John Kampfner: “How punchbag Clegg can fight back”

Earlier this week, chief executive of Index on Censorship and former New Statesman editor (and Lib Dem supporter), John Kampfner, penned a piece for the Financial Times expressing his view as to how Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats can fight back after a what have been a difficult few months. Whilst he acknowledges that it’s going to remain tough for the Lib Dems, his view – and it’s one I share – is that with a big push on some core Liberal Democrat policies and a change in tone and strategy from the Leader’s office, the medium-term outlook is nowhere near as negative as some are predicting.

Here’s a sample:

The first item in Mr Clegg’s recovery agenda will therefore be the introduction of legislation for an elected House of Lords. He is also planning to push on with his social mobility agenda for higher education, and to fight for further changes in income tax allowances to help the worse off. Nodding through a threefold increase in university tuition fees is something for which many will never forgive Mr Clegg, but the liberal wing of the government must show it is working to break down some of the barriers to opportunity that remain. Taking on elements of the establishment, such as Oxford and Cambridge universities, will be a way to do this.

The biggest change, however, will be in tone and tactics. Mr Clegg’s aides have been taken aback by the personal invective used by the Tories, including Mr Cameron, in the referendum campaign on the alternative vote. Mr Clegg has over the past few days responded in kind, denouncing “the death rattle … of a rightwing clique”. The growing rhetorical hostility has exposed the early Dave and Nick camaraderie as shallow expediency. This could work to Mr Clegg’s benefit, allowing him to put more distance between himself and the prime minister, something his party has craved. If managed carefully there is a chance to delineate more clearly the differences between the ruling parties, while not allowing the coalition to teeter but showing an increasingly confident Tory party it is only in power thanks to the Lib Dems.

Here Mr Clegg needs to look to Germany and other European nations, where parties in coalition negotiate and reach compromise in public. Until now Britain has adopted a behind-closed-doors approach, which goes against the spirit of open government in which he believes. Meanwhile, it would do Mr Clegg no harm to rebuild bridges with elements in the Labour party holding a less tribal view of politics.

Mr Clegg can take further comfort from the fact that neither of his rival party leaders is in a comfortable place. Mr Cameron remains respected, according to polls, but his government has stumbled too often for what should be a new era. The Tories will also take a beating in the local elections – a setback that will again lead some in his party to claim it is not being rightwing enough on immigration and crime. Labour is the only party relishing the election. But many within his own party still ominously compare Ed Miliband to Neil Kinnock: a leader just good enough for opposition, but never to be trusted by voters with the responsibility of government.

All this, of course, assumes that Mr Clegg does miss out on his prize of electoral reform. Here the polls look grim for the Yes camp, but there is still hope that, when faced with the chance of a small reform that will make a big difference to the democratic credibility of parliament, risk-averse British voters will opt for it. The polls remain volatile and victory could still be achieved in the crucial next 10 days. The fresh-faced politician of May 2010 is now battle hardened. He remains determined to keep his coalition going for a full five years, and to show that liberals, even if not popular, are at least good at governing. The odds are stacked against him. But if he succeeds, it’s even possible the public might give him a second look as well.

You can read John’s piece in full over on the FT website (registration required).

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  • paul barker 27th Apr '11 - 1:05pm

    I would dispute how badly we are doing anyway. Look at the Leader Approval figures ( ignoring dissapproval ) & compare them with The Vote shares last May, there is no suggestion there that anything fundamental has changed.
    What has happened is that Voters who didnt like us now dislike us more & that affects Opinion Polling. There is no evidence yet that it will effect real Votes. We will know in a week.
    I am predicting losses of under 200 council seats.

  • You are being extraordinarily optimistic, paul. Many are too nervous to canvass, some have partially or totally given up, having seen the mood out there. Now I am not saying the Tories won’t suffer, and there is very little doubt that Labour (and even more, the Greens and Independents) are too weak to take advantage in many places. I may be being pessimistic, but I think our differential turnout will be lower than the Tories, and I think we will lose a lot of seats directly to them for that reason. Where Labour are stronger, we will lose to them.

  • George Kendall 28th Apr '11 - 11:44am

    @paul barker

    Like Tim13, I think you’re being too optimistic.

    We should do well in areas where our activists are working hard. But, even in constituencies which thought they were well organised, there’ll be a ward or two where the local activists haven’t been properly active out of election time. In years when the party is doing well nationally, councillors in such weak areas can still get elected. But at times like this, they won’t. And there’ll be wards where our opponents surprise us with an effrective campaign.

    So I’m expecting significant net losses. But it’d be absolutely astonishing if that didn’t happen. We’re losing the protest votes of those who never vote for the government party, and some left-leaning voters who’ll stop voting tactically. And we’ve not had time to gain any of the benefits that could come with the credibility of taking on the responsibilities of government.

  • Nigel Quinton 28th Apr '11 - 12:45pm

    “Here Mr Clegg needs to look to Germany and other European nations, where parties in coalition negotiate and reach compromise in public. Until now Britain has adopted a behind-closed-doors approach, which goes against the spirit of open government in which he believes. ”

    This is what many of us have been saying for months. Why has it taken this long for Nick Clegg – who knows Europe surely better than most of our politicians – to wake up to the fact that (a) his strategy flies in the face of experience elsewhere, and (b) is totally against our desire to open up UK politics.

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