe into the European elections, which would be a first. It will unnerve the big two parties who will wonder how on earth they came to be reduced to observers in a primetime TV debate. It will provoke deeper questioning among voters about what they have been told. And pessimism about the wider In-Out debate is overdone. On that front, to paraphrase Churchill, the debates are not the end of the argument, only the end of its beginning.

* Ben Jones was foreign affairs adviser to the Liberal Democrats between 2007 and 2010, and chaired the 2013 Working Group on Europe policy.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Op-eds.


  • “If only a small proportion of these voters switch their votes to the Liberal Democrats in the European elections it will have been worth it.”

    Are LIberal Democrats really so cynical these days that they believe any amount of damage to the wider pro-European case is justifiable, if only they can increase their vote in the Euro-elections by a few points? How depressing.

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Apr '14 - 10:35am

    I agree with the likes of Philip Rolle, RC and others who came on here after the debates and said the EU and our EU policy needs a re-think. Liberalism is about people, not institutions.

  • What went wrong Nick was rhetoric and could not counter facts Nigel put The main thing we voted for a trading union Not a political monetary union that its grown into by the empire builders

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Apr '14 - 10:48am

    By the way, I have always believed in a federal EU, and I don’t mind saying that to anyone, I just don’t want to be soft on the EU. It has to be give and take. We look too soft on it at the moment.

  • Lib Dems would have preferred a win, or a closer-run result. But Nick v Nigel has achieved what it was meant to achieve. I

    It has achieved in confirming that Nigel Farage is a better debater than Nick Clegg, and that the latter struggles to convince the electorate that it should be pro-EU.

    A tactical disaster.

  • “It has provided the platform for a big pitch for pro-European votes. It may even put the issue of Europe into the European elections, which would be a first. It will unnerve the big two parties who will wonder how on earth they came to be reduced to observers in a primetime TV debate.”

    On Newsnight on Wednesday evening the commentators pointed out that Clegg had actually elevated a person with ZERO MPs to the same status as the Deputy Prime Minister of the UK and that this belittled Clegg. They also said that Cameron and Miliband therefore come across as proper leaders letting two ‘ dwarves’ (their word) slug it out while they rise above it and paint those two as the extremes.

  • Charles Rothwell 5th Apr '14 - 12:08pm

    I agree with what Ben says both in terms of imagining that anything other than the outcome (i.e. very much in favour of Farage) was unlikely in the current political/social/economic climate and also in terms of the debates being (very) useful in putting Europe “at the centre of political debate” (and exposing the childish simplicity of UKIP’s position plus confirming that they (UKIP) are now going hell bent for the discontented working class, male, elderly vote (very much in line with what UKIP Number Two , Paul Nuttall from Bootle, has brought to the party/Party since about 2009)). I also believe that, despite decades of bile and lies from the Red Tops (and higher up the tree in the journalistic jungle) that the game is still wide open and a finding in the ‘Guardian’ reveals what corresponds with my own view; the UK is split THREE ways on Europe; about one third (young, professional etc) pro-EU, one third definitely against AND one third simply undecided/’do not know’ and the latter will eventually call it in terms of a referendum or (more likely) in the longer term evolution of public opinion. In my view, the Party has successfully made the point about being the “party of IN” (while not only the Conservatives but also Labour are frightened to death of dealing with the issue seriously) and now needs to work as closely as possible with bodies like the CBI, Business for Europe, the TUC etc in getting the message over in ways which can successfully meet and overcome the simplistic nostrums (and worse) pumped out by UKIP.

    (By the way, as shown when Farage first walked away from the leadership of them (to be replaced by the ineffective (as opposed to the current highly effective) clown (in political terms) Lord Pearson) because he felt he was ‘not getting enough support’, I strongly suspect Farage will ditch them all very quickly when the bubble bursts (and Nuttall taking over really would be the end of their trying to recruit from anyone at all apart from the ‘left-behinds’)).

  • Paul in Twickenham 5th Apr '14 - 1:08pm

    Interesting article in this week’s New Scientist. It’s by a researcher in “social physics” from MIT and is called “The Death of Individuality”. The synopsis is that he proposes that we are not really freethinking individuals but instead are driven by shared responses. Here’s a quote: “most of our public beliefs and habits are learned by observing the attitudes, actions and outcomes of peers, rather than by logic or argument”. He then goes onto a riff about privacy and Milgram and loses me a bit but it is certainly tbought provoking.

    Now curiously I (like Andrew Sparrow in his Guardian live blog) thought Clegg did OK. But the polls strongly disagreed. To what extent is the TV audience’s opinion determined by the reaction of the studio audience (eg to those dreadful jokes) rather than the arguments put forward by the speakers?

  • I am grateful to Nick Clegg for having the honesty and the courage to debate the question of EU membership. Successive governments and the media have deliberately played down the process of integration with the EU. It was realised years ago that the public would be alarmed if the extent of transfer of powers became common knowledge and so integration has largely proceed by stealth.

    This unofficial but very real policy cannot be continued for ever. The EU commission is concerned that the citizens of Europe are not very aware of the major influence the EU has on their lives and a large budget has been agreed to help educate the public on the role of the EU.

    I have so far seen no evidence of the publicity in the UK. Perhaps the politicians here and in Brussels agree that knowledge of EU integration is a sensitive issue here. Many of our pro-EU politicians hope that the voters remain ignorant about these matters at least until after any referendum.

  • Peter, I do think your comment is most apt. My mother did not even know that the European Parliament exists or that she has the right to vote for EMPs.

    This is one of the biggest problems with modern politics. Politicians often actually believe they are doing the right thing, but do not believe the public will understand them. As such, they try and do these things in the shadows; however, in the modern this is not possible anymore because so much media communication exists that at least the name of what they are doing will be seen.

    The problem is though as they only see a shadow of what the politicians are doing and that the politicians are hiding what they are doing, they instantly believe it must be something nefarious. I mean why would someone do something in the shadows, if it was not nefarious.

  • Paul Pettinger 5th Apr '14 - 3:09pm

    Lib Dems weren’t saying that Clegg wasn’t expected to win the debate ten days ago – in fact many assumed Clegg would do well given the opportunity to scrutinise Farage’s arguments. The above is retrospective and selective analysis ignoring, for example, the large fraction of Lib Dem voters (42%) who watched the programme and thought Farage won. Clegg was trying for a short term boost, galvanising the support of pro-EU voters, but was outplayed by Farage who really made a General Election pitch. A bit like the AV referendum, it would have been better had the debates not happened.

    Nick Clegg was supposed to be able to fall back on his ability in TV debates, but Wednesday night suggested that the more voters see him the fewer want to vote Liberal Democrat. From http://www.theguardian.com/politics/blog/2014/apr/02/farage-v-clegg-the-debate-for-europe-politics-live-blog#block-533c6c6de4b040af4c4db528:

    “Has what you’ve heard in the debate made you more or less likely to vote Ukip in the European elections?
    More likely – 38%
    Less likely – 17%
    No difference – 37%”

    “Has what you’ve heard in the debate made you more or less likely to vote Lib Dem in the European elections?
    More likely – 7%
    Less likely – 43%
    No difference – 44%”

  • Paul Pettinger is right to draw attention to this. —
    “Has what you’ve heard in the debate made you more or less likely to vote Lib Dem in the European elections?
    More likely – 7%
    Less likely – 43%

    Perhaps people will stop pretending that Clegg is a clever performer on TV.

    Clegg has had far more TV and general media exposure (including a weekly radio programme) than any Liberal Democrat leader in the history of the party. We all know what impact that has had on voting intentions.

  • Tony Greaves 5th Apr '14 - 4:31pm

    To be fair it may be that the 43% are all people who would never vote LD anyway, Just pointing out that such instant polls are little more than froth.


  • One day, if we don’t conspire to fall out of the EU, we might actually run a campaign for the European elections which is about what we propose to do in the European parliament. That is of course what we’re going to vote for on May 22.

    The longer this election is seen as an irrelevance, a chore or an imposition – and both the EU institutions and the “main” UK parties appear to have been happy or timid enough to let this impression be cemented by the media and the antis – the harder it will be be to recuperate the EU in the minds of the people of several countries.

    So this debate was OUT versus IN, which is the wrong question but is at least about Europe. It just might be the first step on the way to a more honest, effective and therefore reforming view of an institution we tell everybody is so important.

  • Tony
    Froth yes , but entirely in line with all the polling evidence of the last four years.

    Perhaps even more revealing about Clegg’s negative capabilities as a TV performer was this from the Demos analysis of the Twitter comment on the debate —

    – Total negative tweets about Clegg: 13,066

    – Total positive tweets about Clegg: 723

  • Ray Cobbett 5th Apr '14 - 6:05pm

    Sadly Nick’s decision to make a stand against the likes of an accomplished snake oil salesman like Farrage was ill advised. It probably won’t make a ha’porth of difference to the voting in May and has demeaned the party’s profile in the opinion of many including a significant number of LD supporters. Bad call.

  • nvelope2003 5th Apr '14 - 6:56pm

    When Scotland votes yes to Independence the position of the Scottish MPs at Westminster will be untenable, their only duty being to vote for the necessary legislation to end the Union which no doubt would be agreed by all the main parties. Any attempt to vote on any legislation unconnected with Scotland would be a constitutional outrage. The Conservatives will then have an effective majority of about 20 seats among non Scottish MPs so the coalition will end. A good opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to elect a new leader.

  • No will win the Scottish referendum by a wide margin.

  • Jayne Mansfield 5th Apr '14 - 10:46pm

    Lord Heseltine has publicly articulated what many of us privately think about UKIP , so the outcome of the two debates is profoundly depressing.

  • The claims are coming in that the increasing likelihood of a UK vote to leave the EU has bumped the Scottish independence Yes vote up significantly.

  • Basically, to be defending the EU state is neither liberal nor democratic.

  • Bill Le Breton 6th Apr '14 - 11:50am

    Survation poll of F and H with Farage standing – VI; 2015:

    “UKIP could gain 28 points on their vote in 2010 in Folkestone & Hythe with Farage as their candidate. A third of those who told us they would vote for Farage if he stood next year recalled voting Conservative in 2010. Of the remainder, 16% voted Labour in 2010, 9% Liberal Democrat and 13% did not vote at all at the last election.”

  • Clegg is going to make the Europe In or Out question his priority now. Well he doesn’t have much else in his portfolio left. I have to say that the more people see and hear of Clegg the less likely they are to vote IN or Lib Dem. It’s the AV Referendum all over again.

  • Peter Chegwyn 6th Apr '14 - 12:52pm

    Bill – Today’s YouGov Poll of European voting intentions shows:
    CON 23%(-1), LAB 30%(-2), LDEM 9%(-2), UKIP 28%(+5).
    We’re down from 11% to 9% since the Clegg v Farage debate.
    If we continue dropping by 2% a week then we’ll be on zero before May 22nd.

    The Survation Poll in the Folkestone & Hythe constituency to which you refer shows:
    Con 36% (-13), UKIP 33% (+28), Lab 18% (+7), LD 8% (-22), Oth 3% (-1)

    If Farage can’t top a constituency poll after a week of relentlessly good TV publicity for UKIP and himself then I can’t see him winning the vote there in 2015.

    More worryingly for our own Party, Folkestone & Hythe is a constituency in which the Lib. Dems. finished a very good 2nd in 2010 with 30% of the vote. Now a poll shows us down to just one quarter of that with the bulk of our vote transferring to Farage and UKIP. Anyone who thinks UKIP only take votes from the Tories should think again. They’re also now taking the ‘anti-establishment’ protest vote that used to be ours.

    Anyone waking-up and smelling the coffee?

  • Bill Le Breton 6th Apr '14 - 3:49pm

    Thanks for spelling it out Peter. It is difficult to focus on the screen , the tears keep weeping from my eyes.

  • @Peter Chegwyn – hmm ok but you forgot to mention the survation poll that shows us up 2% post the debate.So to follow the logic of your argument if we continue to increase by that figure every week until May 22nd….Polls huh.
    On a more serious note,I’m puzzled by your “wake up and smell the coffee” comment.It suggests that we’re sleepwalking into something.but what? You point out that the anti establishment vote is going from a Party now in the establishment,to one which is not, but surely that’s to be expected.Unless you’ve a solution which will arrest or reverse that,then I don’t understand your point.

  • paul barker 6th Apr '14 - 5:53pm

    Ordinary Polls for Westminster can give us some real information as long as we follow some simple rules – stick to Polling averages & compare like with like. Constituency Polling outside Election/Byelection campaigns & Polling for non-westminster Elections at any time has a long history of being useless & misleading, theres no consistent pattern, just noise. The same goes for any special Polls of the “If” sort, Voters are just no good at imagining how they might vote if things were different.
    Polls are there to sell Papers, mostly & are as likely to be “True” as most of the scandals about celebrities.

  • Observing this thread on the future direction(s), of the Lib Dem Party, is like watching the final scene of Thelma & Louise.
    Seriously,.. was it worth trashing the whole LibDem party on what is a clear anti democratic stance, rather than just trust the voting public on their desire to determine their future over the EU?

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th Apr '14 - 8:19pm

    But Nick Clegg really was up against first-class populism on Wednesday night. Farage dropped every conceivable fear or concern about the modern world at the door of the European Union. Would you like an end to war, waste, politicians, people speaking foreign on the train and every problem the outside world bothers us with? Just leave the EU and you’ve got it.

    Yes, that’s what he does (Farage I mean). He didn’t give any surprises, he used his stock line, and since they are ridiculous lines once analysed, it should not have been impossible to have shown them up as nonsense. Clegg should have been prepared for this, yet it was clear he was missing key line he could have used, obvious arguments against the Farage nonsense.

    As I’ve already said, Clegg made the basic mistake of attacking his opponent with lines that bolstered his opponent by by supporting his propaganda. Clegg’s line accepted Farage’s claim to be an old-fashioned type who would turn the country back to how it used to be. Many people like this idea, so in attacking it, Clegg was supporting Farage. The reality is that Farage has NO policies that would turn the clock back. Far from being an opponent of Thatcherite economics, which has actually been the main driving force for change in this country in recent decades, he wants more of it and in a more extreme form, and his main reason for opposing the EU is that he sees it as standing in the way of that. If you REALLY want to attack Farage, point this out, show the discrepancy between his image and the reality if his politics. People in this country are anxious because of the effect of free market economics, it has taken away the certainties that used to allow them to plan their lives, it has gradually shifted power to a tiny wealthy elite, it has caused the destruction of much that people loved. So what better for that wealthy elite to distract attention from it, and pay someone like Farage to make out that it’s the EU causing all this change and uncertainty?

    Will Hutton has a good article taking this line in today’s Observer, but I myself pointed it out here after the first Clegg-Farage debate, and have been pointed out Farage as a phoney on this basis since UKIP got going as the new “party of protest”. So why couldn’t Clegg use any of this to attack Farage? Why couldn’t Clegg have gone for Farage on the basis of Farage’s policies, questioned Farage on how he would actually do what his supporters think or hope he would do?

    I might not like Clegg much, but I dislike Farage much much more than I dislike Clegg, and so I really wanted Clegg to win here. Yet I find myself just slapping y head in anger as Clegg again and again misses what would be the effective lines of attack, obvious lines that should have been thought through and ready to use. He managed to have time to bring in these PR-person manufactured jokey comments, which were appalling, just made him look like a superficial machine politician playing a silly game.

    The main is a disaster, he is pulling our party down, he just has no competence at the job he was put in place to do.

  • “@Peter Chegwyn – hmm ok but you forgot to mention the survation poll that shows us up 2% post the debate.”

    Of course, plus or minus 2 percentage points is within the margin of error. I think we can conclude that whatever the effect of the debate has been on the Lib Dem European vote, it is statistically insignificant.

    Not so the UKIP vote, which according to these surveys has increased by 4 or 5 points.

    The only saving grace is that YouGov is still showing the “in/out” divide as 42 against 37 – unchanged since the debate. So although Clegg’s “cunning plan” has given an electoral boost to UKIP, thankfully it hasn’t detectably reduced the proportion of people favouring continued EU membership.

  • nvelope2003 7th Apr '14 - 9:58am

    David 1 and Ed Wilson:
    BBC reports last night indicate that 25% of traditional Scottish Labour voters are planning to vote Yes because they feel anything would be better than the present situation. Only olderLabour voters seem to be planning to vote No because they are worried about their pensions and fear change. We have just over 5 months to find out but the gradual narrowing of the gap and the number of those who say they don’t know seems to show that the No campaign has not been very convincing. Everywhere there is a mood to overthrow the established order and UKIP are the vehicle for it in England as the SNP are in Scotland. Northern Ireland has had plenty of change recently but Kirsty Williams might stir things up in Wales. We live in interesting times but Nick Clegg has missed the boat. Time for a change – we need a Kirsty Williams in England.

  • Peter Chegwyn 7th Apr '14 - 1:04pm

    @Dean.W – Sorry Dean but the consistent message from the polls is that we’re going down rather than up although Nick Clegg’s personal ratings are already so low that he can hardly go any lower.

    As for “sleepwalking into something but what?” just look at the polling evidence for your answer. The Party under Nick Clegg is sleepwalking over an electoral cliff. Just look at local election results since 2010 and parliamentary by-election results (Eastleigh excepted). I’d love to think all will be better this May. I fear it won’t be. Hence my comment about waking-up and smelling the coffee.

    Chris makes the valid point that the Clegg v Farage debate appears to have given an electoral boost to UKIP. Not so to ourselves. We’re still languishing in 4th place in whatever European or Westminster Poll you wish to look at.

    Thankfully, as Chris also says, YOUGov also shows more people still in favour of staying in Europe rather than getting out.

    There’s nothing wrong with the pro-Europe message. It’s the messenger that the public dislike so much.

    How long before that message gets through?

  • The main problem with the debates was that both Nick and Farage turned it into a party political broadcast to peddle their stock messages rather than debating being IN or OUT of Europe. Nick should have stated the simple case for Europe – is it better united or divided? Never mind the type of unity or division do we think it will work better if we work together to make it better – or do we think it will work better if we break it up? Simples – together we are stronger. The killer was the final question – NIck has to have a vision for the future of Europe and it needs to be based on the freedom and opportunity it gives each of us as a European citizen – as well as the economic benefits of a larger market and the increased consumer protection from cartels, exploitative global corporations and international crime networks.

  • Mike Biden
    I agree with your last sentence. But does Nick Clegg? He and has family have worked for “cartels, and exploitative global corporations” and he is maybe looking forward to doing so again in the not too distant future. Why would he want the EU to protect us from the people that he has grown up with and feels at home with? Maybe this is why he failed so badly on that last question — he does not share our Liberal Democrat vision of Europe.

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