On June 8th, 2017 at approximately 4pm I was entering my fifth minute in the polling booth. Despite weeks of furious researching and internal debate, I was still entirely undecided between the Lib Dem’s Nick Clegg, and Labour’s Jared O’Mara. Like many Brits my priority was to defeat Theresa May at all costs, meaning Labour was the obvious choice. However, Sheffield has no Conservative MPs, and offers a wide political spectrum of left wing to centrist options. In some ways this is a luxury, but it does highlight the age old problem of the split Left; the divisions between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, and The Socialist Worker’s Party seems a lot more noticeable without the Conservatives breathing down their necks.
Nick Clegg is a powerful and experienced parliamentarian and ex-leader, who had served as Hallam’s MP for twelve years prior to the election. His politics were at one time considered ground breaking, his vision of hope and change mildly echoing Obama’s rise to power in the late noughties. “Our politics is the politics of the radical centre”, he said in 2011 at a party conference, and it had seemed to be true in the run up to the 2010 election, when we watched his endeavours at electoral reform, campaign for Gurkha rights, and opposition to university tuition fee hikes. After six decades of two party politics Clegg seemed like a breath of fresh air.
Of course we all know what happened next. Clegg’s compliance with the Conservatives regarding student fees will not be forgotten for a very long time, and cost the Lib Dems 49 MPs in the 2015 General Election. Whilst as a recent graduate I have come to dread receiving account statements from the Student Finance Company, the level of vindictiveness felt amongst Brits towards Clegg is still astonishing. It doesn’t seem to matter to most voters that the Browne Review into the future of higher education funding was commissioned by the old Labour government, and that it was the Conservative decision to implement it. What really stings for many people is the fact that the Libs Dems were actually given the opportunity to abstain from the vote in the coalition agreement, yet Clegg (and Vince Cable) both defended and voted in favour of the cap increase, despite it being totally against the election campaign promise that had secured them the elusive youth vote. As Theresa May has recently learnt, the British cannot stand a U-turn. Thatcher may have destroyed the mining communities, but at least she held her ground on the matter! Tony Blair might have illegally invaded Iraq, but look at how consistent he was! Now there’s strong and stable leadership for you! I am personally on the fence regarding tuition fees; their impact on social mobility and the economy still remains to be seen in the long run. University applications are sky rocketing, yet there are also reports of enormous drops in part-time and mature students, as well as a barely manageable financial squeeze on middle class student’s parents. However, many voters are less concerned with these details than with Nick Clegg’s betrayal of the students. It seems to me to be ridiculous that Clegg is lampooned for this ‘moral failure’, rather than his compliance with the Conservative’s welfare reform agenda, including the abominable bedroom tax.
It is difficult to ascertain just how much leverage the Liberal Democrats had in the 2010-15 coalition. We know that in some circumstances they were able to soften the steel of Tory cuts and reform (as evidenced by the onslaught of 2015’s post-election cuts) but in other areas they were either steam rolled or, even worse, complicit with Cameron and Osbourne’s ruinous offensive against low-income Britain. The fact remains that they were still too small, and too inexperienced in government to take on the aggressiveness of the Conservatives, and they were punished for it. The youthful idealism of the 2010 campaign was dispatched as swiftly as a pig for the slaughter, and Clegg’s resignation was met with national glee, whilst Cameron was voted in once again. He never made any promises to students, therefore was a man of principle. Since then Nick Clegg has worn the look of utter defeat, his face lined and crumpled. He has barely participated in parliament, his low voting attendance record second only to a woman on maternity leave. Instead he chooses to focus on ‘Open Reason: Office of Nick Clegg’. According to the website, this rather extracurricular organisation
‘supports Nick Clegg in the development of liberal ideas and promotion of liberal causes through debate and fresh thinking.’
This includes Clegg’s role as Chair of the Commission on Inequality in Education for the Social Market Foundation, as well as Commissioner for the Global Commission on Drugs Policy. He’s also written a Sunday Times bestseller, Politics: Between the Extremes. It would seem that Nick has other things to do than vote, and that is one of the biggest reasons that I voted for Jared O’Mara in the election.
Jared O’Mara is a newcomer to parliament. A cerebral palsy sufferer, his life’s purpose is disability activism. According to his profile on Labour’s Hallam website, O’Mara worked as Press, Parliamentary and Campaigns Officer for a national disability rights charity, has been chairman of a Sheffield based disability information service, and spent over 12 years as a trustee of a Sheffield based disability charity. He’s a local boy (Clegg resides in London, although he does own a house in one of Sheffield’s poshest areas), and would seem to be both principled and smart, with a first class degree in journalism. He is a Corbynite, which is reflected in his compassionate politics. In an interview with BBC Radio Sheffield he said that whilst he disagreed with Clegg’s complicity with the Conservative’s treatment of students and the disabled, he felt sympathy for his loss:
“It’s impossible, human being to human being, to not be empathetic when someone was really upset, gutted and close to tears.”
O’Mara has also spoken out regarding mental health problems, and the government reform needed to tackle what he calls a global pandemic. His empathy and compassion are, for me, just as compelling, if not more so, than Clegg’s ‘radical centre’. In a 2016 guest post blog for Scope, O’Mara discusses how tiring working full time with a disability is. “But I relish it”, he says:
“I’m not scared of hard work. I really want to get elected so that I can serve the community of good people from my local area where I grew up.”
O’Mara is in his 30s, and looks even younger. He most definitely belongs to a new generation of politicians, ones that have learnt from the 2008 crash, the expenses scandal, the temptations and follies of extreme welfare cuts, the revolutionary politics of social media, and the new minefields of coalitions and referendums. Clegg the young new hope is dead, long live the new new hope; empathetic younger voices who have seen too much this last decade. It remains to be seen whether O’Mara will equal the likes of Mhairi Black in this field, but Corbyn has opened people’s ears to compassionate politics after the long Cameron years, and O’Mara should be able to capitalise on that. Unlike Clegg, O’Mara is clearly going to use his new democratically elected power to achieve as much as he can to help his community. My only concern with this is his current status as a one-issue campaigner. O’Mara is wonderful news for the disabled, and for Sheffield locals in general, but where will he stand on other issues currently dividing the Labour party, like Trident?
The elephant in the room here, of course, is Brexit. For me, O’Mara’s silence in comparison to Clegg’s noise was one of the most important factors for my vote. As a firm Remainer, voting out one of England’s foremost EU advocates was extremely painful. A half-Dutch multilingual ex-MEP, alumnus of the College of Europe, and husband of a Roman-Catholic Spaniard, Nick Clegg has always been the EU’s man. I like this about him; it’s not often that a British politician expresses unashamed solidarity with the rest of our continent. Clegg’s Hallam campaign’s centrepiece was a promise to call a second referendum, which greatly appealed to me. He has since told the media that he believes this was responsible for the loss of many of his voters to the Conservatives. This is nonsense, the majority of locals voted Remain. I believe that many people went through the same thought process as I did, which went something like this:
- Nick Clegg has been MP for 12 years, and the constituency has always been Lib Dem, whilst O’Mara has only ever run for the local council (and lost), so is extremely inexperienced.
- As a young new MP, O’Mara is more likely to use his democratic power than Clegg, with his pitiful voting record. Clegg also has numerous side projects from which he hopes to improve society, as does O’Mara, however O’Mara will focus on parliament, whether as Clegg will focus on ‘Open Reason’.
- Clegg’s main cause is staying in the EU, O’Mara’s is disability rights, both very good issues to campaign for. However O’Mara is far more likely to achieve his goals, what with an increasing Labour vote, and recent progressions in discussions around disability. The only way is up for the Lib Dems from 2015’s low point, but by the time they become popular enough to affect parliament again, Brexit will already be implemented.
- Tim Farron is an extremely uninspiring leader, unlike Jeremy Corbyn, who has seemingly single handedly revived pre-Blairite Labour politics.
- Clegg is fantastically disliked for his inability to keep promises, but on the EU he will definitely remain firm. Essentially it boils down to whether I care more about Brexit, or the removal of the Conservative administration from power, which can only be achieved by Labour, who are doing surprisingly well.
So I voted Labour in the end, because ending the Conservative government suddenly seemed possible for Corbyn, and because Jared O’Mara deserved a voice at the table just as much, if not more than Nick Clegg, who will certainly continue to influence national and international policy in the absence of a parliamentary seat.
I left the polling booth at 4.05pm.