Published on 4 Mar 2011 Sections ,

Nick Clegg: ‘Don’t write off the Liberal Democrats’

As Nick Clegg pledges his party will recover from one of its worst-ever by-election results in Barnsley Central, Cathy Newman discovers a revolt brewing amongst party activists

In a disappointing result for the Lib Dems last night at the Barnsley Central by-election, the party came sixth, behind Labour, Ukip, the Conservatives, the BNP and an independent – their worst-ever showing in England in position terms, according to the opinion pollsters, YouGov.

The Lib Dems managed just 4 per cent of the vote in Barnsley, down from 17 per cent at last year’s General Election.

For Mr Clegg, it was a painful reminder of the Scottish by-elections in Glasgow North East (2009) and Hamilton South (1999), when the party also finished sixth, with just two per cent and three per cent respectively.

“I have no doubt that people will try to use this single result to write off the Liberal Democrats,” said Mr Clegg. “They have done it in the past and we have proved them wrong and we will prove them wrong again.

“The truth is that it was a no-contest for any non-Labour candidate. It was a very safe Labour seat. Labour got a huge majority on an abysmally low turnout. Everybody else was left to pick up the pieces.”

However, the Liberal Democrat leader is now braced for a backlash from his party’s grassroots.

Channel 4 News Political Correspondent Cathy Newman has discovered that Lib Dem activists are preparing for a battle at their national conference next week – laying into the government by amending motions for debate.

One amendment seen by Channel 4 News attacks coalition plans for the biggest shake-up of the NHS in decades.

The motion expresses concern about “the real risk of large-scale, top-down NHS re-organisations at a time of spending cuts” and attacks the government’s “damaging and unjustified market-based approach”.

It ends by calling on Lib Dem MPs to “seek to amend the Health Bill”.

Officials count votes at the Barnsley Central by-election (Reuters)

The result in Barnsley Central adds to fears among some Lib Dems that their party could be suffering a voter backlash because of their coalition with the Conservatives.

Cathy Newman today asked Lib Dem Deputy Leader Simon Hughes which party was doing better out of the coalition. He said the Tories were performing better in the opinion polls, but defended his party’s decision to enter government with them.

“The opinion polls at the moment show that the Tories are doing better, but both parties are doing in the national interest a series of things that had to be done given the deficit we inherited,” he said.

“And when we had an option last May, we could have stepped away from the chance of being in government. It would have been a Tory minority Government, probably a General Election called shortly afterwards, a Tory majority Government elected. We would have had no say. Instead of it, we’re in there.

“We’re delivering a fairer outcome. There’s a whole set of things which mean Britain is a fairer place, and it’s going to be even fairer because we’re there.”

Speaking in Barnsley today, the Labour Leader Ed Miliband said: “Nick Clegg and David Cameron may have run away from the people of Barnsley, but they cannot hide from the message of last night’s by-election.

“After less than ten months of this Conservative-led Government, the people of Barnsley have made clear that they are fed up with what they are doing to our country: squeezing living standards, betraying the hopes of young people and destroying the institutions we value most, from local libraries to the NHS.”

“It shouldn’t alter our overall strategy.” Liberal Democrat MP Bob Russell

The Lib Dem MP Bob Russell, who represents Colchester and voted against the Government on tuition fees, told Channel 4 News that his party had suffered a bad result, “but it shouldn’t alter our overall strategy”.

He pointed to the Lib Dems’ poor showing in the 1996 Barnsley East by-election and their subsequent record haul of seats in the 1997 General Election.

“There are some parts of the country where parties have strengths and weaknesses, and Barnsley is one of those areas where we have weaknesses. If it was the West Country, it would be a completely different reaction.

“I am the only non-Tory MP in Essex. Labour are crowing in Barnsley, but here in Essex, Labour have been wiped out.”

The Birmingham Yardley Lib Dem MP, John Hemming, said: “I expected us to do badly and we did badly. It’s not a surprise. I’m not particularly fussed.”

Mr Hemming said he did not believe his party was experiencing a backlash because it had gone into coalition. “Some people won’t vote for us because of this, but I would not say that is the essence of this election result.”

‘Embarrassing result’

Anthony Wells, associate director of the pollsters YouGov, said it was an embarrassing result for the Lib Dems. “It’s a Labour seat and they’re a governing party, so they should expect some degree of punishment. But it’s the sheer embarrassment factor of coming sixth.”

Mr Wells said it was unsurprising the Lib Dems had performed so badly. Now they were in coalition with the Tories, they were particularly vulnerable in Labour heartlands.

But there were implications for the Prime Minister, too. By coming third, behind Ukip, he was likely to come under pressure from the Right wing of his party.

“People on the Right of the Conservative Party who want David Cameron to talk more about immigration and Europe will point to this as evidence for their case.”

Mr Wells said the Tories had finished behind Ukip before, notably at the Hartlepool by-election in 2004.