Mainstream media in “using the word liberal” shock – will meltdown follow?

To while away those last precious hours before you head off for after-work drinks (the week of Christmas itself doesn’t really count as “work”, does it) some links from yesterday and today’s coverage of Nick Clegg’s first anniversary. I’ve chopped out a few excerpts for each which I find particularly telling in one way or another.

Allegra Stratton for the Guardian

The Good:

[Clegg] hasn’t done badly, pulling off some fundamental repositioning of his party this year. At this year’s Lib Dem conference the party membership voted through a programme of tax cuts, beginning with cuts for low earners, and tighter controls on public spending commitments. Getting this past the traditionally tax-raising grassroots was achieved the very week Lehman Brothers went bust, and though the mood of austerity seemed right the government started to talk about more not less spending. Clegg held firm.

The Bad:

Labour MPs are watching this strategic repositioning closely and, while understanding it, worry about it. “We’d be happy for the Liberal Democrats to hold the seats they got against the Tories,” said Denis MacShane, who as a Labour MP for a seat near Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam, keeps an eye on the Lib Dem leader. “But there is every chance they will go. The Lib Dems are no longer distinctive enough.”

The Interesting:

At many turns over his first 12 months as leader of the UK’s third party, Clegg has done the anti-political thing. He gave a loud (and unflattering) appraisal of the merits of his own shadow cabinet while travelling in public, he actually answered rather than filibustered when asked how many people he’d slept with, and he did that most unusual thing in a political leader – he allowed someone else in his party, Treasury spokesman Vincent Cable – to hog the limelight.

For subverting Westminster niceties, Nick Clegg might one day be heralded a visionary.

Julian Glover for the Guardian

The Good

Nick Clegg can draw comfort from two things this week: that his first anniversary as Liberal Democrat leader has been noticed at all, and that most of the verdicts have been kind. Neither of these things was certain.

The Bad

The differences with Labour are clear. The differences with the Conservatives under David Cameron less so. Clegg is not helped by the fact that he and Cameron appear superficially similar. Both men are clear that if the question at the next election is “time for a change from Labour” the answer is yes. In Labour eyes, that makes him a Tory sympathiser.

The Interesting:

Clegg inherited a party whose support stemmed from opposition to the Iraq war, lingering middle class distrust of the Conservatives and a rural distrust of mainstream politics, which gave it strength at the margins of the British isles — in the south-west, west Wales and the Highlands of Scotland.

None of these factors can depended upon at the next election. Clegg has tried to replace them with a radical liberal agenda that can win votes on its own account. He is in favour of individual and community action, sceptical of the big state, critical of tax and strongly supportive of civil liberties.

Accompanying pieces identify ten key moments in Clegg’s first year, and an account of changes to Lib Dem policy.

Ben Russell for the Independent

The Good

In private, Mr Clegg is naturally open and candid. He exasperated aides when he gave a candid answer about his typically middle-class concerns about re-mortgaging his home and created a stir when he declared that he did not believe in God.

But he has been clear about his political instincts, insisting that he will refuse to hold an ID card, speaking out strongly for civil liberties and sticking to ideas such as green taxes.

The Bad

The most recent polls do not look so optimistic. The average of polls in November would strip the Lib Dems of more than half of their seats. But they would potentially produce a hung parliament and give the party power to make or break a minority Tory or Labour administration.

The prospect of a hung Parliament is good and bad for Mr Clegg. The idea that the party could wield real power suddenly means its policies might actually happen. But the party risks getting bogged down in damaging arguments about whether it would back the Conservatives or prop up Labour.

The Interesting

Mr Clegg is not an instinctive House of Commons man. He has long expressed his weary concern that the heated partisan battles of Westminster are less suited to mature political debate than the more consensual style of the European Parliament, where he was a member for five years. He only entered Parliament in 2005. When he arrived he expressed astonishment to friends at the arcane workings, traditions and stifling rules of Westminster. He shows open irritation at the brickbats that are part and parcel of a party leader’s life, but as a leader of MPs he is effective. Colleagues describe him as a collegiate leader who treats his frontbenchers well, and sounds enthusiastic.

The Times’ editorial was covered earlier this week. The Beeb haven’t done a one-year-on piece but Nick Robinson is interested in the Green Road, as are the commenters apparently. More to follow on this shortly…

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12 Comments

  • Robinson’s piece is very short compared to his extended pieces on, well, everything else, esp. the Tories. I’m not usually one to criticise the BBC of bias, but there is a certain anti-Lib Dem streak – less pronounced of late, but which is still present and noticeable.

  • Richard Whelan 19th Dec '08 - 5:39pm

    Remember Nick Robinson was a Young Conservative. Maybe that explains it.

  • David Morton 19th Dec '08 - 7:29pm

    I think one of the problems is that the “Green New Deal” ( three words, three syllabels) was launched on 21/7/08 and has already had signifigant coverage.

    Almost 5 months to the day later we come out with “The Green road out of Recession” ( 6 words, 8 syllabels)

    Of course in the intervening 5 months we have tried to launch a policy of £20bn of spending cuts the “vast bulk” of which would have gone on tax cuts.

    If you learch from cutting spending as a percentage of GDP to fund tax cuts to borrowing £12.5bn to fund a public works programme in 5 months and pretend its all consistant its bound to dent your credibility with media types.

    Moving forward this initiative is excellent and distinctive. We’ll need to watch the costings though. At the moment its fully funded because we are only 19 days into the VAT cut but with every passing month that money is being spent. the party will have to choose. say the Green road is what we would have done if given the chance or what we will still do if given the chance. In which case we’ll have to pay for it.

    First call on those £20bn savings when they finally arrive ?

  • David – I think VAT cut is wrong. Money would go better on other things. I also think ID cards are wrong. Money would go better on other things. You say being in favour of both is inconsistent. I don’t agree. I am happy to be in favour of both.

    You also complain that Green Road Out of Recession is very similar to previous Green New Deal. If it was different, I think you would complain too. Perhaps even more?

  • Alix Mortimer 19th Dec '08 - 9:40pm

    Semantic point: the “Green Road out of Recession” has a process and a story embedded within it, which increases its value and negates the problem of length. “Green New Deal” was static (and there have been other New Deals, but no Roads Out, that I know of).

  • Perennially Bored 19th Dec '08 - 10:38pm

    Interstingly, I had a look through the comments on the Nick Robinson piece – much more positive towards us than you would normally see.

  • Alix Mortimer 19th Dec '08 - 11:11pm

    That’s what I thought. Or maybe it’s always been a hotbed (ok, a warm bed) of Lib Dem sympathy over there and I’ve always glumly assumed otherwise.

  • David Allen 20th Dec '08 - 2:19pm

    Now here’s a Christmas challenge for all you loyalists. From that Guardian article, a quote from Julian Astle of the CentreForum thinktank:

    “Four or five years ago (the Lib Dems) were a tax-and-spend party of the left – now they are the party of small government, low taxes and civil liberties. It’s a quantum shift.”

    How many of you, as individuals, would like to write in and confirm that your own personal views have likewise followed this “quantum shift” – i.e. that you used to be a tax-and-spender, but you now realise this was wrong, and you now put your faith in a small-government-low-tax policy?

  • David Allen 21st Dec '08 - 5:35pm

    Gosh, it’s gone very quiet on this thread, hasn’t it?

    Haven’t we got even one quantum-shifter, then?

  • David Allen 22nd Dec '08 - 6:20pm

    Alix,

    I absolutely agree with the position you argue for here. The logic goes like this. Once upon a time, we said taxes needed to go up. Then along came Gordon, who put taxes up. So then we ought to have gone a bit quiet, which is what we did do. It must have been many years ago when we first started saying that our issue with Labour was not so much their level of spending as whether they were getting good value for their money.

    Only of course, that isn’t the famous “quantum shift”. The “quantum shift” must surely mean “Let’s roll back to John Major’s level of public spending, or lower, and then we’ll see some fireworks!” And, people really do seem rather reluctant to endorse that, don’t they?

    I’m not going to answer your point about “doubled” spending, because that’s just a lazy cheat based on inflation, isn’t it? In real terms, Labour’s spending rise has in fact been fairly moderate and partially successful. Probably the worst thing they did was to borrow so much from the future via dodgy PFI schemes. Still, why bother with rational assessment, when it’s so much easier to just slag off the enemy, eh?

    Finally, “I still don’t see what you find so difficult to understand about the idea of pragmatism in economic policy.”

    I think it’s great when, on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, this party accepts pragmatism: state money for green solutions, state support to rescue the banking system, etc etc. I get worried when on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, someone makes a speech saying that pragmatism is pure evil, the state is an abomination, Maynard Keynes wearns horns, and that this party must be reborn through rediscovery of the ancient sages of fundamentalist Liberalism – Gladstone, Adam Smith, Ethelred the Unready (continued page 94….)

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