While I broadly agree with Stephen Tall that Nick Clegg’s speech to the Liberal Democrat local government conference in Manchester yesterday had much that was on the right track, I do wish Nick could frame his remarks without it looking like he’s taking a good old swipe at Liberal Democrat members and activists. Stephen says that’s how you get the journalists interested. The trouble is that some of the people who are offended by that kind of talk may be too angry to read behind the headlines – and these are exactly the people that Nick needs to help him in the next two years.
Look at this:
But I also know that if we try and turn back the clock…
Hankering for the comfort blanket of national opposition…
Seeking to airbrush out the difficult decisions we have had to take…
We condemn our party to the worst possible fate:
Irrelevance; impotence; slow decline.
Our party is at a very real fork in the road – with very real consequences, depending on which way we turn.
One way embraces the future:
Where the Liberal Democrats seek to become a firm party of Government…
Striving to govern at every level in order to make Britain a better place.
The other clings to our past:
Limiting our ambitions and our prospects;
Consigning ourselves to be “the third party” forever;
So where exactly are all these people who hanker after the cosy life of opposition then? There’s not very many of them that I know – and I know an awful lot of Liberal Democrats. We all know that we’re fighting this election on our record in Government and our plans for the future.
I get annoyed with SNP politicians up here when they take the merest hint of criticism of their policies as talking Scotland down, or scaremongering about independence. I really don’t want to hear the same sort of thing from my leader. Questioning some of the decisions that our party has taken in Government is not the same as being some sort of undisciplined hippy rabble who don’t really want to see our ideals put into practice.
I don’t know anyone who seriously wants to be back in opposition. We’ve been on that journey in Scotland, after delivering truly great and radical things in Government, and its not fun. It’s hard to look on while problems in the health service build up, or as social housing is cut, or as the SNP centralises anything that sits still for more than 5 minutes while they put all their energies into their campaign for independence. In the same way it was awful to look on while Labour took us to war in Iraq or the Tories did their worst in the 80s. We certainly don’t want to have to be bystanders while the Tory right enact their revenge for the Coalition or Labour flexes its authoritarian muscle by snooping on all our emails and websites visited.
I wrote the other day in the wake of the Donside by-election that it’s so important for us to be out on the doorsteps with a smile and a bit of confidence behind us. People are willing to listen to us now and they’re willing to come back and vote for us – but we need to talk to them to seal the deal. And in his speech, yesterday, Nick made exactly that point, telling us the sort of conversation we should be having:
I’m from the Liberal Democrat Party.
When the country needed it, we stepped up to our responsibilities…
Entering into Coalition with our opponents for the sake of the national interest.
We have taken some difficult decisions, but by doing so the country’s battered economy is on the mend.
Well over a million jobs have been created…
As well as record numbers of apprenticeships…
And we have managed to cut taxes for the vast majority of British taxpayers.
Here in this neighbourhood we have also protected vital services that matter to you.
Vote for us again and you will get more of the same.
Nick ought to realise that if he wants us to do something for him, then inferring that we need to grow up and get real is hardly the best motivational tool, especially when it’s not even accurate. Activists, who are already working hard, are going to think “Is that how little he thinks of us?”
What he said on the development of our manifesto was bang on. Too many of our manifestos in the past have been long lists of policies without any thread going through them telling who we are and what we stand for. Saying that is not particularly new. Ross Finnie based his whole campaign for leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats in 2008 around exactly that theme. I know, because I was part of that team.
In general, though, and I take the point that Stephen made about tuition fees, it’s not like our manifestos have been full of the wild flights of fancy that he seemed to suggest. There was always a pressure, because we hadn’t been in Government, to show that we could govern responsibly, hence our manifestos were costed to the nth degree.
There was a lot in Nick’s speech that was eminently sensible, though – and there was one big relief for me. I had been worried that our manifesto for 2015 would be bland and risk averse. Nick says no:
That doesn’t mean “pre-negotiating” our manifesto – producing a bland, generic set of plans we know either of the other parties could sign up to.
Far from it.
We can and must fight the next election on a platform of distinct, forward-looking, liberal policies.
We must not stifle our vision, our creativity or our boldness with either political or technocratic excuses.
We’ll need to make sure that the Manifesto Working Group delivers on that. Send your ideas to David Laws….
* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings