Opinion: the way forward – with Clegg at the helm

As soon as the Liberal Democrats bravely stepped in to coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives we knew tough times may lie ahead. Whilst the coalition’s majority party has sailed through relatively unscathed, the junior partner has suffered an incessant flow of unfair and unjust criticism. Just as we thought this was beginning to wane, this month has witnessed an increase in anti-Clegg rhetoric.

First to weigh in was the Lib Dems’ very own Lembit Opik (as eccentric and publicity-seeking as ever), who has outlined in his new book a plan for a Lib Dem resurrection. He states that Clegg must immediately stand down as leader of the party and allow a more left-leaning individual – such as Simon Hughes or Tim Farron – to take over the mantle. This, he says, will enable the party to regain a distinct voice in advance of the 2015 general election. This sentiment was echoed by ConservativeHome’s Tim Montgomery, who asserted that Clegg “should resign as party leader with 12 to 18 months to go before the election”.

What both men fail to comprehend is the potential damage such a hasty move could trigger. Cleggmania undoubtedly played a crucial role in pushing the party towards its current position in government and has made it possible for Lib Dem principles and policies to become reality. His performances in the TV debates were nothing short of first-class and there is no reason to believe he cannot repeat that in 2015. Too much emphasis is being placed on issues such as tuition fees. Times have moved on.

Instead, if the Lib Dems are to maintain a forward momentum, we must focus on the positive side-effects of coalition. Unashamed promotion of our achievements should not be deemed meaningless or tedious. Taking many of the lowest-paid employees out of income tax is quite an achievement; one we placed at the head of our manifesto in 2010. Our pupil premium has helped the most deprived children gain greater investment in their education. We have also helped reform the reforms of the NHS; something the electorate will come to appreciate in the long-run.

It appears that knocking the Orange Bookers is in vogue at the moment; both outside and inside the party. The formation of Liberal Left at spring conference will only add insult to injury. They propose that we return to our social liberal tendencies – seen throughout Ashdown and Kennedy’s tenures – and consider befriending Labour once more. They clearly have short memories. Labour may boast of being progressive, but the facts tell a different story. Surely making the case for the Liberal Democrats as a stand alone party is more important than illustrating our similarities with other left-of-centre political parties.

Whilst the Conservatives have proven responsible on the economy, they remain regressive on civil liberties. Meanwhile, Labour is anything but credible on the economy and, with ID cards a recent pipe dream, cannot claim to be champions of civil liberties. We, on the other hand, can proudly – and uniquely – claim to be responsible on the economy and radical on civil liberties; a slogan that needs to be utilised as often as possible. We have stepped up to the plate and proven that we can govern professionally and responsibly.

This sentiment needs to be brought forward to the party’s overall campaign effort across the country. Leaflets, door-to-door conversations, e-communications and broadcast performers should be carrying forth the message that the Lib Dems, under Clegg, can deliver good government whilst standing up for the principles and ideas that form the foundations of this wonderful party. The country is safe in our hands, and we have demonstrated that with Clegg at the helm. Why ditching him is even being discussed is beyond me; it is time to stop the apologies and reflect positively on our national contribution.

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26 Comments

  • “We have also helped reform the reforms of the NHS”. I am with the majority of the electorate on this, in that I did not vote for the NHS changes and I don’ t agree with them. Simple. I think it likely that Labour will make it an election promise to repeal this Bill. You say of the NHS ‘reforms’ the “electorate will come to appreciate in the long-run”. You seem to be saying that you are not confident that if you put these reforms to the electorate [say, in a general election] they would be approved, you seem to agree that there is no mandate to reorganise the NHS. You say “Too much emphasis is being placed on issues such as tuition fees. Times have moved on.” Tuition Fees and the tripling thereof define Nick Clegg with electorate and always will; this has little to do with the fees per se, but everything to do with the incredibly well-documented ‘Pledge’.

  • Charles Knight 13th Mar '12 - 10:46am

    I consider the right to employee protection to be a civil liberties issue – so I’m surprised to see a Liberal Democrat stick their head up to make the claim – “We, on the other hand, can proudly – and uniquely – claim to be responsible on the economy and radical on civil liberties” on the day that workers rights will be put back a generation by changing the qualifying period for claiming unfair dismissal from one year to two years.

    Honestly, the language of Libdems at the moment is odd because you are no longer making claims that can’t be tested, you are actually a party of Government.

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Mar '12 - 11:20am

    The problem with “Cleggmania” was that it built up false expectation which were then dashed. A creditable performance in the first debate by someone who up til then people hardly knew of led large numbers of people to think he was the answer to all their problems, but when they looked at him more closely in the later debates he did not seem quite so wonderful. Hence we ended the election campaign back where we started. We also ended it unduly focussing on the person of Clegg, whereas we started it so concerned about him that the leadership was being painted as Clegg-Cable.

    The danger with the Liberal Democrats, and the Liberal Party before, is that it has limited media coverage which tends to focus on the leader, so the party gets seen primarily in terms of the personality of its leader and not as a arty with a coherent ideology and a great deal of talent amongst its ranks. My feeling is that Charles Kennedy proved a surprisingly effective leader precisely because, for reasons we now know, he was not always there doing and saying things so others were brought forward and the party looked much more like a team effort.

    Our problem now is that our party has dismally failed to escape from the attack that it “put the Tories in” as if it somehow had a choice to do something completely different but did not. I don’t believe it had a choice, which is why I think talking about forming coalitions with Labour or continuing with the Tories is silly – we would do better off to make it quite clear it depends on circumstances, in 2010 we had to form a coalition with the Tories as that was the only viable stable government, it could be the other way round after the next general election.

    The coalition situation inevitably means people think we have ideologically moved towards the Tories, they are in some way our “natural” allies, whereas previously Labour seemed to be our natural allies. While there are a few in the party who have actively encouraged this, it’s not a position most hold to. We will lose a huge proportion of our vote of we go into the next election with people believing it, so I feel for that reason alone we need to put some effort into appearing even-handed. I’m sorry, but to insult people who are saying such things by making accusations such as “They clearly have short memories” is childish and factional and shows no understanding of the serious situation our party is in and needs to get out of.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 13th Mar '12 - 12:16pm

    @ William Hobhouse – as a recently deceased comedian might have said, “it’s the way you tell ,em”

  • paul barker 13th Mar '12 - 1:02pm

    Lembit is just wrong on this, he has fallen for the discredited idea that there ever was one left, split in by some historical accident. The liberal/social democrat stream of left thought never had much in common with labour.
    The irony is that labour is visibly dying, why would we try to climb aboard a sinking ship ?
    Clegg is the best leader we have ever had & his career has hardly begun yet.

  • David Claughton 13th Mar '12 - 1:04pm

    I hear a lot of people here talk about how Lib Dems and Labour are somehow more compatible bed-fellows than Lib Dems and Tories. The thing is I’m having a bit of trouble figuring out where the common ground is exactly.

    Now I’m a bit too young to really remember much about pre-Thatcherite Labour governments, so it may well be that you guys go way back and historically had a lot in common, I don’t know.

    But I look at the Authoritarian, Large State, Civil Rights Stomping tendencies of the previous Labour administration and wonder – how are they like the Lib Dems again? For that matter just how Left was the last Labour government, based on their actions rather than their professed ideology? Yes, they weren’t Right, but sometimes I wonder if they didn’t wander off in an entirely different direction!

    Personally instead of cosying up to Labour, I tend to think Lib Dems should be challenging them for the Left-leaning ground they have seemingly abandoned. Certainly it seems to me that, even in a coalition with the Tories, the Lib-Dems have implemented more Leftist policies in the last two years than the Labour did in the previous thirteen.

  • David Claughton – I agreed with everything you worte until “Personally instead of cosying up to Labour, I tend to think Lib Dems should be challenging them for the Left-leaning ground they have seemingly abandoned. Certainly it seems to me that, even in a coalition with the Tories, the Lib-Dems have implemented more Leftist policies in the last two years than the Labour did in the previous thirteen.”

    Nay, nay and thrice nay! Occupy the Liberal centre ground, yes. Implemented many Liberal policies yes. Leftist? No way Jose.

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Mar '12 - 2:03pm

    David Claughton

    But I look at the Authoritarian, Large State, Civil Rights Stomping tendencies of the previous Labour administration and wonder – how are they like the Lib Dems again?

    Sure, but much the same could be said about Tories – with the addition that Tories just do not understand “enslavement by poverty”, just cannot see why if you don’t have the helping hand of wealth and connections that most of them have had, it is SO much harder to progress in life.

    Personally instead of cosying up to Labour, I tend to think Lib Dems should be challenging them for the Left-leaning ground they have seemingly abandoned.

    Yes, but there is the problem – how can this be done when any attempt to escape from the impression given by the existence of the coalition that the Liberal Democrats have made a major rightward shift is denounced as “cosying up to Labour”?

    The reality is that Labour and their fellow-travellers HAVE managed to give the impression that the formation of the coalition and all that has happened under it was a completely free choice for the Liberal Democrats, that we decided to do this when we could just as well have implemented 100% of our manifesto. I know put this way it sounds daft, but much of the “you lot have betrayed your principles and I’ll never vote for you again” lines that have been thrown at us since May 2010 amount to little more than that if you analyse them. Unless we can counter that argument, not just amongst ourselves but amongst the majority of left-leaning voters, we are doomed. That is THE major issue facing our party right now. I wish our leadership was doing something about it.

  • You are still not getting it are you?

    This piece could have been produced by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s spin doctors, and may well have been. Many of us have been knocking the Orange Book and all its works since it was published, seeing it as the wrong direction for the party that we spent 40 years working our butts off, to get it into power. Yet having got it there we find it’s not philosophically, nor policy-wise the one we strived for, for so long. We spent many of those years on the doorstep knocking other parties, especially those ones who promise much and who, on achieving power, instantly run away from those pledges (remember tuition fees?). A wonderful party – once, but now a long way from the principles and ideas of the party I joined.

    You can trumpet any perceived achievement you wish to the electorate, but without ‘ground-troops’ you will not be able to fight an effective election. Those ‘ground-troops who got you there and who never gave up in the lean years when the party was reduced to a so called ‘taxi’ in Parliament, were, like me, generally on the left of the party. Sadly also like me they have just hemorrhaged away and I am not sure how you get them back.

    I was an election agent many times for the Liberals and Lib Dems and know full well that many, if not the majority of Lib Dem council and parliamentary seats depend on a squeezed Labour vote to achieve the victory. That will not now happen again for many years because of the perceived betrayal.

    I recall Roy Jenkins saying at the time of the Liberal/SDP merger debate that he did not want a “right little tight little party” emerging from it. With the continuing evaporation of the Left from the party, then that’s what you are now getting. Enjoy it while it lasts.

  • jenny barnes 13th Mar '12 - 2:14pm

    in 2010 I believe the plurality of voters wanted an end to the globalised neo-liberal consensus that we had seen for the last 30 years, first under the Tories, then under Labour. Many disappointed Labour voters voted LD, in the hope that the LDs would be able to deliver something on those lines. Now what we seem to have is 3 more or less identical careerist neo-liberal parties with different ties… and Labour are more authoritarian, the Tories are more blatant about benefitting their class, and the LDs are just very confused. Meanwhile, the privatisation of what remains of the welfare state rolls on.

  • David Claughton 13th Mar '12 - 2:16pm

    Tabman – perhaps it depends on how you are defining Left? Personally I see something like the Pupil Premium to be a socially-aware policy to the benefit of the “common man” and that puts it on the Left side of the line for me.

    Certainly Left is a complex concept with many more facets than this and I would not, for example, suggest that the Lib Dems embrace Trade Unionism!

    Historically, ‘Left’ has meant different things at different times (Wikipedia tells me it once stood for Anti-Royalist for example!). So when I suggest that Lib Dems should steal the Left from Labour, I don’t mean that Lib Dems should become Labour. Instead I’m suggesting more that Lib Dems should embrace the parts of its ideology that can be (arguably) identified as ‘Left’ and use them co-opt the concept of Left from Labour and make it its own.

  • David Claughton – the Lib Dems already have a well-respected and understood philosophy to embrace: Liberalism. This stands for freedom, civil liberties, dispersal of power, consumer not producer interests, equality of opportunity, diversity, enterprise etc etc.

    “Left”, meanwhile, stands for state producer interests, conformism, levelling down, equality of outcome, centralisation, cronyism, coercion, civil strife, anti-meritocracy. Not a philosophy I am prepared to counenance.

  • Malcolm Todd 13th Mar '12 - 3:23pm

    @jenny barnes
    You say “in 2010 I believe the plurality of voters wanted an end to the globalised neo-liberal consensus that we had seen for the last 30 years, first under the Tories, then under Labour. ” What evidence do you have for this, given that a significant majority of voters (about 65%) voted for one of the two parties you accuse of supporting the ‘globalised neo-liberal consensus’?

  • Malcolm Todd 13th Mar '12 - 3:26pm

    @Tabman — strawmanning much? We can argue all day about what “the Left” really means (or indeed what ‘Liberalism’ means, though there’s probably less room for disagreement there). But nobody stands for the things you claim even if you believe the things they do stand for will have those outcomes.

  • Malcolm – just getting the debate going … ;-)

  • David Allen 13th Mar '12 - 5:04pm

    “Surely making the case for the Liberal Democrats as a stand alone party is more important than illustrating our similarities with other left-of-centre political parties.”

    But it’s Clegg who has dismally failed to “make the case” that we are a stand alone party! He has embraced a right-wing Tory philosophy with open arms, and everybody knows it.

    OK, let’s clear the mote out of Liberal Left’s eyes, and make sure we don’t just identify ourselves by reference to Labour. But before we do that, how about dealing the beam in Nick Clegg’s eyes, and his continuing Rose Garden love-in with all things Tory?

  • @Tabman:

    ““Left”, meanwhile, stands for state producer interests, conformism, levelling down, equality of outcome, centralisation, cronyism, coercion, civil strife, anti-meritocracy.”

    Then Tabman is clearly ‘of the left’ ? ;-)

    Please stop making things up. ‘Left’ does not mean what you choose it to mean unless you are the Mad Hatter. It means, pure and simple, ‘progressive, anti-establishment, non-conservative’.

  • What a fantastic spoof this article is. And nineteen days early, too! :-)

  • Why ditching him is even being discussed is beyond me;
    Because his poor judgement is going to have an adverse affect on the country and the party if this H&SC bill goes ahead against the coalition agreement, the will of the party, the wishes of NHS patients and the professional concerns of medical staff. The only reason I can think of for Lib Dem MPs to vote for the bill is that if it is passed the backlash will hasten the demise of Clegg. Its time for him to admit he has messed up and stop this bill. The Tories have made enough U turns in this Coalition to plumb all the toilets in the palace of Westminster – time for one of our own.

  • “Left” stands for “Liberty, Equality and FraTernity”.

  • Do none of you (except Tony Dawson) recognise irony?

    More seriously Steve G is absolutely right the footsoldiers are disappearing fast and a party that is top heavy can not function.

  • Bill le Breton 14th Mar '12 - 9:01am

    Good leadership is a complex notion to assess and there are many types of good leader. But poor leadership, especially in politics, is often strikingly clear.

    The decision to use the line that the Sunday morning conference debate was either a vote for Shirley Williams or Andy Burnham was on so many levels crass leadership of the Liberal Democrats.

    It will not have been Clegg’s idea originally but as leader his acceptance of that advice and his use of it demonstrates amazingly poor political judgement.

    That poor judgement has infected his leadership from the start. Urging tax cuts as the economy was set to plunge into crisis. Signing ‘the’ Tuition pledge in the first place and then not realising how that commitment had raised the issue to red line status. The Rose Garden Love-In. These are examples that a more experienced politician and a better advised politician or a politician more willing to accept challenging advice, would have taken.

    I do not want to change the leadership, I want to change the way he leads, the people he chooses to advise him and the political strategy he has adopted.

    It is very odd that such a person with so little political experience should find himself in such an important position. But in that spot he finds himself. And attached to him we find ourselves.

    I am sorry to say that sycophantic and naïve pieces like this one, Scott, especially from a Party pro, isn’t helpful. Clegg needs to be challenged on what he does if he is to learn how to be a Liberal Democrat politician of greater effectiveness.

    No one in either of our traditions – not even Jenkins as Chancellor or Home Secretary – has had such an opportunity to win support for our values, which Tabman lists so well.

  • Having read this thread I was, at first, amazed and then almost amused at such a ‘one-eyed’ summary of where we, as a party, are. Such comments remind me of a story ( by E. A. Poe) in which an elite hide themselves away in an abbey to escape from the horrors in the outside world.

    In 2010 those who suggested that our support in the country was falling were told, “Rubbish! We have 4500 new members/a rise of 14% since the coalition”; in the 2011 elections we lost half our councils and 700 seats.
    We are not seen, by those who matter (the electorate), as saviors of the NHS, defenders of the disabled and fighters against child poverty.
    Positive thinking is one thing; self delusion is another.

  • Spot on, Bill but I fear your advice comes way too late. The damage done with the electorate is now too deep to reverse – at least in the short term. A change of leader might make some members feel better but who are we going to choose as replacement? I only counted 7 Mps who showed any backbone yesterday.

  • Nigel Quinton 14th Mar '12 - 9:38pm

    I sometimes think wishful thinking is a required trait for any LibDem – and I am sure I have been guilty of it myself enough times. But Jason and Bill are spot on.

    I travelled back from Gateshead relieved that we had secured a win in the NHS debate, however debased a debate that was following the shenanigans that resulted in the wrong motion being selected; I was though concerned by Nick’s apparent determination to ignore this in his (otherwise very good) speech; and by the end of my journey I was once again depressed by the reaction of many delegates who just seemed relieved that we had not voted for anything that could be presented as a clear decision to drop the NHS Bill.

    Bill’s point is well made – Clegg has made some spectacularly poor judgement calls since May 2010, but he remains a fantastic performer who could be a great asset to the party. I just wish I could see a way for him to regain his former glory. It won’t happen, but that wishful thinking tendency remains, and if only he would agree with the health professionals and most of the country, and ditch the Bill, it might go a long way to achieving just that.

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