Nick Clegg’s speech: my first impressions

This was Nick’s sixth speech to a Lib Dem autumn conference, and was his most relaxed and assured performance to date. As with the best of his Letters from the Leader, it worked because he took us behind the scenes of government – such as “shell-shocked civil servant promising me we’d get on with things shortly – but first he had to get us some desks”.

The list of achievements in government was despatched pretty quickly: tax-cuts for the low-paid, the Pupil Premium, new apprenticeships social care reforms, railway investment, same-sex marriage, and so on. Past speeches have sometimes included a paragraph on each, seemingly attempting to beat activists into submission through lists. Not this time.

There was also an implicit acceptance that Nick would no longer accuse the party of “hankering for the comfort blanket of national opposition”, as he did in the summer. After all, our surveys of members consistently show three-quarters (75%) want the party to be an active player in government after the next general election.

I have talked to you before about our journey from the comforts of opposition to the realities of Government – but not anymore. Liberal Democrats – we are a party of Government now.

Central to Nick’s message in this speech was that the Lib Dems are now a party of government, and a party committed to making Coalition Government work. There was a rather neat imagining of the next still-to-be-confirmed televised leaders’ debate, which earned warm applause:

Imagine the next round of leaders’ debates everyone watching to see who agrees with whom this time. David Cameron will say to Ed Miliband: you’re irresponsible, you are going to drive the economy to ruin. Ed Miliband will say to David Cameron: you can’t be trusted to help everyone, your party only cares about the rich. For once, I will agree with them both. Because they’re both right: left to their own devices, they’ll both get it wrong.

This was an explicit appeal to those moderate voters who trust neither Labour nor the Conservatives to govern alone. However, Nick’s acutely aware that many activists, even if they accept the electoral reality of the party’s position, are deeply wary that this centrism may end up becoming a split-the-difference mushiness. He sought to reassure them that the Lib Dems will fight in 2015 proudly as an independent party:

The Liberal Democrats are not just some subset of the Labour or Tory parties – we’re no one’s little brother. We have our own values, our own liberal beliefs.

Another criticism he faced head-on was the accusation from those who reckon his privileged upbringing (something he shares in common with David Cameron and Ed Miliband), together with his lack of involvement in student politics, means his liberalism is flimsy, insubstantial. A key passage was Nick’s explanation of what motivated him to get stuck in – no surprises that it was his internationalism, his belief Britain has to be a global player:

The Liberal Democrats seemed so outward looking and forward looking, compared to the tired, old, introverted politics of Labour and the Conservatives. For me, that was it. That’s how I found our party.

Small wonder, then, that he urged Scotland to remain within the United Kingdom:

I unambiguously, unequivocally want Scotland to remain in the United Kingdom. The nationalists don’t have a monopoly on passion in this debate. I love the way the UK is made up of different peoples, different traditions, different histories.

Nick knows that these kinds of statements are bound to go down well with Lib Dem activists. But he didn’t shy away from two issues where he’s gotten grief in the past year: the draft Communications Data Bill, which he opposed following a vigorous internal revolt, and Syria, where he argued for liberal interventionism though the mood of the party is largely against a military strike. In neither passage did he have to pause for applause, however; and his support for secret courts, quietly overturned at conference this week, wasn’t mentioned.

Perhaps the passage that delighted Lib Dem members most was when he contrasted Lib Dem actions in government with a counter-factual: “What do you think Britain would look like today if the Tories had been alone in Whitehall for the last three years? What would have happened without Liberal Democrats in this Government?” On 12 separate issues, he told Lib Dem members, he had said No to the Conservatives:

Inheritance tax cuts for millionaires – no. Bringing back O’ levels and a two-tier education system – no. Profit-making in schools – no. New childcare ratios – no. Firing workers at will, without any reasons given – no, absolutely not. Regional pay penalising public sector workers in the north – no. Scrapping housing benefit for young people – no. No to ditching the Human Rights Act. No to weakening the protections in the Equalities Act. No to closing down the debate on Trident. Had they asked us, no to those ‘go home’ poster vans. No to the boundary changes if you cannot deliver your side of the bargain on House of Lords reform. And if there’s one area where we’ve had to put our foot down more than any other, have a guess. Yep, the environment. … No, no and no – the Liberal Democrats will keep this Government green.

That last line had shades of Margaret Thatcher – who earned an unscripted mention:

Labour were attacked, too – “I could give you a hypothetical list of bad ideas the Liberal Democrats would have to stop – but that would involve Labour producing some actual policies” – but he mostly steered well clear of the invective, recalling his embarrassment when Wimbledon winner Andy Murray put he, Cameron and Miliband on the spot at a reception by asking: ‘you all seem to get along now, why can’t you always be like this?’

He was right, it’s true: we can get on. We’re never going to be mates, but I’ve got nothing against them personally – politically, yes, personally, no. That’s why the constant, breathless speculation about how different party leaders get on kind of misses the point. I’m endlessly asked who I feel more ‘comfortable’ with – David Cameron or Ed Miliband? Wouldn’t our party be more comfortable with Labour? Aren’t we more comfortable with our present coalition partners? But I don’t look at Ed Miliband and David Cameron and ask myself who I’d be most comfortable with, as if I was buying a new sofa. … Whether or not we have another coalition is determined by the British people – not me, not you, the people. And if that happens, only their votes can tell us what combination of parties carries the greatest legitimacy.

Quite. He was not asking people to vote for a hypothetical coalition – simply pointing that if that if the electorate’s votes produce another deadlock, the Lib Dems will be willing to work with the party with the most seats and votes to break it.

There were just two notes in the speech which didn’t quite work (I don’t think). He tickled our tummies a couple of times by pointing out, not wrongly, that the Lib Dems are an anti-establishment party. For instance, he recalled how he and Alistair Carmichael were invited to an impromptu wedding ceremony by same-sex marriage campaigners: “at that moment we were exactly where we belonged: on the outside, welcoming in reform.” Which was a bit hard to square with us being a natural party of government, and with the fact that it was Lynne Featherstone and he (and many others) working on the inside that delivered this reform.

It was also odd for Nick to preach the virtue of parties working together – “pluralism works” – while later adding a clap-line: “In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have to work with either of them because I’d be Prime Minister on my own thank you very much.”

But I’m nit-picking. This was a good speech, seemingly well-received, and with a clear message that has been broadcast throughout this conference: Lib Dems are dead-set on staying in government. The lines which drew the loudest cheers in the hall were these:

We’re not trying to get back into Government to fold into one of the other parties – we want to be there to anchor them to the liberal centre ground, right in the centre, bang in the middle. We’re not here to prop up the two party system: we’re here to bring it down.

That’s right: no more two-party politics. Its two-party government we’re signed-up for now.

* 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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33 Comments

  • Brilliant speech – well done cleggie.

  • I have listened to many leader speeches this was one of tne best I have heard.

  • Peter Watson 18th Sep '13 - 7:04pm

    I’ve not heard the speech yet, but as I read excerpts I can imagine exactly how it sounded.
    Back in 2010 I was blown away by Clegg’s style (Cleggmania), but now, the puppy dog eyes, the earnest tone, and the predictable mid-sentence pauses for dramatic effect between every other phrase … it’s so predictable that I find it quite tiresome. I get so distracted and irritated by the deliberate mannerisms that I switch off from what he’s saying – the Michael McIntyre effect.

  • Good speech.

  • Is Jedibeeftrix equally happy with an electoral outcome which gives the Conservatives total power and one which gives Labour total power?

  • jedibeeftrix 19th Sep '13 - 10:08am

    i like adversarial politics, i value the fptp tendency to create a manifesto platform for change, the potential to implement that change, and then the opportunity to punish or reward the proposers of that change.

    i like and admire the liberal tradition, and believe it has a historic opportunity to displace the labour movement as the opposing pole to right wing politics.

    most importantly, i am willing to give absolutely ZERO concessions to the lib-dem’s in their attempt to do this, thrive or die, and (generally) quit whinging about how unfair the ‘system’ is.

    if the party support (long term) cleggs conference notion of chasing ‘our’ electorate (~20% of the total) rather than pursuing a policy platform that appeals across the spectrum, country wide, then it is never going to succeed.

    http://www.economist.com/blogs/bagehot/2012/02/nick-clegg-and-liberal-democrats

    “I still think Mr Clegg has a problem, which can be summarised like this: he is British, not Dutch. If Mr Clegg were a Dutch politician, he would be operating in a system of proportional representation and permanent coalition government. In such a system, it is perfectly possible to prosper by offering a set of liberal beliefs held by between 15% and 20% of voters (in a good year). At election time in countries such as the Netherlands, liberal voters turn out in order to inject a dose of their minority ideology in the final coalition mix.

    In the British system, we do not just have first-past-the-post electoral rules, we also have first-past-the-post politics. Instead of seeking 15% of the vote everywhere, Lib Dems have to come first in a series of target seats, and—given their views—can often only achieve this through a mixture of hyper-local campaigning and appeals to tactical voting. That has left the party wedded to all-things-to-all-voters opportunism.”

  • By saying that the votes cast by the electorate and the viability of forming a majority will determine who you will enter a coalition with you are in fact saying: “we no longer believe that the party that governs need win an election. Whichever party gets closest will have our backing and we, regardless of policy or principle, will convert their minority into a majority by voting in parliament for most of their policies.”

    If coalition politics is to be in any way democratically valid the minority party must hold to its principles and refuse coalition with those it opposes. Switching to Labour after the election for no other reason than its number of seats won or it’s votes won makes a mockery of democracy. In order to give legitimacy to coalition government the Lib Dems are duty bound to try and form a coalition with the Conservatives just as, given their manifesto, they were duty bound to try and form a coalition with Labour the last time.

  • Dominic Curran 19th Sep '13 - 11:00am

    @ jedibeeftrix

    i note you missed out the fptp tendency to give a ‘mandate’ for change, amongst all its virtues….

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Sep '13 - 11:11am

    JRC

    If coalition politics is to be in any way democratically valid the minority party must hold to its principles and refuse coalition with those it opposes. Switching to Labour after the election for no other reason than its number of seats won or it’s votes won makes a mockery of democracy.

    Come again?

    You are suggesting that to agree to a government led by the party which won the largest number of votes “makes a mockery of democracy”. How does that work?

    The Liberal Democrats formed a coalition with the Conservatives last time because that was the only viable government. I was willing to agree to it on that basis, and not on any other basis. A chance outcome due to the way the people voted then and the distortions of the FPTP system which can be a bit random should not be used to suggest a permanent merger. Representative democracy is about the representatives coming together and finding the compromise which gets the most support. This could involve any combination of representatives. It makes sense to consider combinations which contain the largest group first, and only to consider combinations of smaller groups which exclude the largest if the smaller groups have much more in common.

  • jedibeeftrix 19th Sep '13 - 11:28am

    @ Dominic – “i note you missed out the fptp tendency to give a ‘mandate’ for change, amongst all its virtues….”

    Maybe I misunderstand, but I’m fairly sure i did say that:

    “i value the fptp tendency to create a manifesto platform for change”

  • jedibeeftrix 19th Sep '13 - 11:34am

    @ Matthew – “The Liberal Democrats formed a coalition with the Conservatives last time because that was the only viable government.”

    Agreed, no workable government, minority or majority, could have been formed with a Lib-Lab coalition, and aside from that there was a good argument in addition to that that losing after twelve years of rule the electorate would have looked askance at a minority party that made it sixteen!

    But future coalitions absolutely must not be governed principally by who got the largest number of votes. Politics must be about ideas and principles, and Clegg’s “anchor” does not count on either measure.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Sep '13 - 11:38am

    jedibeeftrix (quoting the Economist)

    In the British system, we do not just have first-past-the-post electoral rules, we also have first-past-the-post politics. Instead of seeking 15% of the vote everywhere, Lib Dems have to come first in a series of target seats

    I think this is true, but not so much the bit that follows. LibDems get accused of appealling to “tactical voting” in target seats, but when the other parties put out the message “Don’t vote LibDem, it’s a wasted vote”, that’s just as much an appeal to tactical voting. Also, the wedded-to-all-thing opportunism claim seems to me to be more propaganda from the other parties than reality. Of course there’s a range of views in the Liberal Democrats, but I’ve always found we tend to get along with each other, I’ve moved around in the party from places where the LibDems are fighting the Tories with an insignificant presence, to places where we’re up against Labour and the Tories have long since disappeared, and not found I’m mixing with totally different people in the different places. And I’ve always found that Labour and the Conservatives tailor their message to the local audience just as much as the Liberal Democrats.

    On the FPTP thing, though – yes. Clegg wants to build the sort of liberal party that exists in much of the rest of Europe, one with rightish economics and leftish social policies (so long as the social policies don’t conflict with the economic ones – when they do, the economic ones seem to win out) and a sort of concerned elitist attitude to life. However, this sort of party tends to have a small share of the vote which is pretty evenly spread out. That sort of vote wins seats in a proportional system, but not FPTP. The German FDP wins seats because of its list vote (and it shows that the Germans do not understand their system, because they make it’s some sort of 2nd preference when actually it’s the only vote that counts), but they don’t win any constituency seats.

    The Liberal Democrats and Liberals before them managed to win seats through clever attendance to local issues, exploiting cases where the dominant party in the area had become slack and assumed it didn’t have to bother much because it would always win. But it also did need some underlying political fervour to drive local activists into putting in the work to do that. I can’t see how Clegg’s new model of party is going to do it. So it seems to me it will be rather like the Liberal Party of the 1930s to 1950s, holding on to a few seats where it was historically strong and had an incumbency factor, but each one it lost was never regained, and no new ones were coming its way. Given the way FPTP distorts representation, I don’t think it’s that likely we will see a no-majority Parliament after the next election or in future. It took ten general elections before the big rise in third party vote that started in the 1974 general elections actually
    resulted in a no-majority Parliament. I don’t see any particular reason why it should not be another ten general elections before the next.

  • Matthew Huntbach,

    If simply having the largest share of the vote or seats is sufficient to be allowed to form a majority because a minority party will bump your support up to a majority on the basis of your share of the vote alone then it is no longer necessary to win a majority for either of the leading two parties. This transforms government back into two party politics but removes the necessity for either of the two parties to actually win.

    For coalition to be democratically legitimate it must be incumbent on the minority party to coalesce with the party closer in policy to themselves. Having turned this on its head and formed a coalition with the Conservatives last time simply because it was the most viable rather than most representative of what people actually voted for it would be absurd to fight the next election on your record and then abandon that simply because the Labour Party wins a greater share of the vote than the Conservatives.

  • jedibeeftrix 19th Sep '13 - 12:00pm

    good post Matthew, a great deal that I agree with.

    “Clegg wants to build the sort of liberal party that exists in much of the rest of Europe, one with rightish economics and leftish social policies”

    Perhaps yes, and if so I believe this to be a massive failure of ambition given the Labour is looking less and less relevant to the big questions of the 21st century, for those who take a more collectivist view of society. I see the 2015 GE as a period of consolidation for the lib-dem’s so I expect no breakthrough, or any strategy designed to achieve such, and for that reason I hold hope that this is a temporary position designed to hold the party together in tough times.

    “It took ten general elections before the big rise in third party vote that started in the 1974 general elections actually”

    Maybe I get over-enthused by Niall Ferguson’s grand ‘arcs’ of history, but I’m not at all convinced that the lessons of the twentieth century will be relevant to the 21st. The labour movement at the start of the 20th century had 7 million members, fifty years later that had doubled (at a time when the population was only four times that number), and now we are back to seven again. During this, the ideology of revolutionary collectivism was born as a political force in the west, and has since died, this was not a time when a liberal revival was likely. However, what was true then does necessarily hold today: “now that the money has run out, what is the purpose of the labour party?”

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Sep '13 - 2:28pm

    JRC

    For coalition to be democratically legitimate it must be incumbent on the minority party to coalesce with the party closer in policy to themselves.

    No, I don’t think so. This reduces the ability of the third party to have any influence to almost zero. The possibility of a coalition with the other party needs to be there in order to be able to put pressure on the closest party at least to make some concessions. Also, as was the case in 2010, the presence of further small parties can mean a coalition with any but the biggest party is not viable. For myself, I make no secret of the fact that I’m on the left of the Liberal Democrats, I would much prefer a coalition with Labour, there’s a lot in Labour I disagree with, but much more in the Tories I disagree with. However, I could see in the Parliament after the 2010 general election, even if Labour were willing to form a coalition with the LibDems, the result would be a government perpetually in crisis as any small backbench rebellion, or refusal of one of the minor parties to go along with it would cause it to lose its majority and hence be unable to form a coherent set of policies. I dislike, intensely, the set of policies coming from the current government, but I concede they are coherent, and they are about what you’d expect from a 5:1 Conservative:LibDem mix. I would argue that we should have policies that would match the 3:2 Conservative:LibDem mix that came in the actual votes in 2010, but the people of this country smashed that argument to pieces in the 2011 referendum. Thus – I dislike this government, I think it is wrong-headed, but I accept it because I accept it is what democracy gave us, it’s what the people voted for in 2010 and even more so in 2011.

    Third parties will never have the strength that people suppose they would have in a coalition situation for the simple fact that being third parties means they’re less popular than the biggest two parties. So if they hold up the formation of a stable government because they absolutely insist it must include their favourite policies even though neither of the big parties supports those policies, it will make most of the country angry. It might look like sticking to principles, but to most of the country it will look like petty and selfish behaviour, a party which has not that much support damaging the country in order to push through policies few people want. That’s why the idea that the LibDems would be all-powerful king-makers in the event of a “hung Parliament” was never really true, and the criticisms of the LibDems for not being able to get through 100% of their manifesto despite being “in government” are ridiculous.

    I think Nick Clegg could have played things much better to have made all this more clear, I think he’s been a very poor leader because he’s got so much wrong on presentation and seems determined to push critics and those to the left of the party (who have always been its hardest grassroots workers) like myself out of it. However, I’m not going to join those who seem to think he’s wrong because he didn’t magic up a government with entirely Liberal Democrat policies out of just 57 MPs from a house of 650.

  • jedibeeftrix 19th Sep '13 - 3:04pm

    “Do you not see this as a way forward – apart from significantly increasing the numbers who would consider voting for the Party in 2013 – if such proposals were included in its manifesto?”

    Hi John,

    I am sympathic to the notion of Swiss style democracy, but the devil would be in the details.

    Notably, Hannan is in favour of a Swiss style system, but i worry that poorly implemented it hamper our traditional role in international politics of being prepared to spend blood and treasure in pursuit of what Hague would term Britain’s enlightened national interest.

    Don’t get me wrong, equally it has the potential to add legitimacy to difficult foriegn policy questions, but there is an element of motherhood and apple-pie (in reverse).

    I like it notionally, but i’d want to see the details.

    Speaking from a more partisan point of view, I believe the Lib-Dem’s would certainly benefit from advocating Swiss style democracy. However, there are two related problems:

    1. The party would have to trust the electorate (see the EU referendum (“it’s just nationalistic populism” blarney).
    2. The party would be tempted to configure to hamstring in precisely the way I suggest above (“no more iraqs!” blarney).

  • jedibeeftrix 19th Sep '13 - 3:15pm

    This time with greater coherence:

    Speaking from a more partisan point of view, I believe the Lib-Dem’s would certainly benefit from advocating Swiss style democracy. However, there are two related problems:

    1. The party would have to trust the electorate (see the EU referendum “it’s just nationalistic populism” blarney).
    2. The party would be tempted to hamstring FP in precisely the way I suggest above (see “no more iraqs!” blarney).

  • jedibeeftrix 19th Sep '13 - 4:51pm

    “not remove the power of the elected government to govern [within its manifesto]- but simply to restrain its excesses.”

    i’m not sure i see the benefit as being in terms of restraining the excesses of the executive, I am content that the people should live with the consequences of their decisions, for me it is far more about ensuring that the executive makes policy in line with the information on which the electorates decisions were made.

  • Matthew Huntbach,

    Yes you are quite right, I should have said to ‘try to’ coalesce.

  • jedibeeftrix 19th Sep '13 - 6:09pm

    @ John –

    “I have responded here, essentially, to NC’s assertion that the Party’s role [as a party of Coalition] is to restrain the larger parties from extreme policies and trying to demonstrate that the elements of DD outlined is a far better way of dealing with that problem.”

    On that basis, I entirely agree.

    Indeed, to you second point as well. I think it would be a good thing for both British politics and the party that fought to introduce it, I am merely cautious about the form of its implementation (as well as whether the party is ready to accept it).

  • Little Jackie Paper 19th Sep '13 - 7:48pm

    John Roffey – ‘the changes outlined above would draw a disenchanted electorate back into politics if they saw that they could impact on the administration at times between election campaigns.’

    That is true though only insofar as what is direct is actually democracy and not just majoritarianism. Those two are, of course not mutually exclusive – however if a stream of decisions resulting from direct democracy goes against a portion of the electorate, is the, ‘disenchantment,’ they feel any different qualitatively from the disenchantment they now feel?

    I would dearly love direct democracy to deliver, say, greater housebuilding locally. But the propertied boomers in these parts would sooner drink poison that have that. And the stark truth is that no quality of argument or oratory is going to change the in-built boomer majority’s mind or profound financial interest. Interests of the nation are not the same thing as interests for all of the people in the nation.

    And, of course, direct democracy does not remove the divisive nature from ‘hot’ questions or even overcome wider divides. Local referendums on introducing Sharia Law anyone? Or a referendum on increasing immigration? In the case of the latter my instinct is that corporate interests and corporate wealth would really go all out for a YES.

    Whilst I most certainly agree with an earlier comment that it is not healthy for politics to be dominated by a centrist mush (which AV would almost certainly have reinforced), I’m not sure it is any healthier for localities or society at large to bring about direct-majoritarianism. I also suspect that direct democracy is vulnerable to the influence of money – hardly a recipe for mass-engagement.

    ‘Democracy’ is not the same thing as, ‘the outcome I want,’ and governments do not exist to legislate for the prejudices of anyone or any group. As much as I want housebuilding and falling houseprices, it is not the outcome that can be achieved in a vote – my bad luck (and boomer good luck). Personally I would quite like more direct democracy – but to assert that it would solve questions of disengagement and allow all to have an impact seems to me to be a bit of a reach.

  • David Pollard 19th Sep '13 - 8:08pm

    A Syria free zone!

  • Simon Banks 23rd Sep '13 - 5:04pm

    He did reassure me on several fronts, as on the whole the entire conference did. There was a renewed emphasis on reducing disadvantage and rediscovering our essential Liberalism. I suspect to the proverbial visitor from Mars it would have sounded like a speech on behalf of the dispossessed, though that presupposes Martian politics is quite like ours.

    He couldn’t resist, though, that shallow stuff about the centre ground. I’d been thinking that I’d gone though the entire conference without hearing someone praising themselves for standing on the centre ground, that this might be yesterday’s image, but no.

    I thought it was a good speech, but never a great one. There was a visceral connection Paddy and Charles could make, that just isn’t Nick, and in addition to policy issues this is one reason for his uncertain relationship with the activists. On the whole, it seems to me, the activists like him but don’t love him. That is a limiting factor for a leader.

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