“The Liberal Democrats aren’t a sort of glorified form of the Electoral Reform Society”

So says Nick Clegg in an interview for Radio 4’s Westminster Hour.

His underlying point is a good one – the coalition isn’t a single-issue coalition which is about AV and nothing else. And, as James Graham points out, the Electoral Reform Society isn’t a sort of glorified from of the Liberal Democrats either.

However, Nick Clegg does make the point at some length in the interview – “The Liberal Democrats aren’t a sort of glorified form of the Electoral Reform Society”, “I wouldn’t have stood for the leadership of the Lib Dems if I thought the only sole purpose in life was to change the electoral system”, “I think there are other things which this coalition is seeking to achieve” and so on.

Each of those comments in itself is unexceptional. Added together, they leave me hoping that when the full interview is broadcast it also has rather more about the positive benefits of electoral reform. After all, not only is that one of the main reasons many activists have for being committed Liberal Democrats but also the coalition agreement includes a guarantee, regardless of the AV referendum, of proportional representation for an elected Upper House.

Media coverage of the interview so far includes the BBC and The Guardian. Iain has also covered another part of the interview on The Voice earlier today.

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36 Comments

  • gwenhwyfaer 20th Aug '10 - 3:27pm

    At the moment I’m interpreting it as Nick Clegg saying to pretty much everyone “I would rather be a member of a Tory government than a leader of the Liberal Democrats.” I’m inclined to suggest that we should grant his wish for him.

  • I’d say Clegg is wisely softening the rank and file up for a huge disappointment on the AV referendum.

  • How can he hope to persuade people that electoral reform is really important to the country, when it’s clear it’s not even important to him ?

    @Mark Pack, your use of the word ‘hope’ in what should be without any doubt at all is depressing. I hope your optimism is rewarded. For our sakes.

  • I agree with Nick Clegg on the AV issue completely. Our goal is to get the opportunity to have the electorate vote on this subject. If the electorate then vote no you can’t then throw your dummy out of the pram and say I’m not playing any more.

    As much as I want a better voting system there were other reasons I joined the Liberal Democrats.

    Here’s to a yes vote.

  • Who is saying that electoral reform isn’t important to Nick Clegg? He surely wasn’t saying that, as far as one can tell from the extracts! He merely dared to suggest that there are a few other things besides AV which LibDems stand for and are trying to achieve. Is that wrong?

    I for one have no problem with the thought that he LibDems aren’t a single-issue party. There is surely a lot more to liberalism than electoral reform, even if electoral reform is obviously important.

    I wonder what he should have said in the context, really? The question that he was asked in this context obviously could not be answered in any other way, especially not if he wants the referendum to have a chance!

    Do any of the people who want a change and who are complaining now really want the referendum to become a referendum on the coalition, rather than on AV? Because that’s what’s going to happen for sure if the LibDems threaten to leave the coalition if the referendum is lost.

    As far as I can tell, Nick Clegg has never given any reason to doubt that he takes political reform, including a change to the voting system, extremely seriously (although it’s clear that he’d prefer something more proportional than AV, as most of us surely would). He has to have a chance to give the kind of nuanced replies which are necessary in any normal discussion! Sometimes I just don’t understand the amazing lengths people go to in order to find fault with the LibDems, and especially Nick Clegg….

  • Shows a basic lack of understanding from political journalists of the realities of politics (why am I not surprised by this at all?) Of course, if the electorate decides it doesn’t want to change the voting system, then any politician has to accept that and move on.

    However, IMO without a move to AV and ultimately STV, it will become increasingly difficult to implement Lib Dem policy. I could see a situation where, if the referendum is lost, many Lib Dem activists (as opposed to members) will simply ask “what’s the point” and drift away.

  • I think it’s becoming increasing clear that the Coalition itself as a political project is closer to Clegg’s heart than ‘liberal democracy’. To be fair though it should be obvious to everyone that a ‘No’ to AV will leave the Lib Dems far too weak to do anything other than cling to the Tories and hope for an upturn in their fortunes. A possibility that seems increasing likely to me and, it seems, Mr Clegg.

  • @ KT
    “However, IMO without a move to AV and ultimately STV, it will become increasingly difficult to implement Lib Dem policy.”

    I would say that this is actually not a likely scenario. I raly want reform of the electoral system, but even if we stick to FPTP, I don’t think we’ll so easily see a return to a situation where the two parties can easily command a combined vote share of over 80%. Even with the FPTP system this means that coalitions will remain likely, and will probably become more likely.

    Coalition politics give smaller parties a chance, and the LibDems should be the most likely beneficiaries. If the party doesn’t succumb to some people’s instinctive craving for ideological purity and disintegrates over this current coalition.

    One might hope that LibDem activists in particular will get used to this idea: Ideological purity is only possible in eternal opposition.

  • David Allen 20th Aug '10 - 5:09pm

    I agree with Nick. The Coalition has to be something which we truly believe in as a project for government, not just a cynical means of persuading a large party to grant us a less unfavourable electoral system. If that isn’t the case, then we ought to abandon the coalition as soon as possible. An electoral bribe is not worth it, if the public at large decide that we sold out for it. It certainly isn’t worth it if the public use the referendum to deny us our bribe.

    So when are we leaving, then?

  • I thought that the LibDem position was that without electoral reform, and PR, in particular, the voices of LibDem voters could never gain true representation, and that the true mandate of LibDem MPs would never be felt till this was achieved. Maybe I thought wrong.

  • Richard Whelan 20th Aug '10 - 5:47pm

    Rumours are rife on Twitter that Charles Kennedy and five other, as yet unnamed, Liberal Democrat MPs are about to defect to Labour, with an announcement by the end of the month. What truth are there in these rumours?

  • I think Maria, and others here with similar points, are right. It’s important to reinforce the idea that we’re not a single-issue party – firstly because now more than ever the electorate need to know what we stand for, and secondly it’s also vitally important to discourage anyone (eg Labour voters) from voting ‘No’ in the referendum because they hope it will bring the coalition down. The AV referendum needs to be distanced from all the current political turbulence so that the electorate is encouraged to vote with the long-term future in mind, not short term tribalism or dissatisfaction with any one party.

    Not to mention that it would be highly irresponsible to pull out in a fit of pique after the electorate finally gave its verdict. We’d be quite rightly punished at the polls if we ever did that. Clegg is right to reinforce the idea that this is not going to happen.

  • Why are we wasting money on a referendum when Nick doesn’t care about the result? I for one will vote against AV so that the LibDems never get into power again.

  • @Richard Whelan: Sadly enough it seems like it isn’t true. Lib Dems spewing bile over Charles Kennedy regardless, though- retweeting “If Charles Kennedy *does* cross the floor, I bet it’s not in a straight line” etc.

  • @all i have to say

    Nick never said he didn’t give a stuff about the result, and he’s known to care personally about electoral reform. What he said was sensible politics, nothing else – if the narrative takes hold that a No vote will bring down the coalition, then the whole referendum will turn into a referendum on the coalition. That will inevitably happen to some extent anyway, but if the media paints a picture that voting No will bring down the government,  then anyone who doesn’t like the Tories or is unhappy about the cuts will vote No without even considering the issue.

    If Nick can manage to convince the media that there will be no dramatic toppling of the government regardless of the result, more people might think about whether they want AV or not on its own merits, which means more chance of a Yes.

    In any case, he’s quite right that we’re not a single issue party. I never gave the voting system a second thought before joining the party. Since then, I have been convinced by other members of the great benefits of reform and I’m a wholehearted supporter of a more proportional system. I share your low opinion of AV but like you I think it’s better than a kick in the derriere, and it’s all that was ever going to be on offer from either side of the house. But it’s not why I’m a Lib Dem. 

  • @ all I have to say

    That kind of reaction is something I remain rather shocked about, and yours is really a rather moderate voice from the left, compared to many.

    Somehow, in the mind of the left at least, Nick Clegg has now been established as a man who will change his opinion at the drop of a hat, and therefore, anything he says can (and will!!) immediately be interpreted (even if it means stretching what he said to its very limits) as a complete U-turn. If oine really wants to, one can of course do that with most statements or interviews of this kind. But in this case, I really think it took a wilfully misleading headline in the Guardian and a lot of anger to get there.

    Nothing he says is in any way contradicting what he has been saying for years now, namely that he cares deeply about changing the electoral system. Why on earth would he have to prove this commitment by stating categorically that he cares about this one issue *to the exclusion of everything else*? That’s what people seem to be expecting, and it’s unreasonable. I certainly wouldn’t be suporting the LibDems as a singhle issue electoral reform party. That, as Nick Clegg so rightly said, is what the Electoral Reform Society is for.

    I am particularly troubled about this image of Nick Clegg as someone who ‘betrays’, ‘changes his mind’, etc as a matter of course. Only people who believed him to be a dedicated left winger could think so, and people who listened to the man before the election attentively, rather than projecting their wishes on his opinions, should have been able to see that he is very much a liberal. This means that he was to the left of Labour on some issues (civil liberties; but so, at this point, are the Tories), while being to the right of Labour in other areas (economy).

    If one doesn’t look very hard for a U-turn in everything he says one might realise that he has actually been fairly consistent, as far as this is possible when you have to make compromises within a coalition.

  • @Catherine
    I agree, I think Nick does care about AV. However, my perpetual criticism of Nick Clegg is a naivety in communication and PR. Of course, it is good to say that the Lib Dems are not a single issue party. However, he should be saying that success in electoral reform is vital to the country’s renewal. Otherwise, it sounds as if it is a side issue, and I for one, don’t think that is true.

    Nick wasn’t my choice for party leader, and he really still isn’t. But he’s there. And I really want him to be more savvy in his handling of coalition politics than he has been.

  • I’m afraid I would expect this sort of inept media handling from a third-rate parish councillor or even a Deputy Prime Minister, but not a party leader.

  • @all I have to say

    I 100% agree with you.

  • Rabi Martins 21st Aug '10 - 9:19am

    I agree with Maria’s original comment

    Nick is right to say that winning AV is not the only – or even the most important issue for him and the Liberal Democrats.
    There is nothing I have heard Nick say which translates into “Nick does not think electoral reform is important”
    But if Nick makes winning the AV vote a deal breaker on staying on in the coalition surely he will be playing into Labour’s hands
    As I recall the Coalition Agreement promised us a Referundum on AV. If the Tories renege on this than of course we will be right to distrust them on the other commitments. But what is not gauranteed is that the public will vote for AV. In that we will all – Nick included – have to respect the public’s wishes
    In my view the public can be persuaded to see that the current FPTP system is unfair and needs to be changed
    Come the time for campaign you can bet your life Nick will be leading the Yes to AV campign from the front. But will need the rest of us to push the message to our local communities just as hard if not harder

  • Anthony Aloysius St 21st Aug '10 - 9:42am

    “the coalition agreement includes a guarantee, regardless of the AV referendum, of proportional representation for an elected Upper House”

    Even there the Tories have a get-out clause in the form of a complete unspecified “grandfathering” scheme that could mean almost anything.

  • @mpg, @all i have to say

    Ok, yes I agree that he could have framed his answers better, though from a strategy point of view I still think it’s important to stamp hard on any signs of an emerging media narrative of “no vote = coalition downfall” because if that narrative takes hold (and the media would love it because it’s much more interesting that way), then it’d be the kiss of death for the AV campaign.

    To be honest, our whole media operation has always been frustratingly inept for a major political party – no offence to anyone who works in HQ, it’s probably just the lack of experience from not being in the full media glare until now. I hope and expect that everyone, including Nick, will get better over the next months.

    It already looks like we’re getting better at the “coalition thing”, especially since Simon’s been making more noise.

  • Who tells you that Clegg will be the leader of the Yes campaign?
    It would be very unwise indeed for him to lead the Yes campaign, although I am confident that he’ll lend his support as much as he can.

    Why am I saying this?
    1) there is good evidence (particularly from the New Zealand PR campaign which was a success) that this kind of constitutional reform campaign should best be conducted above party politics.

    2) with the political mood as it is, why would anybody suggest that Nick Clegg would be the best person to bring pro-AV Labour voters along? Since the LibDems mostly are in favour anyway, you’ll have to campaign in particular to get people on board who aren’t LibDems.

    3) Clegg has a job to do, and I’d say that any cabinet minister would probably find it difficult to front such a camaign. As far as I am aware, the No campaign won’t be led by Cameron, either.

    Personally. as somebody who supports the LibDems and who wants AV, I would want to see a campaign which is not too strongly identified with the Liberal Democrats, but of course has LibDems as very vocal and active supporters. I don’t want this referendum to be about anything but electoral reform. Most certainly, I don’t want it to become a confidence vote.

    Why on earth, if you are an electoral reform supporter in the Labour Party, would you even WANT Nick Clegg to lead this campaign?

  • Really? I wouldn’t be so sure.

    In fact, I am pretty sure that’s not what’s going to happen.
    I am sure because Nick Clegg actually said so himself back in July: Nick Clegg: “I won’t lead the Yes campaign” (Telegraph, 15th July)

    Well, I guess you’ll say that under these circumstances all is lost already.

    I happen to disagree with you: even before Nick Clegg announced this, I believed that the Yes campaign had to stand above the parties. This idea is based on comparative research on electoral reform which makes it pretty clear how one gives such campaigns the best chance.

    Migth be an idea to have a look! This is a good start: Alan Renwick, The Politics of Electoral Reform (CUP, 2010).

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Aug '10 - 11:11pm

    The problem is that electoral reform isn’t something most people are interested in. Indeed, given that in this country it’s considered a mark of pride to admit to being innumerate, given that a proper explanation of it involves a little mathematics, most people will run away screaming before you get that far. Or at least completely turn off their minds. The only proper argument against it I have seen was from some Tory MP who is leading the campaign against it, and it was embarrassingly illogical and innumerate – but that’ll probably go down well.

    The danger is that the campaign will end up with one lot saying “it’s fair” and the other lot saying “it’s unfair”, and most people will vote on what they think of each lot, not on the issue itself. If it’s seen as essentially a LibDem initiative, it will end up as a referndum where most people will interpert the question as “Do you like the Liberal Democrats – yes or no?”. And at whatever we are in the polls now, they’re likely to vote “No”.

    So, any campaign has to be as far as possible away from being particularly associated with us. Despite the problem with involving maths, it does actually have to concentrate on the basics, otherwise it means the referndum drifts into being seen as about something else. What is needed is to find some simple way of explaining it – under AV the most popular candidate wins, under FPTP this is not necessarily the case – and repeat that again and again until it sinks in. “Tom gets 25,000 votes, Dick get 20,000 votes – so why should Dick be elected as MP rather than Tom because it just so happened Harry came along and 10,000 who still preferred Tom to Dick decide to go for Harry insead?”

    The Tory argument is that Harry’s votes were counted twice, once for him after transfer, for Tom. This is wrong – in effect we had a second round of voting sans Harry, and EVERYONE’s vote was counted again, but why should the abence of Harry cause any of Tom or Dick’s voters to change their mind, so under AV we assume they don’t.

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