Opinion: Nick’s journey

It’s natural for defeated political leaders to make up stories which absolve themselves from blame.  After every by-election, those who have done less well offer unconvincing explanations. Nick Clegg is no exception, but his story last week that “the Liberal Democrats are on a journey from a party of protest to a party of government” is curious for two reasons. First, because no previous Liberal or Liberal Democrat leader has presented the party as one of protest and second because the party was very much a party of government before he became leader.

It is wrong and insulting to suggest that David Steel, Paddy Ashdown, and Sir Menzies Campbell were somehow leaders of a protest group that lacked ambition to govern. From Steel’s much-mocked call to his members to “prepare for government” to Campbell’s courageous stand against the Iraq war, each of them presented comprehensive and radical programmes for government in their actions and manifestos.

David Steel led Liberals into the 1987 election on a broad programme which included devolution to Scotland and Wales, the introduction of a Freedom of Information Act, restoration of the link between pensions and earnings, and the incorporation of the European Charter on Human Rights into British Law.  These were so much a programme for government that each has now been implemented by other parties.

Paddy Ashdown set out detailed plans for government as he led the Liberal Democrats into the 1997 election. Far from seeking protest votes, Ashdown made a firm commitment to increase income tax in order to fund improvements in education – what party leader would have the courage to do that today?

In 2005, Charles Kennedy faced the electorate with a manifesto of fully-costed policies. It drew attention to Labour’s broken promises on tuition fees, defended the contribution made to the British economy by economic migrants, and set out a suite of environmental policies.

None of these leaders were fronting a party of protest. Each had wide-ranging proposals covering all aspects of government.  They did not flinch from promoting policies they knew would initially be unpopular. And each was confident in the knowledge that all their proposals were soundly embedded in modern Liberal principles. They certainly won seats from other parties in by-elections (rather than coming 7th or 8th as Clegg has done recently) but they also steadily increased their haul of seats at General Elections.

Liberal Democrats were arguably more effective as a party of government before Nick Clegg became leader.  the decade from 2000 to 2010, Liberal Democrats were coalition partners in the governments of both Scotland and Wales.   The achievements of Liberal Democrat Ministers in those governments were far-reaching and radical. Significantly, they punched above their electoral weight and delivered effectively on their manifesto pledges. Fair voting in local elections, free personal care for the elderly, and no university tuition fees are just some of the party’s achievements in government in Scotland.

Liberal Democrats also controlled major local authorities in most parts of Britain during those years. That strength at municipal level has been shredded in recent elections. Ironically, this loss has been largely a consequence of perceived Lib Dem ineptitude in national government.

Clegg’s “journey” story doesn’t stand up. The party has been active in government for many years, almost everywhere except London.  His journey has not been from protest to government, but from principle to pragmatism. To be an independent party of government in future will require new seats to be gained from other parties in areas outside current Lib Dem comfort zones.  For this, the South Shields result does not augur well.

* Nigel Lindsay is a former Liberal councillor in Aberdeen and a longtime activist in the party, but consider himself an internationalist first and foremost.

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31 Comments

  • ” to Campbell’s courageous stand against the Iraq war” Kennedy was leader at the time of the Iraq war, not Campbell. The rumour was that Campbell briefly argued for supporting the war in Iraq when our party was deciding where we would position ourselves.

    I’m not criticising Campbell for this, as he was our Foreign Affairs spokesperson at the time he would be expected to lay out the arguments for all sides of the debate before he would take a position himself, but I think it’s wrong to swap the credit that we owe Kennedy and give it to Campbell, as Kennedy was the leader at the time.

  • paul barker 8th May '13 - 2:25pm

    A classic example of setting up a straw man in order to knock him down.
    We, obviously have never seen ourselves as a Party of protest but most voters did, including some who voted for us.
    We think Local Government & The European Parliament are important, thats almost a definition of a Libdem, the voters disagree.
    Cleggs focus has always been on how the Electorate see us & how we can shift that. In the tribal atmospher of British politics being taken seriously means being hated, we just need to grow thicker skins.

  • No, Paul Barker, we should continue to make the case to the electorate – if we need to make it more effectively, then we should. But that should NOT involve changing policy just because it doesn’t fit with a Daily Mail or Sun (or even Torygraph) version of events and politics.

    Sid Cumberland – I would be very surprised if Clegg didn’t have some plans to lever “some” protest votes in on various topics. Oppositions generally do that anyway, of whatever party. So, I fail to see why you try to make such a distinction. For those of us remaining radicals, the key point of the Clegg leadership is to take the party to the right (“positioning ourselves as a centre party”) as the man himself puts it. The outcome of that has been seen in the ballot boxes for the past 3 years now.

  • And in our membership lists and teams of election helpers, of course.

  • “A classic example of setting up a straw man in order to knock him down. We, obviously have never seen ourselves as a Party of protest but most voters did, including some who voted for us.”

    What Clegg actually said was “we’re on a journey from a party of protest to a party of government”. Not “from being seen as a party of protest …” Don’t accuse people of setting up straw men when they’re being entirely accurate.

    “In the tribal atmospher of British politics being taken seriously means being hated, we just need to grow thicker skins.”

    Good luck with that.

  • paul barker 8th May '13 - 2:48pm

    @ Tim13, cant see how you read that into what I said. Obviously its our job to convert every voter to a Libdem but that means starting the conversation where they are & they dont think Locals?Euros are important.
    We have made real progress in getting voters to take us seriously, thats only a beginning but a useful one.

  • Translation: “The Liberal Democrats are on a journey from being a party founded on high ideals while devoted to finding practical solutions to national problems to being a pale shadow of whatever party happens to be in power at the time, a lapdog scurrying under the table looking for political scraps.”

  • paul barker 8th May '13 - 2:50pm

    Sorry, change ? to / makes more sense then.

  • Tony Dawson 8th May '13 - 2:56pm

    @paul barker:

    “Cleggs focus has always been on how the Electorate see us & how we can shift that.”

    I see no evidence whatsoever in Nick’s actions that would suggest either of these statements is remotely true.

  • Can I repeat in different terms a comment that I have made on a previous thread. Even if our Lib Dem members of the government and their SPADs are inhibited by protocol from joining in discussion on this forum, it seems to me very unfortunate indeed that our MPs and peers (with one or two honourable exceptions), and others in the upper echelons of the party do not engage in debate here. This has the result that a site that is purportedly a forum for the expression of views from all levels within the party is in practice a forum on which we rank-and-file endlessly query Coalition policies but almost never get proper explanations of them from our parliamentary party or from others who are knowledgable about the issues concerned. Can Caron or indeed Tim Farron please do anything about this ?

  • Sophistry is so tedious, isn’t it? When we were not in government, we collected a lot of protest votes from people who did not like what the government was doing. In that sense we were a party of protest. Shorthand, I know, but better surely than “we were seen by some people as a party of protest”. Now that we are in government, we have forfeited the protest votes. So, again in a shorthand way, we have moved from being a party of protest to being a party of government.

  • We’ll have to agree to disagree, both Sid and Paul.

  • David Allen 8th May '13 - 3:49pm

    “(Nick’s) journey has not been from protest to government, but from principle to pragmatism.”

    Certainly it has been a journey away from our established principles. Certainly “a party of protest” is quite unfair: like all parties we may have picked up some protest voters, but with policies to raise tax and spend money protecting the environment, we were hardly going for crude populism.

    Whether Nick’s destination has been “pragmatism” is less clear. David thinks it has, Tim13 thinks it hasn’t. David apparently thinks Nick would cadge “political scraps” from anybody, whereas Tim13 thinks Nick is engaged on a major shift to the right. Now, isn’t it strange that two clearly able observers can come to such different conclusions? It is surely a tribute to Nick’s ability to play the chameleon, to make it so difficult to know where he really stands.

    For the party as a whole, I’d be tempted to say that the journey has been “from principle to government”. That’s where our elite have got to. Ministerial limos. Status. Career success. Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, while Osborne, Gove and Lansley steer the ship. So yes, I can understand the widespread public feeling that the Lib Dems are for sale to the highest bidder, and will do anything to keep their feet under Ministerial tables. Which, of course, is not a great vote attractor. Hence, 1.4% in South Shields.

    However, for Nick himself, along with Laws, Alexander, Browne and some others, I don’t think the same applies. Nick would like to claim that the alliance with the Tories was a sort of accident, just a consequence of the way the electoral cookie crumbled in 2010, and that he could work with Labour too. I don’t believe it. Nick’s consistent positioning, from his “big permanent tax cuts” policy launch in 2008, his preference for the party with the “strongest mandate” in 2010, and his signature to a mendacious Coalition Agreement thereafter, has demonstrated an overriding motivation to move the party to the Right. You can call that a lot of things, like “turncoat” or “traitorous”, but you can’t just call it pragmatism.

    It follows that we should not just watch resignedly as David’s supposed “lapdogs scurrying under the table looking for political scraps” fade into a deserved oblivion. We should fight against a party leadership which has been, and can be again, an active and effective force for ill.

  • Paul Barker, I rea policy change into your words, because it seems to me you are agreeing with Nick Clegg, and essentially his strategy has been to use a set of policy changes, especially in the economic field, to bring us very close, if not identical to Tory and nuLab to exemplify what he means by “a Party of Government”. Sorry I read what I see clearly between the lines, as well as the words in black and white. I am sure I don’t misinterpret you, because I am very familiar with your arguments, having read similar many times over (as I am sure you have with mine!)

  • Sid

    I can see that’s a sophistical way of making what Clegg said sound less dismissive of the party as led by his predecessors. But sadly I find it more believable that he simply meant what he said.

  • Helen Tedcastle 8th May '13 - 4:24pm

    “Clegg’s “journey” story doesn’t stand up. The party has been active in government for many years, almost everywhere except London. His journey has not been from protest to government, but from principle to pragmatism.”

    Exactly so. Great article.

    @ Paul Barker: “Cleggs focus has always been on how the Electorate see us & how we can shift that. ”

    Well, Nick’s doing a fine job there then isn’t he, taking us from around 28% of the vote in previous council elections to 14% last week.

    “In the tribal atmospher of British politics being taken seriously means being hated, we just need to grow thicker skins.”

    This is just funny – having been around in Lib Dem politics in 1989 when we scored a massive 6% nationally in the Euro Elections, I think Lib Dems of long-standing have skins of rhino hide.

    The idea that we’re now hated due to tribal politics, when in reality it’s because a small number of our top politicians want us to move to the right – and the members just need to get over it ,(which is the corollary of what you’re arguing) – is drivel and it won’t work.

  • paul barker 8th May '13 - 6:44pm

    I wont be replying to any of the points directed at me because I think that sort of dialog wrecks any discussion, its like people in a meeting talking to each other instead of to the meeting.

  • Max Wilkinson 8th May '13 - 7:06pm

    You can talk about journeys, protest and pragmatism all you like, but in the real world, it’s something a lot simpler that matters.

    As far as his brand goes, his personal polling tells us that it’s finished. It will take a minor miracle to make him popular again, which means his presence will continue to ensure the party loses support. I’m afraid that’s about as far as it goes.

  • “I wont be replying to any of the points directed at me because I think that sort of dialog wrecks any discussion …”

    Surely that sort of dialogue is discussion.

  • “That’s where our elite have got to. Ministerial limos. Status. Career success.”

    But all political careers end in failure. It’s difficult to see that taking longer than two years in Clegg’s case.

  • Helen Tedcastle 8th May '13 - 10:22pm

    “I wont be replying to any of the points directed at me because I think that sort of dialog wrecks any discussion, its like people in a meeting talking to each other instead of to the meeting.”

    It can’t mean that because that implies you whispered your comment to one or two other people without others hearing. In reality, you posted comments in a public forum so you can’t be surprised surely, that people reply.

  • Brilliant article. A correct antidote to some of the flimsy narrative that Nick Clegg spouts to deflect attention from what often appears to be a lacklustre performance of the Lib Dems in central government.

  • Well said. If we had more MPS it would have been more beneficial than being in government wit the Tories. At one time Nick agreed. He spoke of 150 members of parliament. With the base becoming. smaller and activists disappearing this is, sadly, highly unlikely. A case os starting over again!

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th May '13 - 9:16am

    David Allen

    Nick would like to claim that the alliance with the Tories was a sort of accident, just a consequence of the way the electoral cookie crumbled in 2010, and that he could work with Labour too. I don’t believe it.

    I think there are two separate things here. I do agree that Clegg was part of a concerted push by the political right within our party. How did this very unremarkable and fairly newly elected MP, who had very little active experience in party campaigning, get pushed forward, again and again by media commentators, as “obviously the next leader of the party”? Because his views and background fitted in with the wealthy elite, who used their power over the media to push him forward. I said this at the time of the leadership election. I begged and pleaded members not to vote for him. Part of the problem was that the media backing he was getting was so strong that others got put off challenging him, the only one who did put himself forward as an alternative was insufficiently different from him in background and views to make it a real left-right fight, and, as we know, had deep personal flaws of his own.

    However, I don’t think Clegg can be accused of having engineered things to give us a Parliamentary balance where a Conservative-LibDem coalition was the only viable stale option. That was an accident, but obviously one which Clegg and those surrounding him have been able to use to their advantage.

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th May '13 - 9:23am

    Nigel Lindsay

    Clegg’s “journey” story doesn’t stand up. The party has been active in government for many years, almost everywhere except London.

    I agree with the general thrust of your article. Trashing his predecessors, and belittling what we all achieved in the past is another example of Clegg’s incompetence. As I’ve argued elsewhere, this overblown promotion of the coalition as the party having reached its fulfillment has very much damaged us. We should have played it calmly, something that was bound to happen one day, but just another step and as very much the junior partner in the coalition more an unpleasant task undertaken out of duty than a “fairytale romance”.

    However, please clarify that when you wrote “London” you meant the UK national government. The party has been active in local government in many London boroughs for many years.

  • What nonsense!

    This isn’t ‘Clegg’s journey’, it’s Clegg describing ‘the LibDem journey’.

    Running councils across the country and entering coalition in Scotland and Wales were merely a precursor, not an end in themself. Similarly, entering coalition is a stepping-stone to successfully forming a majority – not a signal of defeat!

    The validation of temporary tactical votes made by large numbers of the electorate comes in using the mandate those floating votes provide to build greater loyalty to the liberal cause – conversely the examples cited are evidence for our success and indication that we are continuing in the same manner.

    Because it’s not simply about raw numbers, otherwise our targetting strategy would never have been effective. We must take massive credit for moderating in equal measure and simultaneously the extremists on right and left wings of the spectrum, but we must do more to continue pressing our case in the best traditions of our party.

    It is also completely disingenuous to suggest our activists are not brought up on a diet of opposition – when I marched against the invasion of Iraq I did so in opposition, just as when I campaign against the cynicism, complacency and waste of my local tory-dominated council.

    With the greatest of respect to Mr Lindsay, he employs rhetoric which shifts from one sentence to the next – ‘wide-ranging’ hardly means the same thing as ‘comprehensive’ – so if he wishes to accuse anyone of inconsistency, he would make a more reliable claim if he were to look in the mirror.

  • Oranjepan – agree entirely. And of course the whole straw man collapses if you substitute ‘Eastleigh’ for ‘South Shields’.

  • Malcolm Todd 12th May '13 - 1:27pm

    Oranjepan: “Mr Lindsay, … employs rhetoric which shifts from one sentence to the next – ‘wide-ranging’ hardly means the same thing as ‘comprehensive’ “

    Saying different things in different sentences isn’t being inconsistent, for heaven’s sake! There’s no contradiction between having a “comprehensive programme” and having “wide-ranging proposals”, so your accusation of inconsistency is quite unjustified.

    Sid Cumberland: “The whole straw man collapses if you substitute ‘Eastleigh’ for ‘South Shields’.”
    Well, the author’s argument was: “To be an independent party of government in future will require new seats to be gained from other parties in areas outside current Lib Dem comfort zones. For this, the South Shields result does not augur well.”
    How a by-election victory in a long-held Lib Dem seat in which the party has been completely dominant in local government as well for several years — a result, what’s more, that saw the party’s vote share drop by about 15% from memory — can be thought to undermine that argument at all is beyond me.

  • Malcolm,
    I see what you’ve done there – you’ve employed the same shape-shifting rhetorical tactic as the author. So I’ll employ the same criticism: inconsistency isn’t the same thing as a contradiction.

    Had I looked at the LibDem manifesto at any election during my voting career and thought the chance of a LibDem majority was at any time a realistic prospect I would have been unlikely to be able to support my party at the ballot box.

    And I know many natural liberals and LibDems who feel forced away from the party because we haven’t so far taken the job seriously enough. Large numbers of sympathetic, non-ideological, pragmatic and floating voters look at the choice in front of them and decide against us – they’re waiting to be impressed.

    No Liberal or LibDem party manifesto I’ve read so far has yet been one which I’d feel capable of implementing fully – the tuition fees debacle was the prime example of policies which fell down when faced with the facts.

    It was glaringly obvious in hindsight, and we cannot allow ourselves to be held hostage to fortune again. So… a handful of past ideas have provided us with a legacy to build on… yes, we can be proud, but that’s nothing more than a foundation.

    Too many of us get lulled into easy assumptions that we’ve done enough to be deserving, and that’s where and why your contrast between Eastleigh and South Shields falls down too. Eastleigh was a special case in that it is UKIP’s best seat on paper, so holding on there was a triumphal rearguard action in the circumstances. Meanwhile South Shields is almost the last target on our list, and the day we win there is the day we destroy democracy with a North Korean-style majority.

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