By Arthur Baker
Tom Copley has pointed out in his latest LabourList article that the “Right to Recall”, part of the Parliamentary Reform Act, is ill thought out and undemocratic. However, we must now ask ourselves what we should do if the law does go through. The NUS’s decapitation strategy is popular among many students and members. It would give us all huge satisfaction to see Clegg and other leading Lib Dems fighting by-elections in their own constituencies. However, pursuing this strategy could be dangerous. The Conservative Party is preparing for a storm of public anger over the cuts over the next five years, and a large part of their strategy will be to push blame onto the Lib Dems. So focussing our attacks too exclusively on the Lib Dems could be counter-productive. In the majority of Lib Dem marginals, the Tories are in second place. If we focus our campaign too heavily on Clegg and his cronies, we risk playing into the Tories’ hands, and handing them a majority in 2015.
Cable and Clegg may also prove hard to beat. They have majorities of 15,000 and 16,000 respectively, and in both constituencies the Tories come second. Labour trails behind Clegg with only 16% of the vote, and behind Cable with just 7%. Even if the law is not amended to include a clause preventing the strategy from taking place, and we manage to collect 10% of Clegg’s constituents, could we defeat him in a by-election? It would be fair to assume that the Tories would not want Clegg removed, and if they were to run a candidate against him, it wouldn’t be a strong one. Other NUS targets are more likely to be achieved. Overturning Simon Wright’s tiny majority of 310 over Labour’s Charles Clarke might be an easier task, but Wright’s profile is correspondingly small, so his defeat would do little long term damage to the coalition.
My objection to the policy however is not its feasibility but its targeting. Forcing Clegg or other leading Lib Dems to fight a by-election sends a strong message. Sending a message that it’s the Lib Dems doing the damage, not the Tories, is dangerous and inaccurate. The Lib Dem vote will collapse at the next election without our help. In a recent poll only 47% of those who voted Lib Dem in 2010 said they’d do so again, whereas 91% of those who voted Tory say they haven’t changed their minds. This pattern could deliver a Tory majority. We have to make sure that the electorate sees that it’s the Tories doing the damage, and ensure that it is us, not them, picking up the pieces where the Lib Dems fall apart. We need to target this strategy at Conservative as well as Lib Dem MPs.We need a double edged sword.
Some will argue that while the Lib Dems have betrayed a central election promise, the Tories have not committed “serious wrong doing”, and it would therefore be undemocratic to use this law against them. However, if the law does indeed allow the electorate to decide what constitutes “serious wrongdoing”, then I think we have a strong argument that targeting public spending cuts at the most vulnerable and voting for VAT rises, despite an election promise not to, is serious wrongdoing.
Labour activists should do everything they can to help with the decapitation of the Lib Dems, but also push the NUS to include at least one Conservative target. We may not be able to decapitate the Tories, but we can do some corporeal damage using the same weapon. A Tory MP in London with a small majority over Labour would be an ideal victim. There are a number of possible targets: Gavin Barwell in Corydon Central (2,969 Majority), Jane Ellison in Battersea (5977), Matthew Offord in Hendon (106). All of these MPs are vulnerable, and in easy range of the London Labour Party & London Young Labour who were so effective at campaigning during the general election, as well as UCU, ULU and a number other strong student unions. Although they are not high profile figures, recalling them and replacing them with a Labour MP would send a powerful message to the government, and to voters. Trying to remove Lib Dems while leaving the Tories to sit sends the wrong message.