In the old saying, many of my best friends are Lib Dems. But as my article for the paper today suggests, Nick Clegg’s party simply cannot be allowed to get away with the absurd claim that they represent a new way of doing politics. On the ground, their campaigning is consistently more unscrupulous and poisonous than the other parties’.
And you don’t have to take my word for it – a lot of their election literature is now captured for posterity online. In the Norwich North byelection last year, they smeared their Green opponent as an “extremist” and terrorist sympathiser on the basis of something he had written which condemned terrorism.
In the 2006 byelection in the London seat of Bromley and Chislehurst, policy took a very distant second place to a veritable blitzkreig of ad-hominem attacks on the Tory candidate, Bob Neill. “Troubled Conservative candidate Bob Neill has come under fire from local residents,” explained one Lib Dem leaflet of many. His crime? “He lives in Tower Hamlets,” with his private home address sometimes printed in full to prove it.
The Lib Dems issued many leaflets cunningly disguised as women’s magazines or newspapers, including what they themselves called “real life stories” and “local news” about graffiti and traffic. The fact that they were Lib Dem campaign publications only appeared in small print on the last page.
The Lib Dems used only photos which made Mr Neill look as stupid as possible. In the leaflets, he became “East End Bob,” a hint that he was too oikish for the suburbs, and “Three Jobs Bob,” a reference to his role as a member of the London Assembly. “Conservative Bob Neill is a busy man!” smirked one leaflet. “Most people are lucky to have one job, yet there seems no limit to how many jobs Bob Neill wants.” The other two ‘jobs’ were as a barrister (Neill hadn’t practiced for years) and a “north-east London quango boss” (a three-day-a-month non-executive directorship which he was about to leave.)
“The whole thing was totally personalised,” says Mr Neill, who won, but not by much. “If the Lib Dems want to know why people are turned off politics, they should just look in the mirror. The fact that my Lib-Dem opponent himself had two jobs, both of them actually real, went totally unmentioned.”
The eve-of-poll leaflet claimed, falsely, that Neill was “not eligible to be an MP.” Other flyers quoted part of a report from The Times newspaper: “The only question anyone had for Bob was whether he lived in Bromley. ‘No,’ he said.” The Lib Dems unfortunately forgot to include the next part of Mr Neill’s quote printed by The Times: “But I will move here.”
Misrepresenting what the press say about the campaign is a favourite tactic, also used in the Moray byelection for the Scottish parliament. Leaflets for the Lib Dem candidate, Linda Gorn, quoted the local paper, The Northern Scot, as saying that the party were “on their way up in Moray” but omitted the crucial words “they claim” which were included in the newspaper’s report.
They also quoted The Northern Scot as saying: “The party has a strong candidate in Mrs Gorn and if (the people of Moray) choose her as their MSP, they will have a really formidable MSP who will work hard.” This was not, in fact, the view of The Northern Scot, but a quote printed in the paper from a Lib Dem MP. In the Henley byelection, a column by the outgoing MP, Boris Johnson, was used to suggest that Boris was endorsing the Lib Dems.
Another favourite tactic is lying about your opponent’s age, seen in the Welsh valleys and at the Southall byelection, when the Lib Dems repeatedly claimed that their main rival, Labour’s Virendra Sharma, was 72. He was 60.
The point about all this is that byelections are run by the national headquarters of the party. These tactics, and their repetition in campaign after campaign, cannot simply be put down to local excess.
Nobody is saying, by the way, that the other two parties don’t sometimes stoop to the same level – remember the “toff” attacks by Labour in the Crewe and Nantwich byelection? – but they do it less often. And only the Lib Dems present themselves as uniquely clean and virtuous.
The truth, in fact, is that they are – at best – a party like any other, and you’d be deceived to think otherwise.