Can Nick Clegg hold the line on not offering any red lines?

For years Lib Dem leaders have been plagued by the question, ‘Who will you support in the event of a hung parliament?’ In 2010, Nick Clegg straight-batted it pretty effectively, saying the Lib Dems would talk first to the party with the most seats and most votes. In 2015 he’ll stick to that trusty formula, with the added credibility of being able to say it’s exactly what he did last time – the voters remain the king-makers etc.

So unsurprisingly journalists have moved on. Their new favourite question, one we’ll hear more and more the close we get to May 2015, is ‘Will that policy be a red line?’

We’ve seen the latest episode today, with the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman reporting on Nick Clegg’s latest deputy prime minister’s press conference – Nick Clegg hints at HS2 red line for 2015 negotiations:

Asked whether HS2 was something Clegg would ever be prepared to compromise on in any future government, the Deputy Prime Minister replied:

‘No. I was up in Sheffield yesterday talking to business leaders and they are absolutely appalled at the way in which Labour appears to be betraying the North and it just beggars belief that a party that constantly parades itself as an authentic voice of the North of England is now prepared to turn its back on the businesses, the communities, the families which I think all the evidence shows will benefit disproportionately from investment in a high speed north south railway link. I just think it’s miserable, pathetic, that an idea which we inherited from Labour and in all good faith took forward because we thought that given they were the architects of it that they might support it, it becomes politically convenient to play games with it, they start playing games with it.’

Afterwards, aides insisted that this was not a red line and that ‘we are not going to start writing our manifesto’ now. But a source close to Clegg added that ‘he is not going to change his mind on HS2′, which sounds rather as though the Deputy Prime Minister has got the high speed rail link on his list of potential red lines for when he does come to decide them.

I’ve long been an HS2-sceptic — not least because back in January, when Norman Baker hailed it as a Lib Dem achievement in government, increased capacity wasn’t even mentioned as a justification for what was then billed as a £32bn investment — but that’s not my point here.

‘Red lines’ are tricky territory for our politicians. If Nick says, implicitly or explicitly, that HS2 (or any other policy) is a red line then he’s limiting his room for manoeuvre in any coalition negotiations. And after the party’s scarring experience of the tuition fees U-turn, we can hardly afford to offer more hostages to fortune by making categoric promises we find ourselves unable to keep.

But if Nick says HS2-or-whatever isn’t a red line then it will be taken as a signal that it’s up-for-grabs in coalition negotiations. It’ll look (however unfairly) like the Lib Dems aren’t fully committed to our own policies. The leadership will, therefore, come under increasing pressure from party activists to crayon red lines around pet Lib Dem causes – causes which might not be priorities shared by the voters and/or which will mean the party’s coalition negotiators find their hands tied.

My expectation is Nick Clegg will try hard to avoid pre-committing to any red lines. But I’m not sure that’s a line he’s going to be able to hold.

The one consolation is that, whereas in 2010 the media only ever asked the Lib Dem leader what he’d do in the event of a hung parliament (and neglected to ask either Gordon Brown or David Cameron), in 2015 the three party leaders will all have to come up with a good answer that doesn’t sound slippery. I’m just not sure what that answer can be.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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27 Comments

  • Little Jackie Paper 30th Oct '13 - 10:09pm

    But surely we have de facto red lines already? Indeed, on this website today Nick Clegg is described as below:

    ‘[on HS2] he absolutely savaged Labour’s position, decrying it as miserable, pathetic and a betrayal of the north. On energy costs, he repeated his assertion that Ed Miliband’s energy bill freeze was a con’

    So what – if the parliamentary arithmetic is such that a Lib-Lab Coalition follows is Nick really going to say that on HS2 and energy bills (and that will 100% be a Labour red line) he was just kidding really? Sure, it is right not to be writing the manifesto now and in public – but an awful lot of colours seem to have been nailed to masts. The stark truth Mr Tall is that the answers to your question might sound slippery for the good reason that they are slippery.

    Of course there is a difference between government and politics, I get that. However these are red lines in all but name and I struggle to see any credible scenario where they are not LD policy in an election campaign.

    And, for the record, I fully hope that Cameron and Ed M are asked about how they would approach a Coalition – including a Lab-Con Coalition if need be.

  • “So what – if the parliamentary arithmetic is such that a Lib-Lab Coalition follows is Nick really going to say that on HS2 and energy bills (and that will 100% be a Labour red line) he was just kidding really?”

    If he did, wouldn’t that be absolutely in line with his behaviour on economic policy in 2010? After ridiculing the Tory line during the campaign and telling us that even a small child could see it was obviously wrong, he reversed his position and signed up to it within days of the election.

  • We seem to have a big red circle, or perhaps a pentangle, around LVT, preventing it getting into policy space.

  • Something about healthcare perhaps?

  • @Stephen – I am sure that Nick Clegg is being sincere with his most seats/most votes strategy, after all the parliamentary arithmetic is unlikely to produce a situation where both Con+LD and Lab+LD add up to a working majority. The trouble is that there’s not a vision of how a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition would govern.

    With a Blue/Yellow partnership it’s easy. We’ve had two-thirds of a parliament to experience that scenario. The Conservatives provide economic competence, but left to themselves the recovery would be unfair. The Liberal Democrats add compassion and heart to the competence and make the recovery fairer.

    In the case of a Red/Yellow partnership we don’t have that knowledge of how it could work and the words of Nick Clegg seem to demonstrate that it cannot work. Little Jackie has already mentioned that Nick Clegg has called Labour’s energy policy a “con” and on HS2 as “miserable and pathetic”. In the rejected education amendment yesterday both Nick and David Laws signed up to saying that “nobody can trust the Opposition to protect education standards.”. That seems to me different to Chris’s point that Nick said that the Conservative economic policy was obviously wrong. That’s attacking the policy – the tone of Nick’s comments this parliament has always been to attack the Labour Party of malign motives.

    When a coalition is formed policies will have to be changed. There will be horse-trading. Sometimes a party might have to accept something that they campaigned against to pass something they campaigned for. If there was any recognition that Labour were proposing the wrong policies but with Lib Dem help those policies could be good for Britain then maybe a Red/Yellow coalition would seem appealing. But as it stands Nick Clegg believes that no-one should trust Labour, so why would he go into coalition with people he says cannot be trusted.

  • ‘Will that policy be a red line?’
    Is that Westminster Bubble code for something you are prepared to sell your grandma for, so long as a ministerial car is provided in exchange?

    Some of the 2010 red lines were ;-
    No new nuclear subsidies (if you remember we were invited to read that on Chris Huhne’s lips)
    No student tuition fees
    Reform of the House of Lords
    No top-down reorganisation of the NHS

  • Of course, the other interesting question is how – if Clegg did decide he wanted to draw a ‘red line’ – he could persuade anyone that he would keep his word this time. Obviously he would have to come up with something significantly stronger than a signed pledge. But what? Any suggestions?

  • Richard Shaw 31st Oct '13 - 8:33am

    @JohnTilley

    “No top-down reorganisation of the NHS”

    If I recall correctly, our manifesto promised lots of changes to the NHS, such as elected Health Boards and the Coalition Agreement listed quite a few changes too…

  • Excellent political economy analysis!

  • Steve Griffiths 31st Oct '13 - 9:12am

    Do you remember that Lib Dem party political broadcast that launched the Lib Dem 2010 election campaign? Nick Clegg walking along the South Bank with Parliament in the background and pieces of paper blowing all around. If you want a good cringe in the light of subsequent events, it’s here at:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jTLR8R9JXz4

    his opening words in that broadcastNick said “Broken promises…there’s been too many in the last few years; too many in the last 30 years, in fact our nation has been littered with them – a trail of broken promises…You remember them? Fairer taxes – a promise broken; better schools for everyone – a promise broken; cleaner politics – a promise broken. I think it is time to do things differently. I believe it is time for fairness in Britain. I believe it’s time for promises to be kept.”

    So should ‘no more broken promises’ become one of those red lines?

  • Richard Shaw wrote:
    “If I recall correctly, our manifesto promised lots of changes to the NHS, such as elected Health Boards and the Coalition Agreement listed quite a few changes too…”

    No – the Coalition Agreement said:
    “We will stop the top-down reorganisations of the NHS that have got in the way of patient care.”

    Part of the problem is that the Lib Dem leadership has failed to defend even the ‘red lines’ that were agreed with the Tories in 2010.

  • “So should ‘no more broken promises’ become one of those red lines?”

    I think a slogan like “I promise I won’t break my word again” would be a bit difficult to sell.

  • For a party that believes itself to be the torchbearer of democracy it is disturbing how easily it is jettisoned when coalition is mentioned. To allow the party with the largest number of votes the first option of forming a government is to deny those that vote for you representation. It is to make first past the post obsolete and replace it with nearest to the post. If coalition is to be a valid embodiment of democracy it must be incumbent on all parties to negotiate first with those whose policy prescriptions are closest to their own.

  • So as this is not a read line for the lib Dems in a future coalition then the Lib Dems would also, to use Cleggs own words, “betray the North” and “turn its back on the businesses, the communities, the families” just to keep those red boxes and chauffeur driven limousines they have grown very attached to.

  • Richard Shaw 31st Oct '13 - 1:04pm

    @Chris

    Evidently you assume that single sentence to mean that the *Government* won’t do *anything* to the NHS. However the immediate following sentence says they are committed to reducing duplication – surely that much require some reorganisation?

    Altogether the Coalition Agreement lists *30* paragraphs about how the Government will change the NHS. The only logical conclusion is that “We will stop the top-down reorganisations of the NHS that have got in the way of patient care.” means that they will stop the NHS reorganising itself or that the Government will only do re-organisations which they feel improve or don’t ‘get in the way’ of patient care. Or maybe they’ll start reorganising from the bottom-upwards?

  • Richard

    “Evidently you assume that single sentence to mean that the *Government* won’t do *anything* to the NHS”

    I didn’t mean to imply that. It’s just that you seemed to be taking issue with John Tilley’s statement that there had been a commitment in 2010 to “No top-down reorganisation of the NHS”. I just wanted to remind you that there was an explicit commitment to that effect.

  • David Allen 31st Oct '13 - 3:47pm

    Stephen Tall,

    “In 2010, Nick Clegg straight-batted it pretty effectively, saying the Lib Dems would talk first to the party with the most seats and most votes. In 2015 he’ll stick to that trusty formula….”

    Stephen, I haven’t seen any evidence to support your statement about what Nick will do in 2015, can you supply chapter and verse (i.e. a weblink) please?

  • Stuart Mitchell 31st Oct '13 - 5:54pm

    I’ve heard Clegg state many times that he would first talk to the party with the most votes/seats.

    Which in true Clegg style commits him to absolutely nothing – talking is not the same as attempting to come to an agreement.

  • David Allen 31st Oct '13 - 6:01pm

    That’s interesting Stephen. Interesting because it’s ambiguous, as Clegg will know.

    If Labour get most votes, they will almost certainly gain an overall majority in terms of seats, and will be unlikely to want a coalition partner. The situation in which Labour might need the Lib Dems as partners is almost certainly one in which Labour lead on seats, but the Tories lead on votes.

    Back in 2010, I recall that Clegg specifically gave primacy to votes, rather than seats. This would have given him the option to plump for the Tories even if they had come marginally second on seats, but clearly first on votes. As it was, of course, the Tories did better than that, so Clegg’s clever strategies to maximise the chances of a Tory coalition (not previously used by a Lib Dem leader!) didn’t actually need to be called into play.

    Now for 2015, Clegg has declared that seats and votes are both critical. Why has Clegg’s line changed? Well, the difference, of course, is that Labour are now polling better. The bigger risk for Clegg now is that Labour might come well ahead on seats, making a Lib-Lab coalition the obvious practical proposition. Clegg evidently still wants to give himself the option of rejecting such a coalition on the grounds that the Tories came marginally ahead on votes. However, he is being a little pragmatic on that.

    No doubt Clegg would be best pleased if Labour had a big internal fight about whether to accept the Lib Dems as coalition partners. Clegg could then blame Labour for a failure of responsibility, and argue for continuing with the Tories. However, what if Labour, just short of an overall majority, saw sense and offered the Lib Dems a reasonable deal? If Clegg still jibbed, Clegg would get dumped. Farble or Carron would then seal a Labour deal. Clegg does not want to get dumped, being a career minded fellow above all else. So, in 2015, whilst Clegg is still biased in favour of a Tory deal, he is having to play it a bit more cautiously than last time.

    A genuinely “equidistant” leader, of course, would not give any hostages to fortune by talking about votes or seats. As JRC points out, it is perfectly reasonable to prefer the party who came second, if they have policies closer to your own. It is only standard good bargaining practice to be prepared to deal with either side, because that way, you force both sides to bid for your custom. Why has Clegg not adhered to these basic principles of how to maximise our bargaining strength? Because it has been more important for him to choose sides, and choose the Right side.

    Now then Stephen, off you go and choose between claiming that previous LD leaders have behaved similarly (false), or claiming that my arguments are so abstruse nobody can understand them (which might be true, especially if you fling some red herrings in to make the task more difficult), or constructing a complex counter-argument with subtle non-sequiturs to bore, baffle or confuse the reader. All of these response tactics will no doubt convince party loyalists that Clegg is wonderful and David Allen is wrong. However, none of them will convince the public, who don’t need me to tell them where Clegg stands. He’s a Tory.

  • David Allen,

    You are right in what you say but I would just like to clarify that my point was stronger than that. It is that it is not just reasonable to prefer the party who came second if their policies are similar or closer to those that you put before the electorate, it is a democratic obligation to negotiate with that party first. Using the number of votes or seats as the deciding factor negates any obligation to represent the views put forward to gain your votes in the first place. It is an entirely undemocratic use of what mandate the Lib Dems would have. The whole notion that it is simply about bargaining power is a denial of the democratic duty to represent the wishes of those whose voted for you.

  • @JRC – what you say about it being the Lib Dems democratic obligation to negotiate first with the party that they are closer in policy terms is absolutely true. Nick Clegg’s position seems to be that he would prefer to deal with the Conservatives, Nick and David Cameron have built a working relationship over the course of a parliament and Nick hasn’t accused the Conservative Party of being conman, betraying people or being untrustworthy. Why is Nick going out of his way to be hostile towards the Labour Party if he was seriously considering working with Ed Miliband after 2015.

  • Simon Banks 1st Nov '13 - 10:33am

    Apropos of John Tilley’s comment, I do think we need to be careful, miserly, realistic and honest about red lines. However, I can think of positions on civil liberties, poverty and climate change to abandon which would be to abandon our identity and worth. So I think we do need a very few red lines. We can’t, though, promise to deliver them, just to stand up for them and vote for them – and that’s another reason for the red lines being few, as the more red lines we have, the less we’re offering in negotiation and thus the less we’ll be offered.

    Finally, due respect for British military traditions demands that any red lines should be thin.

  • David Allen 1st Nov '13 - 11:50pm

    Stephen Tall,

    “impressively obsessional”

    Long on insults, short on everything else.

    “Nick has publicly said he would talk first to the party with the most seats and most votes … you instantly shift to saying this is somehow ambiguous! It isn’t.”

    Er, it’s well known to all analysts that if Labour win more seats than the Tories but not an overall majority, then Labour will probably have gained fewer votes than the Tories. That’s a well-known fault of our electoral system. I explained it last time. You are not stupid. You understood. You decided, probably rightly, that the approach that would fool more readers than any other would be to pretend not to understand.

    “You say ‘in 2010, I recall that Clegg specifically gave primacy to votes, rather than seats’. Is this surprising?”

    Well, it’s different from what he’s saying now. Is that just another inconvenient truth you think it is safest to gloss over?

    “The Lib Dems are committed to a proportional voting system which would give primacy to votes, rather than seats. However, as you may remember in 2011 the voters rejected even a first step towards such electoral reform. As a result we’re stuck with first-past-the-vote which means votes and seats both matter – Nick’s wording reflects that reality.”

    Hey, pay that clever bar-room lawyer a bonus, he has found a new, original, totally bogus argument to fool the unwary. Clegg’s shenanigans are to be blamed on the failure of the AV referendum to deliver electoral reform! Somehow, that can be parlayed as a justification of Clegg’s clever positioning in favour of an ongoing deal with the Tories. For the dwindling numbers of credulous Cleggite loyalists, that is.

  • Sooooo……. Do you guys have a healthcare policy or what?

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