Party leader Nick Clegg launched the local election campaign in 2010, when he was more popular among some Camden members
Published: 29 May, 2014
By RICHARD OSLEY
REBEL Liberal Democrats from Camden have demanded Nick Clegg resigns as the party’s leader in the wake of a devastating local election massacre which reduced the party to just one seat at the Town Hall.
As Labour celebrated a record-breaking 40-seat win and another four years in power, the Lib Dems were left to work out how they had been obliterated, having been Camden’s largest party just eight years ago.
Even group leader Keith Moffitt was unseated by Labour’s tornado which swept across north London, leaving long-serving Flick Rea as the only Lib Dem with a place on the council.
Tom Simon, who lost his seat in Belsize, and John Bryant, beaten by Labour in what was once seen as a party stronghold in West Hampstead, have both signed a letter from hundreds of rank-and-file members calling for Mr Clegg to go. Mr Bryant suggested the coalition with the Conservatives at Westminster had “tainted” Lib Dem work.
While Mr Moffitt and other senior figures locally think it would be unwise to force Mr Clegg out and are adopting a “don’t panic” approach, the LibDems4Change petition has also been backed by unsuccessful candidate Jack Holroyde. He stood in Kilburn where the Lib Dems’ hopes of challenging the sitting Labour councillors were dashed.
Another, James King, did not call for Mr Clegg to go but tweeted: “Pains me to say it, as supporter of coalition and Clegg’s contribution to it, but do think change is needed to give liberals a fair hearing.”
He later added: “Seems LD leadership question settled for now. But need to look at fresh at policies, strategy, messages. Bold position on housing tops my list.”
The party lost 12 seats in Camden, 10 to Labour and two to the Tories, on a disastrous night for members who have spent decades growing the party into a political force in the borough. At its height – the 2006 local elections – the Lib Dems forced Labour from office and were the lead partner in a power-sharing pact with the Conservatives. The success at one stage looked like it would pave the way for a Lib Dem MP in Hampstead and Kilburn, too.
But the mood of voters changed after 2010 when the coalition government was formed and Labour returned to its traditional position as the power party. The loss of so many seats in West Hampstead and Fortune Green had not been forecast even by those who predicted a damaging round of elections for the Lib Dems, however.
The letter to Mr Clegg from activists listed Lib Dem “achievements”, but added: “This week we have lost hundreds of brilliant councillors across the country and in some areas we have lost every seat we were defending. We consider it vital that at the 2015 General Election the Party should be led by someone who will receive a fair hearing about our achievements and ambitions for the future. It is clear to us that this person is not you, as the loss of so many of our hard working Councillors highlights.”
Last night, Mr Simon said Mr Clegg had been “courageous” in trying new tactics such as radio phone-ins and debates with UKIP leader Nigel Farage but added: “Sadly, it hasn’t worked and the voters aren’t listening to him.”
Asked why he had signed, he said: “We have been stuck on the same ratings in the polls, not moving, and each election has brought losses.”
Mr Simon said he was “open-minded” on the idea that the Lib Dems should quit the national coalition altogether, adding: “We went into it for the right reasons, the country needed stability to recover. Now we are seeing the economic recovery begin, that reason may no longer be there.”
Mr Bryant added: “I supported the petition because I have long been of the view that the leadership of the party and the role of Deputy Prime Minister could be split and that a leader outside of government, and therefore untainted by it, should lead us into the next general election. We have had a deputy leader outside of government throughout this parliament, first Simon Hughes and now Sir Malcolm Bruce, so my suggestion is not so odd.”
But Mr Moffitt said that the views of one or two members were not the wide view of the party locally, of which he has resolved to remain closely involved.
He said: “I do not think people should just panic and start calling for Nick Clegg to go. I have been broadly supportive because I think going into coalition was the right thing to do. Having been in a coalition in Camden, maybe I can appreciate more how difficult it is to oppose things when you are the junior partner. You can only oppose so many things, otherwise the coalition would collapse.”
Mr Moffitt, who spent 20 years on the council, said: “We can say there have been mistakes but the reaction to these elections should not be that you just decapitate the leader. People sign these petitions often without explaining their alternative. You hear mention of Vince Cable being talked about as alternative leader, and you think, well, he was for the mansion tax, which was one of the policies that have not helped us here.”
Mr Moffitt has said the Lib Dems have suffered locally for national politics, but the same trend had helped his own party grow in response to the old Blair government which proved unpopular in Camden.