“A more coherent liberal position”

Never let it be said that I am not a steel-toothed harpy who likes to tear chunks out of journos and indeed the whole concept of the mainstream meedja. This being the case, praise where it’s due, there is a truly incisive and thoughtful leader in the Times this morning covering Nick Clegg’s “Why I am a liberal” speech.

It’s by no means entirely favourable, and in some ways it invokes pessimism. But I think it’s spot on, whether we like it or not. First, the favourable side of the analysis, and It’s the Policy, Stupid:

Striking a more coherent liberal position has two accompanying virtues. First, it puts the Lib Dems in a good position in the event of a minority Tory administration. Second, it places them advantageously in the event that Labour moves to the left. Charles Kennedy thought that he could sneak into the political centre from the left. Nick Clegg knows that the only viable way to supplant the Labour Party is from the right. Overall, this is a very different party from the one that fought the 2005 general election. Then it was difficult to say what the Liberal Democrats stood for beyond opposition to the Iraq war.

Apart from the fact that I personally couldn’t care less whether we attack Labour from the right, the left or from behind with a prize-winning leek so long as we advocate what we believe to be right (I know, what a fanciful soul I am) this strikes me as spot on. The last lines in particular are not an assessment you’ll often hear in the comment highways and byways of Lib Dem Voice, largely for the simple reason that the discontented tend to be louder than the contented, and the discontented (to paraphrase) seem to be currently of the belief that Clegg has led us away from the coherent position of 2005. But I and, I suspect, many others, have quietly subscribed to the Times leader’s view all along. A disclaimer, I am the first to agree that the precise communication pattern over individual policies has been extremely muddled at times. But the direction of travel has done nothing but get clearer over the last year, whether you happen to agree with it or not. “Incoherent” is not a synonym for “inimical to me”.

But here’s the rub:

Not that greater coherence has brought with it much popularity. This is in part because the electorate has rewarded the Government for its handling of the financial crisis. But it is also a judgment on Mr Clegg’s performance as leader. So far he has struggled to find a way of dramatising the changes he has made. He has been newsworthy not for his thoughtful positions, but for his thoughtless remarks.

…the improvements that Mr Clegg has wrought with a clarity of vision and impressive judgment have mostly gone under the radar. If he can give his liberalism some good publicity he may yet make it more popular.

This is the heart of the matter. I don’t care that Clegg shoots his mouth off. I don’t think it matters a damn that Clegg shoots his mouth off (heaven knows, there are plenty of less lovely characteristics than that). I know – we all know – that the leader of the Liberal Democrats always has to be hounded for something by the media, and if it wasn’t shooting his mouth off it would be something else. With Ming it was age, for goodness’ sake. There’s no escaping it. Anyone who thinks Nick’s brushes with small-time controversy would not be replicated by another leader are thoroughly deluding themselves – the idiom in which it happens may be characteristically Cleggish, but the pattern is beyond his control.

But I do care that he might not be pushing the new-found coherence of the party as fast and as far as he could be. Mind you, so does he, I expect. How on earth can it be done? To a great extent, the filtering down of the party’s new direction is just a matter of time. We should remind ourselves that the tax policy which is a keystone of the new liberalism took a year – a year – to get through to the mainstream media. Indeed, the apparent belief that we adopted it in the September conference just past appears in this very leader article. But there must be ways of accelerating it.

I doubt very much that the fact that Clegg sometimes talks himself into trouble has anything to do with that filtering down process. The two variables have no impact on each other at this stage. If, by the time the filtering down has occurred, Clegg has racked up enough embarrassing gaffes – and I mean genuinely embarrassing, like not knowing what the state pension is, as opposed to shagging, which is unimportant and I consider it contemptible and illiberal to suggest otherwise – to mean that the filtered-down stuff is taken less seriously, then we may have a problem. But right now, we don’t. We don’t have enough of a problem yet. The problem is that there is no problem.

Here was a moment in the first year of Cleggishness: the Lisbon Treaty debate walk-out. In the interests of full disclosure, I happen to think Clegg will be proved right on the issue when it comes out in the wash, but for now I’m just talking about that moment itself. It provoked, in the blogosphere and in the media, such howls of derision from some quarters and such thumping cheers from others that I couldn’t help feeling it must have been exactly the right thing to do. Shame we pulled such a fine and attention-grabbing political trick on such an obscure policy angle. “Expect more of the same”, said Clegg (or words to that effect) the next day.

A dodgy political risk is the one and only thing the newspapers love as much as they love a personal gaffe. A dodgy political risk will get publicity for the policy associated with it – and the risk is that it may damn the policy as often as it fetes it. That I can’t do that risk calculation is one of the many, many reasons I am currently hunched in front of my computer wrapped in a blanket and eating biscuits rather than roaming around the corridors, or indeed the backstairs, of power. But if we have a choice from the biscuit barrel of political publicity, I’ll take the dodgy political risks over the personal gaffes any day. The personal gaffes aren’t the problem – the lack of a substitute is. I did expect more of the same after the Lisbon Treaty, and I’m still expecting. You haven’t gone and started caring too much, have you, Nick?

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38 Comments

  • Clegg's Candid Fan 16th Dec '08 - 4:15pm

    “It makes no sense tactically or politically if you are targeting 50 Labour key seats.”

    I’d hope that with Labour pretty much back at 2005 levels, according to the polls, and the Lib Dems significantly lower than 2005 levels, the targeting of Labour seats requiring a large swing from Labour to the Lib Dems will have been quietly dropped.

    Gaining these seats looked unlikely enough earlier in the year when Labour was languishing in the mid-20s. If things carry on as they are now, it looks out of the question.

  • David Allen 16th Dec '08 - 5:41pm

    “…The precise communication pattern over individual policies has been extremely muddled at times. But the direction of travel has done nothing but get clearer over the last year, whether you happen to agree with it or not. “Incoherent” is not a synonym for “inimical to me”.”

    Ouch! Well, up to a point Alix. But – “Coherent” is not a synonym for “Ideological and dogmatic”!

    So, our actual policies are a muddled mess, but, the “liberal” ideology on which they are founded is mutating into a rigid fundamentalist philosophy.

    A little bit like the Islamic Republic of Iran, in fact!

  • Clegg's Candid Fan 16th Dec '08 - 6:10pm

    Andy

    “And if taking Labour seats seems unlikely, what do you suggest? That we’re more likely to take great swathes of Tory heartland at the next election?!”

    Please look again at what I actually said – that if things remain as they are, there is no prospect of the Lib Dems gaining seats requiring a large swing from Labour to the Lib Dems – and remember that in some of these 50 seats swings of 10-15% would be required, and in some of them the Lib Dems were in third place in 2005.

    My point is that it would therefore be foolish to divert precious resources into those seats, when the seats the Lib Dems currently hold are going to be under severe pressure from the Conservatives.

    Do you really disagree with that?

  • Why is it that people always assume that Labour voters are somewhere close to Michael Foot? Plenty of Labour voters voted for Thatcher in the 80s and Major in 1992 as well as Blair in the 90s. They are not all hard-left nutters. Let’s just attack from with sensible policies are stop caring whether it is left or right.

  • Andy,

    Funnily enough that is what the Tories are doing according to no less than Mr Cameron this morning…all the Tories are now going to do is slow the rate of increase of public spending…so I am obviously barking

  • Hywel Morgan 16th Dec '08 - 9:38pm

    Our targeting strategy can’t be ripped up and rewritten on the basis of a few weeks polls. For good or bad the target seats now are largely what will be the target seats come election day.

  • So the message is that we are gradually building our foundations on the solid bedrock, while the other parties are still tempting the fate of the shifting sands.

    What – is it hard work sweating away under the sun when you’d rather be putting your feet up and catching a few rays? When the clouds come and river levels rise you’ll be glad we put in the effort.

    So to attack from the left, right or behind with a prize-winning leek?

    Let’s just stick to what we know best and take our opportunities where we find them, eh?

    CCF,
    if you’ve ever been part of a well-run LibDem campaign you’ll know that winning from third-place and 20% behind is highly possible: concentrate on the basics, set achievable targets, do everything well and you’ll make your own luck.

    Once you’ve got the resolution all you need is time, patience and trust.

  • Clegg's Candid Fan 16th Dec '08 - 10:18pm

    “Our targeting strategy can’t be ripped up and rewritten on the basis of a few weeks polls. For good or bad the target seats now are largely what will be the target seats come election day.”

    But the argument doesn’t rely on “a few weeks’ polls”. Even when the polls had Labour at its lowest ebb, they indicated net swings to the Lib Dems of no more than 2-3%. And it was always on the cards that Labour would recover somewhat from the mid-20s before the next election.

    Seats requiring swings of 10% or more were never realistic targets. And as for seats requiring the Lib Dems to overtake the Tories from third place …

    The fact that the polls now indicate a net swing from the Lib Dems to Labour only reinforces the conclusion that should have been obvious all along.

  • Clegg's Candid Fan 16th Dec '08 - 10:39pm

    “if you’ve ever been part of a well-run LibDem campaign you’ll know that winning from third-place and 20% behind is highly possible: concentrate on the basics, set achievable targets, do everything well and you’ll make your own luck.”

    Of course, such seats have occasionally been won.

    But I think diverting scarce resources from vulnerable seats we already hold to seats where we’re 20 points behind and/or in third place leaves just a little to be desired as a targeting strategy.

  • Clegg's Candid Fan 16th Dec '08 - 10:46pm

    Mark Pack

    Of course, it’s not impossible. These things happen occasionally.

    But to make it the basis of a targeting strategy is rather like putting your life savings on Laughing Boy in the 3.30, just because you once got lucky in a sweepstakes on the Derby.

  • CCF,
    I guess you’ll be ignoring the latest ICM poll as a rogue because it doesn’t fit your theory of terminal/interminable decline?

    You really haven’t grasped the mechanics of targetting strategies, have you?

    It doesn’t function on the basis of the leadership sticking a pin in a map and hoping for the best, it simply recognises which are the most successful (ie active) groups of local campaigners capable of ‘moving forward’ furthest and fastest.

    Of course the allocation of resources is highly contested, but that should be a spur to be more effective, not an excuse for failure.

    Comparing a targetting strategy to taking a punt is ridiculous. There are innumberable feedback systems to measure the movement of opinion, so when large swings do occur they are often no surprise to those ‘in the know’.

    Good politicians are among the best forecasters for the very reason that they depend upon being more closely entwined in the loop of information than anyone else. If you’re divorced from the facts on the ground it’s all meaningless speculation.

  • Clegg's Candid Fan 16th Dec '08 - 11:46pm

    “I guess you’ll be ignoring the latest ICM poll as a rogue because it doesn’t fit your theory of terminal/interminable decline?”

    No – I’ve already posted the details in the “polls” section.

    You seem to have elevated the concept of not having the faintest idea of what you’re talking about almost to an artform.

  • CCF,
    have you ever tried using your charm on the doorstep?

    I had read that you noted the result, but I hadn’t noticed you were able to account for it.

  • Clegg's Candid Fan 17th Dec '08 - 12:04am

    Oranjepan:
    “I had read that you noted the result …”

    Then why on earth did you write “I guess you’ll be ignoring the latest ICM poll”? Even more bizarre than usual.

  • No, you are being inconsistent, explaining the bad returns, but not the better ones.

    Why is that?

  • I’m always amused by the conjuncture of ‘Liberal Democrats’ and ‘targeting strategy’ in the same sentence. If ‘throwing the kitchen sink at it’ and ‘never mind the quality feel the width’ constitutes a strategy then I suppose we have one.

    (As an aside I saw a number of excellent Tory leaflets at Crewe and Nantwich which demonstrated how the pupils have long since passed the teachers…)

    It’s at best a scorched earth policy that only really worked in 1997. It’s achievement is 63 MP’s; it’s disgrace, an AVERAGE of around 90 members per constituency.

    Amazed Dr Hawking spends so much time researching into how black holes are created. There are people in Cowley Street who could tell him for free.

    Amusingly, the egregious Lord Ashcroft is now playing the same game (I believe with the excellent S Gilbert!).

    Depressingly, I suspect they will be more more successful than we were in 2001 and 2005. Less ‘groupthink’?

  • Clegg's Candid Fan 17th Dec '08 - 1:02am

    Oranjepan:
    “No, you are being inconsistent, explaining the bad returns, but not the better ones.”

    As I’ve already pointed out to you, I post the results of every poll I see, unless someone else gets there first.

    And as I’ve also pointed out to you, so far from “ignoring the latest ICM poll” as you suggested, I posted the ICM figures on the appropriate thread.

    So I really don’t understand what you’re trying to say. But if you do want to have another attempt, I suggest you post your comments in the “Polls” section, rather than posting further irrelevant material here.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Dec '08 - 1:17am

    As I’ve said elsewhere, what Clegg was actually asking for was more rules and regulations to tie down the market, and more taxes on the rich and big companies in order to finance tax cuts and more welfare spending for the poor. This was partly hidden because it was expressed in terms of platitudes rather than actual policies.

    Do we really suppose our fair weather friends in the Times are going to be quite so supportive if and when the details of those rules and regulations and taxes on the rich and companies come out? I hardly think so, given that they scream blue murder at any attempt to tax the rich more or tie down complete freedom in the market.

    The game here is to make Clegg appear to be a “tax the rich less, they’ll make more money and it’ll get to the rest somehow” man or a “anything goes, any regulation of the market is an attack on enterprise” man. So they can then give the impression that this is the way the world is going, all sensible people agree with them, look the Liberal Democrats have capitulated for example.

    A lot of the Times leader was straw man stuff – I do not recognise the caricature of Liberal Democrats who were on the side of public service trade unions against the people raised here, nor the caricature of Liberal Democrat “activists” who hated the idea of freedom of choice and wanted state monopoly supply, which the Times and other media organisations promoting what is loosely the “right” in our party uses. The Times has no idea of how our party works, so falls back on sloppy assumptions based on supposing it’s like the left v. right squabbles in the Labour Party in the 1980s.

    I didn’t see Clegg’s statement as a radical repositioning of our party to attack Labour from the right, as the Times is trying to paint it. It seemed to me to be a fairly routine and platitudinous statement of where we have always been. Labour’s endorsement of the unregulated economy which led to the current bust part of the boom and bust cycle placed it so far right that what’s the point of being even further right? There seems to be an idea that management of public services by target setting is somehow a sign of socialist urges, this is rot, it forgets that this sort of management was introduced by the Thatcher government as an attack on what she saw as nasty lefties doing their own thing at local level, and it was seen as a way of imposing private industry ways of running things onto public services. Labour’s continuation and strengthening of management of public services by target setting is more a sign of how far right it’s moved, than of a desire to be red-blooded socialists.

    It helps those who really are right-wing friends of the rich to portray us as if we’re with them, but you can be sure they’ll drop us in favour of their true friends in the Conservative Party almost irrespective of what we do, when the election comes.

  • David Morton 17th Dec '08 - 1:26am

    This is an elegant, perhaps too elegant article from Alix though as i have posted before an alarming number of threads recently have read like black box analysis after a disappointing election result.

    Two issues struck me. The first where I disagree with Alix. Yes the media disdained Steel ( the spitting image puppet), Ashdown (Pants down, Action Man) and Kennedy ( Journo’s knew he was on the sauce even if the entire parliamentry party pleads innocence…) however they all in the end managed to trancend it and find a voice, a niche, a connection. So far Clegg has not and no one knows if he will.

    However the real problem is that we offered up Ming as Danegeld and now they are back for more. Its just pavlovs dog really. We stood by Steel, Ashdown and for 6 years kennedy and in the end the media went away ( abit). After 18 months we gave them there blood sacrifice and now they want another.

    Where I agree with you is not being too bothered about the gaffes but been really worried by the lack of stunts.

    Imagine the following counter factual. Imagine we had voted against the banking bail out and pulled a Lisbon style stunt when the Grey Party’s wouldn’t allow us floor time for a proper debate.

    Imagine if we had said “No, because x, y, and z isn’t in it”.

    We went along with Camerons line that we couldn’t have happen here what happened in America. What did happen there ? The House voted down a bad package in accordance with popular opinion and the government came back with a much improved one.

    How terrible.

    The Times artcile is right in part. You can reposition all you want but we have to get noticed and that will involve more risk.

  • Our present standing in the polls may well be attributable to factors beyond our control, but even so, uninspiring leadership and muddled policies don’t help.

    Let’s be clear about the party’s role as Clegg and his puppet-masters in big business and the media see it. Our job is to hoover up a few protest votes that might otherwise go to nuisance parties (ie, the Greens or UKIP) and prop up a minority Tory government after the General Election. It’s obvious, isn’t it?

    Our increased vote in 2005 came from left-wing opponents of the Iraq War and students objecting to increased tuition fees.

    In order to build solid, long-term support, we need more than single issues. We have to have a distinctive philosophy and a coherent set of policies. But we don’t have either. And we’re not going to get one, not while we have a leader who wants to take the party to the right, and is preternaturally aversed to clarity.

  • Clegg's Candid Fan 17th Dec '08 - 9:09am

    Alix:
    “Per David Allen and Sesenco, can I just reiterate the one thing we haven’t got is muddled policy. It’s the communication around them which has been dreadful.”

    Do you really not think it’s just a bit incoherent to have as your core principle a state that stands back and simply provides a regulatory framework – even for such traditional public service areas as health and education – and then to call for a state bank to be set up to bypass the financial markets?

    Or to be calling one month for cuts in overall public spending and – literally – the next month to be calling for a big increase in overall public spending?

    In fact I think the situation is almost the diametrical opposite of what you say – Vince Cable is changing the party’s economic policy almost on a weekly basis, but because he has such a plausible manner no one notices. Unfortunately the same is not true of Nick Clegg.

  • I agree that our 2005 result was primary down to our position over Iraq and student support for our stance against fees, however they weren’t an assorted rag-tag of single-issue policies made up on the hoof. They’re coherent principled arguments all derived from our core philosophy.

    If anything, there were gaps in our agenda which have required fuller development. Particularly in the economic brief, in which we have since built up a store of credit. I disagree therefore with critics who say Cable is changing our party policy, rather we are cementing our foundations as the competent and pragmatic party, able to cope with an economic situation which is becoming graver by the week.

    1997 was a massive change as it caused a sudden maturing of our Parliamentary power base and changed our role to one with realistic medium-term hopes of national power. We’ve since consolidated this position and have gone about changing up to the next level: we’ve been on the side of the environmental angels since the beginning, but Iraq was a step-change, our economic competence is now a vital cog and our defence of civil liberties is more totemic than ever before.

    Having a balanced approach (to regulation or taxation or whatever) is liberal and correct, but it does have the disadvantage of being cumbersome to explain in the heat of debate – especially when there always remains the possibility that a better balance can be found, that we can be more coherent and we can be more liberal.

  • Oranjepan wrote:

    “civil liberties is more totemic than ever before.”

    Juilia Goldsworthy needs to be reminded of this.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th Dec '08 - 1:19pm

    Civil liberties may be totemic, but it’s something people get very worked up about in good times and tend to regard as somewhat fringe in bad times. I feel some of our lack of progress recently may be down to this.

  • Sesenco,
    we’ve been over this before.

    You’re confusing civil liberty with common liberty.

    We accept limits on absolute freedom within specific, targetted, conditional boundaries such as geographic or time limits (we accept prison sentences for example).

    And we accept there are processes for deciding how this is done properly and democratically.

    The Redruth curfew satisfies both of these criteria. So it may represent an undesirable precedent but it doesn’t institute any dangerous utopian doctrine and the community will quickly revert to effective normalcy.

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