Nick Clegg has been dealt a blow by a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate's decision to defect to Labour in protest at his leader's acceptance of Conservative policies and abandonment of key elements of his party's programme.
Andrew Lewin, at 23 the youngest Lib Dem candidate in England at the May election, urged the party's MPs to oppose controversial cuts in housing benefit in a Commons vote tomorrow. He claimed hardly any Lib Dem MPs support them, saying the party was being forced to swallow "a virtually unreformed Conservative agenda".
Although several councillors have left the party in protest at the Coalition's policies, Mr Lewin is the first candidate to walk out.
The public relations consultant insisted his views had not changed and that it was the Lib Dems who had moved away from him.
His "faith was shattered" by Mr Clegg's support for trebling university tuition fees – which the party had pledged to phase out – and the dropping of plans for a job or training guarantee for people out of work for more than 90 days.
"Of all the U-turns presided over by Nick Clegg in the past six months, these are the most symbolic," he said in an interview with The Independent. "They were bold and progressive, yet both have been sacrificed at the altar of deficit reduction. It is vitally important that we invest in our young people, for economic as well as social reasons."
Mr Lewin accused the Lib Dems of signing up to a hasty "political timetable" for cutting the deficit dictated by the Chancellor George Osborne's desire to make room for giveaways before the next election. He said the housing benefit cuts were "incredibly rushed" and it was "very dangerous" to reduce payments by 10 per cent just because someone had been on jobseeker's allowance for a year.
Mr Lewin still supports the four key pledges on which the Lib Dems fought this year's election but dismissed Mr Clegg's claims that he was securing them. A step towards raising the income tax threshold to £10,000 would be outweighed by the "regressive" rise in VAT to 20 per cent in January, he warned.
He accepted that Mr Clegg had no alternative but to reach a deal with the Tories in May, but said the scale of the concessions to them "hit home" after dissent over the "free schools" policy was suppressed at the Lib Dem conference in Liverpool in September.
Mr Lewin, who came second to the Tories in Hertford and Stortford in May, said he wanted to play an active role in the Labour Party and had not ruled out standing for it at the next election. "I have a passion for politics. I am joining Labour because of Ed Miliband's leadership. He has set a direction of travel that can appeal across the spectrum, particularly to young people."
He said the Labour leader had shown humility by admitting mistakes on Iraq and tuition fees, and had adopted bold policies such as a graduate tax and a living wage.."
Labour claims it has attracted 40,000 new members since the election – a third of them from the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems insist their membership has risen since the election even though their opinion poll rating has slumped.
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