LibLink…Stephen Tall: We Lib Dems haven’t chosen our strategy. The voters have chosen for us

Our Stephen has been writing at Conservative Home again. This time he’s looking at this idea, which sits uncomfortably with many Liberal Democrats, that we’re a party of the centre. He says we have little choice:

Yet the reality is it’s precisely because we are perceived to be moderate centrists that many of the electorate vote for us. And if we are to continue as a party of government – which almost three-quarters of Lib Dem members would like us to do – then we will have to do a deal next time with either the right-leaning Tories or left-leaning Labour. We may not place ourselves in the centre, but our circumstances do. We need to make the best of it.

Then he takes a look at the Tories. “Bad angel” is an interesting term. Do they not have horns and forked tails?

The Conservative strategy is also now fixed. Throughout this parliament, there has been a permanent tension between what I’ll characterise as the Good Angel of Cameron modernisation and the Bad Angel of the party’s right-wing core. (I realise, dear reader, you may characterise it slightly differently.) Mostly, the Bad Angel has won, and Lynton Crosby’s appointment has confirmed the victory. The Conservatives opposed AV, and by doing so exposed themselves to the threat of Ukip; the party opposed Lords reform and thereby lost the boundary changes so crucial to its chances in 2015; it’s re-discovered the joys of banging on about Europe to the indifference of most voters; and it’s convinced the election can be won by promising further harshness against immigrants and welfare recipients, even if doing so turns off ethnic minority and moderate voters. As I’ve highlighted before, this is a victory for the Tories’ own 35% strategy. It’s perfect for winning back UKP voters, lousy for winning the next election.

We might have a strategy, but will it work?

The optimist in me says we’ve been written off so many times before, and have always bounced back. The pessimist in me admits to a nagging fear that this time it might just be different, that it really won’t be alright on election night. The realist in me would settle for hearing a radio producer ask me again in two years’ time, “Oh, are you still there?”

You can read the whole article  – and subsequent comments thread in which it’s fair to say a few bad angels are holding forth – here.

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23 Comments

  • A more accurate statement might be:

    “We Lib Dems haven’t chosen our strategy. Nick Clegg has chosen it for us.”

    Voters certainly haven’t chosen the strategy. Nor is it true to say that the current strategy has been popular amongst voters.

    Lets make no bones about it, a very vocal but minority wing, led by Nick, Danny, David et al preferred the Lib Dems shed a large portion of 2010 centre left voters to maintain their own economically centre-right view of where the Lib Dems should position ahead of 2015. Despite this – and despite a large decline in membership – they have not won the grassroots round to their plan.

  • Andy, sorry but this is simply NOT true. You know full well that with one eleventh of the MPs in parliament we could not force a left of centre agenda on the Tories, who have five or six times as many MPs as us. How could this basic underlying reality still not be clear, three years on? By necessity, going into power with the Tories meant a centre-right agenda, just as a coalition with Labour would mean a centre left one.

    Until or unless we can get our own majority in parliament, no Lib Dem leader will be able to put more than part of our manifesto into practice.

    What is wrong is the way things were presented. We should have been much more downbeat about how we talked about the Coalition and the policy sacrifices we were forced to make in entering into it.

    The fact that such key misunderstandings exist even with visitors to this site, let alone the general electorate, suggests we have totally failed to communicate what a coalition government means.

  • “we have totally failed to communicate what a coalition government means.”

    I would it put it a it a bit differently.

    You have totally failed to grasp the concept of coalition and allowed yourselves to be railroaded in lurching the party to the right, abandoning your core principles and core supporters, hence the reason for the drop in membership and polls.

  • @RC. I do not understand a word of your argument. As a Liberal Democratic Party you have (or rather had) a set of policies and principles of your own. It does not matter one jot what proportion of MPs you have as a party of government – either you (as a Party) agree with something, or you do not. You (again, as a Party and Mr Clegg as your leader) have been seen to enthusiastically support policies that were and are in contradiction to LibDem policies and ideology. The notion of “Collective responsibility” because you are ‘in government’ is a nonsence. The LibDems have, over three years, been a prop in order that a Conservative government could function. To pretend otherwise is just wordy sophistry. And untrue.

  • In fact, our strategy has been set by the previous Labour government, who bequeathed a massive deficit in the public finances. Any government, of whatever colour or combination of colours, would be unpopular while having to remedy the mess that they left.
    The budget won’t be break-even until probably 2018 or 2019, and it is only then can we look at the situation and decide, according to our principles, whether the state is doing too much, or is doing too little or is about the right size.
    Having “left” policies, which permanently assume a growing level of public sector resources (based, it turns out, on unsustainable levels of borrowing) is not a suitable strategy when public sector resources are declining.
    So I agree with Stephen – we must define ourselves as a party of the centre.

  • Stephen’s article on Conservative Home is very interesting and he is correct the public do see us as in the centre, however this should not stop us having left of centre policies true to our liberal principles.

    @ Alan Jeff

    “Any government, of whatever colour or combination of colours, would be unpopular while having to remedy the mess that they left.”

    No only a government that wanted austerity and who decimated public investment as this coalition did. If public investment had continued there might have been more economic growth and then the deficit wouldn’t be so big and the national debt/GNP ratio would be better.

  • I think that at the beginning of the coalition, there was a reasonable expectation that the Lib Dems, though not having the numbers to push through their own agenda, would be able to block any attempt to impose a Conservative agenda antithetical to liberal principles; or, if obliged to compromise with Conservative legislation, would do so in exchange for Tory acquiescence on legislation important to the Liberal Democrats. Obviously neither course would be easy, and pursuing either or both would require great skill at parliamentary manœuvring; however, it was believed that this was a skill Nick Clegg and his team would bring to the table.
    Things have not turned out as foreseen, and this can largely be attributed to the failure of Clegg & Co. to be effective bargainers for liberal positions. This failure cannot be attributed to the relatively small number of Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons, because the number is more than sufficient to block the Tories alone from forming a majority. This power has, however, been too little used. And while it is doubtless true that Nick et al. are a bit to the right of the average Liberal Democrat, I think the cause for the failure is not to be attributed to them being politcally simpatici with the Tories, but rather to a more schoolboyish tendency to go along with the gang, to be pleasing and so gain preference, and not to rock the boat too much — with the lurking fear, no doubt, that any attempt to forcefully argue for liberal positions could be blamed for “wrecking the Coalition.” At least these might have been the motivations a year or two ago. Now, perhaps, it’s more a case of dogged determination to see the thing through to the end for fear of being thought weak and inconsistent. At any rate, data-based political calculations play little or no part in the actions of the Liberal Democrat leadership.

  • Paul In Twickenham 1st Aug '13 - 7:34am

    We may not place ourselves in the centre, but our circumstances do. In my opinion this is a meaningless triangulation.

    You could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but coalition is not merger. According to this article, the leadership has been forced to subsume the distinctive and radical identity that the Liberal Democrats as defined by the policies ratified at party conference for the sake of contingent circumstance . I don’t believe it for a minute.

    Mr. Clegg has consciously chosen to detach the party from the views of the majority of its activist base and is quite deliberately recasting the Liberal Democrats as a small party of the centre right, fiscally conservative and socially liberal.

  • Stephen seems to be arguing that our ideological approach should be “centre” (by which I assume he means roughly the same thing as NC when he says the Lib Dems are “in the centre ground of UK politics”) on the basis that “three quarters of our members” want to remain in Government. Think about the implications for a minute. First, what does “centre ground” mean? For Clegg et al, it seems to mean sticking with an economic approach shared by the Conservative Party, nuLab, rather than a more radical approach more like the Greens, radical Labour’ the predecessor Liberal Party etc. UKIP and Redwood-style Tories share a somewhat more right wing version of the so-called “centrist” approach. Surprise, surprise, the large readership media share an ownership and editorial approach which varies between the “Centre” and the more right wing approach. The radical approach has some minority backing in comment in such papers as the Guardian and the Independent. What Clegg et al seem to have decided is that we must be seen to move with the majority press approach. For most who have been through the fire with the Liberals and early Lib Dems, it is this approach which is so unacceptable.

    The claim made by Stephen of majority support in the party for “being in Govt”, is hardly surprising – most political activists would like direct influence over policy making. It does not, however, mean that most party members want “being in Govt” to be unconditional on the type of policy approach being pursued. It is time the Party acknowledged this issue, rather than trying to bury it. I see today’s by elections (5 in principal councils) have only a total of two Lib Dems standing. One of those is standing in a no-hope place. However, just wait for the spin on here tomorrow if we beat the Tory in Littlemoor, Ribble Valley, where the Tory councillor resigned in a split ward where the current Lib Dem councillor topped the poll in 2011!

  • @ Matt
    “You have totally failed to grasp the concept of coalition and allowed yourselves to be railroaded in lurching the party to the right, abandoning your core principles and core supporters, hence the reason for the drop in membership and polls.”

    Sorry, but what is your concept of a Coalition, exactly? I’d like to hear what you would have done with one eleventh of the MPs in parliament in order to impose the Liberal Democrat party agenda on one with five times as many MPs.

    The fact is you don’t have any answers, do you? Your posting is simply intended as a provocation, isn’t it?

  • @ David

    “This failure cannot be attributed to the relatively small number of Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons, because the number is more than sufficient to block the Tories alone from forming a majority.”

    The price for doing so would have been total stalemate, with the Tories blocking any measures whatsoever that we wanted. The Tories would have commanded a very high price for that kind of veto.

    Would you have accepted the Liberal Democrats being in government without any of our policies being implemented?

    What you are talking about is simply not the basis for a workable government.

  • Michael Parsons 1st Aug '13 - 9:03am

    All Clegg et al did was silence an avenue of radical criticism which hitherto undermined the ideoogically-based austerity process ( = transfer money from thepoor to the rich oligarchs and to market rake-off merchants). So those who had developoed a radical volice were for the time being stifled, and effective criticism was no longer heard in the land. Free Trade and the poor sold for a pair of sandals (or trainers these days?)

    LibDems cannot serve both goodness and money, it is easier to thread a rope through a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, take all you have and give it to the poor with a warm heart .Or is it time for Mdm Guillotine? Anyway radical change is on the books , from the right at the moment it seems. – could there be a greater demonstration of the futility of Cleggism and its destruction of our Liberal efforts?

  • Michael Parsons

    Passionate language – not sure I agree with all but the frustration is clear to see

    I agree with you that the right is winning the argument – the auterity message is in fact cementing the transfer from rich to poor that has been going on for over 30 years. The blame for all this is being passed on to the people, whether they be shirkers or strivers we are all touched. The rich carry on as they have, the only growth industry is in luxury goods and high-end property.

    The game is being lost – the current Government are from that circle of people who are winning and they are actively supported by the media – this media owned by rich men again who are profiting from this message. The only media bulwark we should have is the BBC but that organisation has been moving to the right for years – it goes back to post-Hutton but has accelerated since then.

    Clegg has done nothing to stop this – he could have been a leader for change within the Government, even if he does not have much ‘seat’ power – he has though messed up at every level.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Aug '13 - 11:03am

    tim13

    The claim made by Stephen of majority support in the party for “being in Govt”, is hardly surprising – most political activists would like direct influence over policy making. It does not, however, mean that most party members want “being in Govt” to be unconditional on the type of policy approach being pursued.

    Yes, and further to this we need to distinguish between us being “in government” as being able to make minor amendments to the policy of a government predominantly of another party, and us being “in government” as the party leading the government and setting the policy agenda. Clegg and the Cleggies have confused the two. Up till 2010 before we had a coalition government, the phrase “in government” always meant the latter, but they have kept on using it to mean the former. This goes back to the “Rose Garden” strategy of trying to exaggerate what we could achieve as a very junior coalition partner, under the impression that the electorate would be very impressed by seeing Liberal Democrats as part of government, as part of the political establishment, that it would banish that old beards-and-sandals image of Liberal Democrats as anti-establishment outsiders who a few people might vote for as a “protest” but many more are put off through feeling the party isn’t “serious”.

    This way of thinking has echoed through much of what has been coming out from Clegg and those surrounding him, it continues to be the centre point of many of Clegg’s speeches. And yes it does (sorry David Allen) go back to the Liberal-SDP division, with Clegg and the Cleggies on the SDP side. The core of the disagreement between the SDP and the Liberals at the time of the merger (though a substantial portion of the Liberal Party, including its leader, David Steel, were on the SDP side of this), was on whether the party should pursue an orthodox political establishment route, with emphasis on its national leaders and policy and being part of the Westminster establishment because that was what a serious vote-winning party would do (the SDP-Steel way), or should it be a looser network co-ordinating local activists, building from the grassroots upwards ultimately to challenge the Westminster establishment (the radical Liberal way, as the phrase “radical Liberal” was then understood before the Thatcherite infiltrators tried to steal it).

    If the Rose Garden strategy had worked, there would be a whole new bunch of voters coming over to us, more than enough to balance the “protest” votes lost, or in the words of Richard Reeves merely “borrowed from Labour”. But it hasn’t happened, has it? There does not seem to be a substantial bunch of voters looking for another Westminster establishment party, with Thatcherite economics, though a bit more liberally inclined on social issues, and without the old “King and country ” hang-ups of the Tories.

    The worst of it is that when the electorate see us being so proud of being “in government”, they don’t admire us, it makes us look just like the politicians they despise – people who only really wanted top jobs as ministers and would say or do whatever was needed to get them. When they see us going on and on about being “in government” they think of that as it was always understood pre-2010, and so suppose we are fully in agreement with what this government is doing, and so therefore that we have abandoned much of what we used to stand for (or perhaps we never really believed in it, we just said it to get their votes), and adopting right-wing Tory policies.

    I’ve always accepted the necessity of the 2010 coalition, and accepted it would be difficult for us. But the way our leaders have led us through it has made it far, far more difficult.

    As I keep saying, we should have made it clear at the start that we have the government we have because of the electoral system and the way the people voted, not because we chose it to be that way. We should not have looked so pleased with ourselves about the situation, we should have made clear it was a “miserable little compromise” forced on us by circumstances, that we could achieve only a little in it, and the broad thrust of the government would be Tory, and not what we would want if we were leading it. I continue to feel that if we had dampened expectations at the start, we would be doing much better in public esteem now.

    I think many of us did join the party to build something fundamentally different, not to be a perpetual junior coalition partner urging slightly more liberal policies on governments predominantly run by one of the others. I appreciate that many European liberal parties work like this, but they work under proportional representation where a spread out small portion of voters who would support such a party win it a few seats. It’s not a winning strategy under First Past the Post – consider how many constituency seats as opposed to list seats the FDP wins in Germany (mostly 0).

  • @RC
    Sorry, but what is your concept of a Coalition, exactly? I’d like to hear what you would have done with one eleventh of the MPs in parliament in order to impose the Liberal Democrat party agenda on one with five times as many MPs.

    The fact is you don’t have any answers, do you? Your posting is simply intended as a provocation, isn’t it?

    Firstly, I think you should allow me to answer your first question before “insinuating” that I do not have one and rudely accuse me of provocation.
    The fact of the matter is, I do have an answer and here it is.

    My concept of coalition is for 2 parties to come together to form a “government”
    The fact that 2 parties have come together does not mean that either party should lose their “identity” or abandon their “core principles”
    A junior party in government with 1/5th of MP’s is not a position of weakness, it is a position of power, because without those voting MP’s the dominant party can not push through draconian policies that are not supported by a majority of the electorate.
    Nick Clegg, grew a pair in some aspects of standing up to the Tories, when it came to Lords Reform and Boundary reforms. This did not bring down the government.
    If the Government looks like it is going to lose a vote, they usually pull it before hand, as we have seen in the past..
    The problem with Clegg is, he chose to fight the wrong fights and abandoned all his principles when it comes down to what is supposed to be core Liberal Democrat Values, not only abandoning those values, but also also alienating many of the parties supporters and grass-roots.
    Nick Clegg did not have to skip happily along with the top down reorganization of the NHS, however, he choose to do so.
    Nick Clegg did not have to support the right wing ideology cuts and reforms to welfare, however, he chose to do so.

    I conclude from the actions of Clegg and those at the top of the party “orange bookers” that they were indeed happy to go along with this right-wing ideology

    There are many coalitions around the world, they do not fall apart every time a junior party refuses to support a policy. That is what happens in coalition governments.
    All this threat that the Tories would end the coalition and go to the polls early is just utter nonsense.
    A) We have fixed term parliaments that stop that from happening
    and
    B) The Tories would not have the guts to call for an early election or a vote of no confidence in the current government, because they know that they would lose and lose badly.

    So the Junior party in this government where holding all the cards, they way I see it. But they have played those cards very badly and they are being punished for it.

    See RC, I did have an answer, whether you agree with it or not is irrelevant, but it is courteous s to allow someone to answer a question you asked before making discourteous assumptions

  • David Allen 1st Aug '13 - 1:29pm

    The current phase of the Clegg coup is to concentrate on hijacking the word “centrist”.

    Yes, people believe we are centrist. Therefore, if Clegg says he is centrist, people should vote for Clegg. The fact that he is a long way right of centre, in line with Cameron and Osborne, should be treated by the voters as an irrelevance.

    All together now, on message: Clegg is a centrist, people are centrists, centrism is good, what I tell you three times is true!

  • richardheathcote 1st Aug '13 - 11:44pm

    @ peter tyzack
    “Clegg is blameless, he has done his level best with the hand of cards that the voter, and the party, gave to him. He deserves, and needs, our loyalty and support to see this through.”

    I think you need to take a trip to the opticians your rose tint is affecting your judgement

  • Matthew Huntbach 2nd Aug '13 - 1:01am

    matt

    A junior party in government with 1/5th of MP’s is not a position of weakness, it is a position of power, because without those voting MP’s the dominant party can not push through draconian policies that are not supported by a majority of the electorate.

    Yes, but a quarter of the senior party in the coalition can say exactly the same thing – that it is in a position of power, because without its votes, the coalition cannot push through moderate policies. The same argument that says the Liberal Democrats can get whatever they want out of the coalition can also be used by the right-wing of the Conservative Party to say they can get whatever they want out of it. And, if either side pushed things so the coalition fell apart and there was an early general election, who would have the most to lose? The Liberal Democrats or the right-wing of the Conservative Party? Many Tory MPs have safe seats, they will retain them in another general election, and the Tory share of the polls has not halved in the way the LibDem share has.

    In fact we are already seeing the right-wing of the Conservative Party fuming at the Liberal Democrats, and accusing this government of being dominated by them. Look at any Conservative discussion site, or even quite often Conservative-leaning newspapers, to see this point being made. If it does not seem to the rest of us that this government has much of a Liberal Democrat influence, that actually shows just how far right the Conservative Party has moved.

    It’s easy to be against things, but a government has also to be for things. Most centrally, a government has to establish a level of taxation and spending. A junior coalition partner cannot simply say it is against what the senior one wants, it must say what it is for. Under your argument, the senior coalition partner will just say “OK, we’ll give up, we’ll accept what taxation level you want, not what we want”. But why? Why do you suppose the Conservatives would just convert to the policies of the Liberal Democrats on this and anything else?

    The reality is that if one looks at coalition governments across the world, they don’t act in the way you say they would. Their central thrust is not dominated by the wishes of their junior members. Mostly the junior parties are left weak, because their image is less distinct, they are the ones most likely to lose support in an early general election, they will be criticised for acting in an unreasonable and damaging way if they hold up stable government by refusing to agree to what the governing party with greater popular support wants. Those junior coalition parties most able to squeeze concessions out of larger partners tend to be the ones which have single issue concerns that can easily be granted without affecting the main thrust of government, and tend to be those who have strong “tribal” support that will stay with them in any early general election and won’t be too bothered about anything else the government is doing so long as their tribe is kept happy. The Liberal Democrats aren’t like that, in fact they’re the opposite of that.

  • But the right wing of the Tories *are* in a position of power, and they *have* been able to block moderate government policies, because they’ve been willing to exercise their power — and the Liberal Democrats have not.

  • RC

    “The price for doing so would have been total stalemate, with the Tories blocking any measures whatsoever that we wanted. The Tories would have commanded a very high price for that kind of veto.”
    We had an agreement – the Coalition Agreement and we should have supported what is in it as should the Conservatives. When they failed to do so (House of Lords Reform we removed out support from the Boundary Review and fewer MP’s) we exercised our veto and there was no high price for it. Therefore it is unlikely there would have been a high price for vetoing what wasn’t in the coalition agreement.

    @ Matthew Huntback

    He is correct that the SDP and the Liberal Party leadership (David Steel and others) in the 1980’s wanted a more orthodox party with an emphasis on its national leadership. He is right to point out the strategy to gain supporters on where Clegg has positioned us has failed since 2010. I also believe he is correct with his assessment of how people see us now we are in government and are supporting policies not in the coalition agreement and against our principles.

    @ matt

    He makes many valid points with his answer to RC.

    @ Matthew Huntback

    To say that the right wing of the Conservatives is in the same position as the Liberal Democrats is not really true. While they can veto things in the Coalition Agreement but now they understand there will be a price, it is important for the Conservatives to get their part of the Coalition Agreement implemented and the right wing has to support some things it does not like because if it didn’t nothing would get done.

    Therefore for those things not in the Coalition Agreement the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives (or their right wing) can veto without a cost but those things in the agreement can only be vetoed with a cost. The failure of Nick Clegg and the leadership is not understanding this and vetoing those things it should have such as the top down reorganisation of the NHS and secret courts to name two.

    The question of reform of welfare and government cuts is more difficult. I believe that reform of welfare to make work pay is in the coalition agreement, however the benefit caps, having benefit rising below inflation, and the so called bedroom tax were not. So the question for the leadership is what did we get for agreeing to them? What did we propose instead of them?

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Aug '13 - 9:01am

    Amalric

    To say that the right wing of the Conservatives is in the same position as the Liberal Democrats is not really true. While they can veto things in the Coalition Agreement but now they understand there will be a price, it is important for the Conservatives to get their part of the Coalition Agreement implemented and the right wing has to support some things it does not like because if it didn’t nothing would get done.

    Your first sentence here is saying the opposite of your second sentence. The second sentence applies just as much to the Liberal Democrats – we have to support things we don’t like in order not to be accused of causing a political stalemate and in order to get through a few things we do like and the other side are not so totally opposed to that they would always resist them.

    Hence my point – to me, the Liberal Democrats have about the same weight in the coalition as the loony right of the Conservative Party. We can no more convert the entire government to our entire policy ideal than they can.

  • @ Matthew Huntbach

    Perhaps you are correct and the loony right wing of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have the same power over coalition policy. However maybe it was your conclusion that I didn’t agree with, the smaller party in a coalition does not have to accept more of the larger party’s policies than the larger party has to accept of the smaller.

    However there is an argument that the smaller party would be more adversely effected if the coalition ended. However with the passing of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in September 2011 there is a chance that instead of there being a general election a Labour led government would take office and even if there was a new general election the Conservative knew they wouldn’t win it. Therefore while the Liberal Democrats may be decimated by an early general election the Conservative would be out of government. Therefore it is in the interests of both parties to reach compromise agreements and not try to get more of their policies implements than the other.

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