Nick Clegg’s leadership: 3 thoughts from me

Today’s papers are full of speculation about Nick Clegg’s leadership prompted by a handful of party members — inevitably labelled ‘senior’ — calling on Nick to go, such as Lib Dem peer Lord Smith of Clifton, with Torbay MP Adrian Sanders urging Nick to get better advice to avoid “bumbling along”. Here are the three thoughts on the issue which strike me (before I head off to the Olympic stadium for tonight’s Paralympic athletics action)…

1) I’m more surprised by how few people are calling for Nick Clegg to go

It’s not especially surprising there’s some discontent among members. The party is currently polling between 10-15%. The economy is still in the doldrums. The Coalition looks fractious and shapeless. In the circumstances it’s more surprising how few Lib Dems are calling for a leadership change, a point also acknowledged in The Spectator this week, Lib Dem MPs are still remarkably loyal to Clegg. And it’s not just senior Lib Dem figures who are sticking with Nick. As our much-quoted recent LibDemVoice poll showed only a small minority (15%) of party members want Nick Clegg to stand down any time soon. The vast majority think he deserves and should be given more time.

2) Now is completely the wrong time to change leader

Much of the current speculation therefore misses the point: Nick Clegg is in no immediate danger of being deposed. That is not the same thing as being safe, however. As Ming Campbell discovered in 2007, your position as leader can be made untenable if it is questioned often enough, and that’s the clear risk for Nick — political death by a thousand swipes. That is why (my personal view) Nick’s critics now need to lay off calling for his head. They may want to make it a self-fulfilling prophesy, but I don’t think that is the mood of most members in the party. Better to focus all our energies in the next year on getting liberal policies enacted in government than to be distracted by what the public will regard as navel-gazing indulgence.

3) If there is ever a right time it needs to be Nick’s decision

There’s little point pretending there are no circumstances in which Nick Clegg might not be Lib Dem leader at the 2015 general election. There’s a quite plausible scenario in which Nick comes to the conclusion himself in 2014 that the party’s best interests would be best served by a new leader: he heads off to a new role in Europe or wherever, Vince steps in to the breach. It could happen. Though as with most long-term political predictions my guess is it won’t happen. But the main point is that such a scenario is dependent on Nick himself reaching this decision much closer to the general election. Of course he will also have to take full account of the views of members. But do we as a party really think defenestrating another leader will make us seem a more trustworthy party in the eyes of the public? That’s a big, big assumption. None of us can yet know what the political climate then might be: it will hinge on the recovery in the economy. And that’s what we now need fully to focus on.

* 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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  • Stephen Tall Stephen Tall 2nd Sep '12 - 2:52pm

    Thanks Adrian, have amended above.

  • Chris Rennard 2nd Sep '12 - 3:33pm

    I did a piece for the Guardian last year on the difficulties of coalition…it seems relevant to some of today’s discussion:

  • We all knew going into coalition was going to be difficult as the economy was in a mess as Labour spent all the money. We also agreed to go into the coalition for the term of the Parliament.

    I accept we must keep our side of the bargain and whilst there are those on the left who want us to come out of the coalition, I accept EQUALLY that if we had to go into coalition in 2015 with Labour as there was no other alternative, I would respect that decision as well.

    If an agreement is made, all sides of the Party MUST respect that as the current displays in the media is a disgrace and an insult. I for one am more than happy for Nick to remain as Leader. There is no vacancy and the Leadership will be decided after the next election. In any case, I do not accept that Labour won’t go into coalition with Nick after 2015. Only the Lib Dems decide who their Leader is. Labour cannot dictate to us who we have as our Leader any more than we could dictate theirs.

    Time the Party got fully behind Nick instead of all this pathetic washing our dirty laundry in public. I want us to get Lib Dem policies in Govt and not slagging off Nick. If the voters see us squabbling in public, they won’t vote for us, anyway. A divided house, FALLS.

  • Simon Titley 2nd Sep '12 - 3:37pm

    Adrian Sanders’s call for Nick Clegg to get better advice is a good point, and a factor that Stephen Tall ignores in his original piece. Clegg and his advisers have brought many of these problems on their own heads by cultivating a defensive bunker mentality.

    Perhaps the worst feature of Clegg’s leadership is that he has surrounded himself with ‘advisers’ who have little or no sympathy for or understanding of the party. These advisers tend to fall into two categories. The first has got there by making ‘generous’ donations to the leader’s office and, while such people may understand the party, they tend to hold it in contempt. The second are 22-year-olds straight out of Oxbridge who wouldn’t recognise a Focus leaflet if you rammed it up their backsides with a stakeboard. Whatever their origin, they are all ‘Westminster Bubble’ types and, crucially, they rely on Clegg’s patronage for their jobs and/or status. Hence they are far more paranoid about any criticism of the leader than Clegg himself, creating a fevered atmosphere that is generating much of the problem.

    For example, the decision of the leader’s bunker to get Paddy Ashdown to write the article in last Friday’s Guardian was intended to shore up Clegg’s leadership. Instead, it proved counterproductive. What would have remained an issue of interest only to Radio 4 ‘Today’ listeners and political bloggers has been pushed on to the front pages. It was a stupid thing to do, and my guess is that it has served only to reinforce existing positions (whether pro- or anti-Clegg) and has changed nobody’s mind.

    Another example: close allies of the leader are in no position to complain when they are briefing journalists with false claims about possible leadership contenders going “on manoeuvres”. The so-called ‘well-placed sources’ who are spreading such stories are adding fuel to the fire and are doing the leader no favours.

    Nick Clegg needs to rebuild trust and communications with the party (and, through the party, with the electorate). The single best thing he could do to achieve this is to clear out the bunker so that it no longer bears any resemblance to Hitler’s Last Six Days. He should get rid of the rent-seekers and the juveniles, and bring in a new set of advisers with experience of winning elections, with a good understanding of and sympathy for the party, with feet on the ground, and with a life outside London SW1.

  • I think Andrew Rawnsley had it right – the most damaging thing the party has done in coalition is break the promise on tuition fees. That, and the manner of its doing , was as much if not more down to Vince Cable than Clegg – and anyone who really thinks he would be a more popular leader with former LD voters needs to open their eyes and realise what Labour would do with Vince as leader – the campaign leaflets write themselves.

    It’s more surprising that there aren’t any fresher faces showing any sings of future leadership. I do wonder if our selection processes have given us too many pygmies keen to ride on political bandwagons in Focus leaflets, and not enough capably of strategic or policy thought.

  • Andrew Suffield 2nd Sep '12 - 4:00pm

    better advice, from people who know how to fight elections and win

    Would those be the people who fought elections and won, and are hence now MPs who regularly discuss politics with Clegg and appear to be broadly supportive of him, or the people who “know how to fight elections and win” yet mysteriously didn’t get a seat?

    The biggest reason why I find this most recent variation on “Clegg needs better advisors” so unimpressive is that it always seems to be very self-serving. The desire always seems to be for Clegg’s advisors to be replaced with the speaker, the speaker’s friends, and people who are willing to agree with the speaker in order to get a share of the loot.

  • Rabi Martins 2nd Sep '12 - 4:37pm

    I really question the description of people like Lord Smith as senior members and the impression being created that he and others like him represent a majority Lib Dem Member view I am not even convinced Lord Smith is an influential member of the Lib Dem Parliamentary Party – let alone the Liberal Democrats as a whole
    His views certainly certainly do not reflect my view
    Had it not been for Nick Clegg leading us into the coalition the country would not today be enjoying the benefits of some our policies – we all know which those are
    We all also know why the Tory right is so disgrunted – It is because the Caolition Agreement prevents David Cameron implementing some of their policies which would aid the rich at the expense of the poor
    It suits the right wing media to make Nick (and the Liberal Democrats) the fall guys for decisions that are unpouplar and link any popular decisions to David Cameron and the Tories

    How sad that self professed senior LIberal Democrats like Lord Smith should be willing to damage the Liberal Democrats leader and dismiss our achievements
    The Tory Right wing is delighted Cameron torpedoed the Lords Reforms. Nick showed his commitment to the Liberal Democrats Cause by withdrawing support for the Boundary Changes The message he has sent out is – YOu can push me so far and No further

    I am by no means suggesting tht I agree with every decision Nick has taken I agree with those that ay he should have shown stronger leadership ofver tuition fees. He could for instance have given a free vote to those MPs who were not costrained by virtue of the fact that held government posts
    On the reform to the NHS I think he steered the right corse and secured a good compromise
    On the economy I am disappointed that he is not doing more to close tax avoidance for the richest individuals and corporations like Vodaphone (Come to think of it I don’t see Vince Cable doing anything on this issue either)
    But none of this diminishes my trust in Nick as the best leader we have had in recent times.

    And why do we presume if and when Nick decides to stand down Vince Cable will automatically become the next leader. Unless I am mistaken we have not changed our policy of one member one vote for the election of our leader
    Vince will doubtless be a strong contender but is by no means ceratin to get 50% plus backing of the Party faithful just because Lord Smith and his friends in the Right Wing Media say so

  • Tony Dawson 2nd Sep '12 - 4:47pm

    @Andrew Lye

    ” A divided house, FALLS.”

    So you get rid of what is (massively) dividing you?

    @Stephen Tall:

    ” a small minority (15%) of party members want Nick Clegg to stand down any time soon. The vast majority think he deserves and should be given more time.”

    That is a gross misrepresentation of the survey. Less than half of those polled thought that Nick Clegg should lead the party into the next election. Any figure less than 70 per cent for this measure of support is dire, less than 60 per cent is disastrous. ‘given more time, in that survey seems to mean ‘give him time to find the right time to go’, not ‘give him time to make us change our minds’.

    @ Gordon:

    “I do wonder if our selection processes have given us too many pygmies keen to ride on political bandwagons in Focus leaflets, and not enough capably of strategic or policy thought.”

    Perhaps we never thought they’d become MPs?

  • Tony Dawson 2nd Sep '12 - 4:49pm

    @Andrew Suffield:

    “Would those be the people who fought elections and won, ”

    How many of our present MPs do you think actually played a significant role in crafting their own victories?

  • Perhaps it is people just agreeing with Thought 2 that explains Thought 1?
    And Thought 3, some people might think it is Nick’s decision making that is the problem.

  • @Rabi

    On the reform to the NHS I think he steered the right corse [sic] and secured a good compromise

    On a subject that wasn’t even in the coalition agreement and that I remember most Lib Dems of past years fighting tooth and nail against as a policy?

    That’s not what I remember a lot of people voting Lib Dem for….

  • “better advice, from people who know how to fight elections and win

    Would those be the people who fought elections and won, and are hence now MPs ”

    Being an MP doesn’t mean you know how to fight elections and win. It probably does mean you know how to take advice from people who know how to fight elections and win.

  • @Rabi
    “But none of this diminishes my trust in Nick as the best leader we have had in recent times.”

    Why do you have this trust? Under Nick’s leadership we had returned fewer elected representatives at every level in the UK BEFORE entering into coalition. Were it not for the arithmetical quirk of a hung Parliament we’d be judging him as a fairly clear failure.

  • Tony Dawson 2nd Sep '12 - 5:42pm

    “None of us can yet know what the political climate then might be: it will hinge on the recovery in the economy.”

    Whyever would an economic recovery help the Lib Dems much, particularly in head-to-head constituency fights with Conservatives who will take (and be given by the media) much more credit for this, if it happens? As for getting Lib Dem policies into government, there have been a few (notably tax changes and pension changes) but they are grossly-outweighed in the public eye by illiberal government policies and an overall flavour of conservatism. The present position of the backwoods Tory MPs, and their success over HoL reform suggests that we’re going to get little ‘liberal’ change out of the next two years. We are in the coalition simply to ensure reasonable financial management. End of.

    I do despair about this sort of public forum posting, and indeed those (and related press articles) previously from Paddy Ashdown and Mark Valladeres. They come after the forum itself has said, loudly, that half of our members want Nick Clegg to (at best) choose his time and then go. So they are seen as a rather crude attempt to tell half the Party to shut up. This is little more than (slightly) intellectualised bullying. How would you feel if that other half of the party were to try to say the same to you? How do you think these tactics will affect people who have been biting their tongues in public up to this point?

    What I can agree with Stephen Tall about is that it would be better if Nick Clegg chose his own time to go. What I feel is ‘coming through’ though is that a sizable chunk of the Party do not trust Nick to make that decision, or those surrounding him to advise him appropriately. In that context, topics like this appear totally counterproductive. If they were attempting to suppress a dissident group of (say) 10 per cent of the party they might (just) work though it would be a bit of a gambit. If these tactics are applied in the present situation they will simply contribute to ‘upping the ante’ and may help bring about a crisis sooner rather than later.

  • Bill le Breton 2nd Sep '12 - 5:51pm

    Alex, I am not sure IQ and friendship come into it. I think experience and ‘time left on the clock’ might be more behind declarations such as Lord Oakeshott’s.

    We are facing lost years such as those experienced in Japan because we are following exactly the same policy Japan has been following since its bubble burst. As a result, there has been no growth here in the lifetime of our Coalition and none forecast for this coming year.

    In Japan over the last dozen years output has remained static, but government debt has risen from 14% to over 100% of GDP. That is what stagnation achieves.

    Such a future will intensify the debate between those who see different roles for the market and for the state.

    I think someone like Oakeshott sees what he has been campaigning for all his life threatened not just by Conservatives and Labour, but now by those setting our own economic policy. The bringing in of Laws into the Cabinet Office to strengthen Clegg’s influence on that policy makes matters more acute.

    It maybe that no matter who leads the Party in two years time it will be consigned to history, but with a change now there is a chance, both for the party to survive and prosper but also more importantly for us to use our position in the Coalition to transform that economic future.

  • Andrew Suffield 2nd Sep '12 - 6:12pm

    How many of our present MPs do you think actually played a significant role in crafting their own victories?

    Of the ones where I have specific knowledge of their campaign, which is about 10 of them, that would be all of them. I cannot comment on the others, and don’t feel inclined to extrapolate from this observation.

    However, I am inclined to doubt that it is has ever been possible for us to win a seat without a candidate investing substantial amounts of time and energy into the campaign.

    personally I think that’s a pretty miserable and unnecessary comment

    Well, personally I think that people whose contribution is some variation of “I should be in power instead” are engaging in the kind of sleazy power-grabbing politics that we really need to not have. To me, one of the biggest red flags is anybody who talks exclusively about who should be in power, and says nothing specific about what should be done with it. I think that fighting this is not only necessary, but critical, and one of my most strongly held beliefs.

  • David Allen 2nd Sep '12 - 6:19pm

    The Independent is reporting that Nick Clegg’s “friends” are blaming what they call the “Continuity SDP” for the leadership debate:

    I sincerely hope that a toxic phrase like that emanated from Clegg’s enemies, not his friends. To compare your internal opponents to an IRA splinter group is a spectacularly bad piece of abuse by any standards!

  • Tony Dawson 2nd Sep '12 - 6:26pm

    @Andrew Suffield:

    “How many of our present MPs do you think actually played a significant role in crafting their own victories?

    Of the ones where I have specific knowledge of their campaign, which is about 10 of them, that would be all of them. “

    I think you are conflating ‘time and effort’ with ‘significant input’. Hywel ‘hits it on the head’ above. The wisdom of some of our MPs is to have recognised that others are substantially better at working out how to get them elected than they would be themselves. And, in a considerable number of previously Lib Dem-held seats, ‘holding’ with a new candidate is a very different kettle of fish to ‘winning’.

  • Andrew Suffield 2nd Sep '12 - 6:32pm

    We are facing lost years such as those experienced in Japan because we are following exactly the same policy Japan has been following since its bubble burst.

    Nonsense – that’s so profoundly untrue that I can only assume you either don’t know what happened in Japan or are deliberately twisting the facts. The Japanese asset price bubble burst in 1991. Japan had falling land/house prices that gutted the balance sheets of its companies, and their policy was deficit stimulus spending in the region of 20% of GDP, which entirely failed to stimulate the economy, leaving them with a large deficit and little tax revenue. Painfully, the amount spent on failed stimulus is larger than the amount of debt they started out with, so they’d have been better off just buying it up. This policy continued until about 2000. Then a succession of weak governments made half-hearted efforts to reduce the deficit, which were very small compared to our current government’s spending cuts and they’re still running a deficit (it sat at around 7% of GDP for most of the decade).

    While there is some resemblence between this and things that happened in the US, it is nothing like the current UK situation or policy.

    In Japan over the last dozen years output has remained static, but government debt has risen from 14% to over 100% of GDP.

    This statement is true, if slightly misleading, because Japan’s public debt is around 230% of GDP.

    That is what stagnation achieves.

    But mostly, this is what ineffective deficit spending achieves.

  • Tony Dawson 2nd Sep '12 - 7:57pm

    @Mark Valladeres:

    “is it Nick that is the problem, is it the situation that we’re in, or the ideas that we’re pushing, or a combination of two or all of those things?”

    It cannot be the ideas, because I see no sign of any ideas being pushed.

    One would hope that any future leadership candidates might set out their own stall as to what is needed within the party. I would suggest that what is needed most is to actually start running a Party. A dynamic interactive campaigning organisation. Something about as far away from what we have now as Venus is from Mars.

  • 1. We Lib Dems entered a coalition with our”enemies” because that was the only long-term and fairly stable possibility following the 2010 General Election.
    2. The coalition Agreement was put together in too much haste -was there a real threat of the collapse of the markets?
    3. We should never have agreed to the Tuition fees agreement. That broken pledge tainted us from the start.If there was no other way to tackle the question of University funding we should have apologised immediately. We are suffering ever since.
    4. Liberals/Liberal Democrats were regarded as trustworthy. People could rely on us to maintain our values and principles.That trust was shattered in a matter of days.
    5. Councils that had transformed their towns – eg lLiverpool, Cardiff, Newcastle were lost. Councillors who had struggled for Liberalism for decades lost their seats. Activists who delivered our leaflets, who canvassed and organised fundraising distanced themselves from the party. It was our councillor base that ensured our continuation in the 60s and 70s. That has largely gone.
    6. Would any other leader – an M.P. after 2010- have acted differently ?

  • Bill le Breton 2nd Sep '12 - 9:25pm

    Every time the Japanese economy has begun to reach escape velocity the Bank of Japan has come along with exactly the kind of monetary tightening being conducted by the Bank of England’s MPC.
    1992 N GDP Yen 488 tn Gov Net Debt to GDP 14%
    2010 N GDP Yen 481 tn Gov Net Debt to GDP 113%

  • @Chris Rennard. “Lib Dems must this week reassure people that any changes in the NHS are in the interests of patients……[September 2011]” . Was that statement meant to be a (sick) joke? Were you being serious? If you were serious about what you are saying here then my goodness it will be no surprise when the LibDems get a serious beating come the next election. And yes I voted LibDem in order to (I thought) stop any Top-Down reorganisation of the NHS.

  • Mark Valladares. I do not know if replacing Nick Clegg would be beneficial for the LibDems or not. Is it the man, or is it the policies? I don not know. I believe, however, that the manner in which he (and other senior LibDems) embraced Conservative policies with such enthusiasm, post-election, was and had become a disaster for the LIbDems. In the eyes of the electorate you have become just another branch of Toryism.

  • Alexander Bisset 3rd Sep '12 - 12:05am

    If only we were polling at 10-15%. The last year or so we have been polling around 8-12% more typically 8-10%, its only the monthly ICM poll that puts the Lib Dems higher and is typically out of line with every other poll.

    This level of support is around half the 18-22% we polled at this period of the last parliament. This level is sufficient to lose two thirds of our MPs, and that doesn’t take into account relatively worse results in places like Scotland where the dramatic shift in support to the SNP threatens to reduce our representation to just 1 seat (Orkney & Shetland) from the current 11.

    The 10% or so level of support becomes a self fullfilling prophecy. Just as “people will vote for us if they think we could win” so the same sort of people will make the following true “people will avoid voting for us if they think we will lose”. This if true would lead to a bigger loss of vote in seats we previously won, and a possible near wipe out in terms of seats. At 10% I’d think we’d be lucky to get 10-15 seats.

    All the talk in the press defending Nick has been focused on the “difficult decisions to enter coalition for good of country & reduce deficit” line. Fair enough but this ignore the significant “you buggers lied” argument about tuition fees. Ok so the difficult decision was taken to enter coalition, one which I fully support, but seriously mishandled decisions have been taken since. Decisions that make the party and Nick in particular look really politically naive. I am thinking of course of the botched way the AV referendum & Lords reform have been handled as well of course as the monumentally bad and naive way tuition fees was handled.

    Much has been achieved in neutering the extremes of the Tory right but the general public don’t see this. Talk to non politically tuned in people and the general feeling towards the Lib Dems has changed from “nice people can’t be as bad as the other two” to “untrustworthy liars that say anything to get elected, we see their true colours now so much worse that the other two”. What’s bad about that isn’t that it’s somewhat unjust, but that it’s the narrative that rings true and will be pushed by other other parties (not necessarily overtly) at the next election.

    So whilst Nick remains leader I can’t see a change in the poll ratings nor anything but further pain for local Councillors come May. The question as I see it is “Would changing the leader be better done now or next year?” Those are the ONLY two choices, hanging on till 2015 is electoral suicide.

    As I see it Nick will definitely lose his seat next time so he has nothing to lose regardless, his student heavy seat will be easy to mobilise against him as he will be a big national target whether he is leader or not. So the question for Nick really is are you going to hang on to the bitter end and be thrown out of parliament taking large numbers of your colleagues with you, or do you give a replacement a year or two’s run at it to give them a chance to turn things around.

    For the party’s sake lets hope wiser heads prevail and he doesn’t go down taking the whole party with him.

  • “These advisers tend to fall into two categories. The first has got there by making ‘generous’ donations to the leader’s office and, while such people may understand the party, they tend to hold it in contempt. The second are 22-year-olds straight out of Oxbridge who wouldn’t recognise a Focus leaflet if you rammed it up their backsides with a stakeboard.”

    I would be interested to know whether any of our SpAds really are 22! Has anyone done a headcount of 22 year olds?

  • LibDems are a funny bunch, we’re enthusiasts, and we need to love something to get behind it.

    Right now we’re hungry, so the absence of real policy we can support is not sustaining us. In the lingo we would say we need some real meat, but we’re not such a carnivorous bunch, we’d prefer some nice quiche and cakes (chocolate, probably).

    Recently public debate seems to have moved away from traditional LibDem concerns (eg to raising voting age) and towards greater clampdowns and a generally more restrictive society. Faith in Europe has been shaken, the environment has fallen from the news agenda, anger has replaced tolerance in social relations…

    Are we sure we’re not transferring our frustrations onto our singular media personality and personification of the party?

    I’d like to hear from any critics a strong statement of the unshakable principles we should be standing up for.
    What are the tangible liberal and democratic totems around which we can rally? What do you say are the themes of our narrative? Where can we see these working in practise?

  • Bill le Breton
    Between 1992 and 2000, the Japanese launched 10 stimulus packages that included public works. The Land of the Rising Sun became the Construction State. . After the 1995 Kobe earthquake claimed thousands of lives, the focus on infrastructure was reinforced.

    Some of these projects were valuable, some risible. Japan Airlines Corp. and All Nippon Airways, which run nearly all flights within Japan, don’t even expect to fly to the Ibaraki Airport. With the Japanese turning to trains, the New Tomei Expressway seemed a waste.
    The spending yielded painfully little for the rest of the economy.
    This doesn’t bode well for those calling on more infrastructure spending in Britain.

  • Bill le Breton 3rd Sep '12 - 8:35am

    Manfarang, my point has always been that if the central bank in Japan insists on tight moneytary policy and keeping inflation close to 0% as it has no amount of fiscal stimulus will be effective in achieving anything other than encouraging the central bank to tighten further to offset the fiscal effect.

    At present the Bank of England is targeting the 2 year forecast for inflation at 1.5% i.e. not even the target 2% reaffirmed by the Quad this spring.

    Fiscal tightening and passive monetary tightening as the UK has followed since 2010 – bringing NGDP growth down from 5% to 1.7% (Q2 annualized) – is derelict policy from the GOvernor, the MPC, the Treasury and the Quad.

    This has left UK NGDP 15% below that which the 2007 trend rate would have delivered … which is why the deficit/GDP situation is not what was predicted by Cameron/Osborne/Clegg and Alexander. So since we came into GOvernment when NGDP growth was 5% we have lost unnecessarily a huge chunk of potential GDP, that is jobs, life chances and lives. It also strengthens the arm of those who want more austerity, tighter money (higher interest rates). Just what Japan has been doing.

    To speak of fiscal policy without reference to monetary policy is what has got us into this mess. I think that Cable knows this and so does Oakeshott. Bringing Laws into Government is a way of bolstering Clegg’s slim grasp of economics and will reinforce that derelict policy.

    It is a function of Clegg’s continuing paranoia about Cable. And not what our country and our Party needs.

  • Alexander Bisset – One of the biggest questions psephologically is about the ICM poll. And also YouGov. Since daily YouGov monitoring polls, which have historically showed misleadingly low ratings for Lib Dems, averages have been depressed, which has cast doubt over the traditionally more accurate (for Lib Dems) ICM. For the party that difference at the moment is pretty critical, because it might make the difference in the way it wants to jump on the issues discussed here.

    Personally I find it difficult to believe that we are at 8%, or for most electoral purposes at around the level of UKIP, but equally I believe 15% seems rather high. The “feel” is all wrong to compare us with 2003 or 2007 say. Those who wish to compare us with “Ashdown’s asterisk” are profoundly underestimating the party’s and supporters’ wish to get a third, Liberal and Democratic party under way again at that disruptive period at the time of the Owen split. Having been at the Eastbourne byelection, 1990, which arguably acted as the direct trigger of Thatcher’s fall, I know that the enthusiasm could not be replicated now. So, activist passion will not be there to turn any percentage in the polls into a 50% higher rating by the time of the election, which Lib Dems need to get MPs elected.

    So, say realistically, we are at around 11 or 12%, which even assuming that stays constant till GE time, could only be raised by around 2% on optimistic assumptions by activity levels, and adding a few incumbents. All MPs are subject to pressures to stand down if they don’t think they will win, so it is highly likely that some potential winning incumbents will do so, leaving a smaller “incumbency bonus” of additional seats. So assuming the party fights as a unity in 2015, under current leadership and policy, that would imply a range of maybe 6 – 30 MPs. So many unknowns can creep in, but it is not credible to predict more than half the incumbents remaining – those who in one way or another have differentiated themselves locally will have the best chances, of course.

    In terms of what to do, anything effective will need to be done quickly to head off accusations of “just saving our skins”. Again, making NC a scapegoat, when it is “other senior members of the party” who agreed the strategic lines which have brought us to where we are. There would, I am sure be credible people there who could take us in a more mainstream Lib Dem direction, in answer to those who say “Who?” But it would be sure as eggs are eggs they would not survive if revealed now!

  • Bill le Breton 3rd Sep '12 - 9:13am

    I have just done a back of the envelope calculation. Coalition economic policy has cost this country £750 billion in lost output since summer 2010. That’s a lot of taxes that could have been cut to stimulate enterprise and emplyment. It is a lot of services to the vulnerable that could have been protected. In fact someone could calculate how many students it could have got through higher education at 0 fees.

  • I was one of the “now is not the right time” brigade. Its harder and harder to sustain that. As for the idea Nick must choose the timing, what an odd notion more suited to North Korea than UK politics.

  • Bill,
    could you explain where you see the ‘lost’ output in the economy?

    You seem to imply the GDP falls are the result of mismanagement and could be regained easily, rather than that this is an ongoing consequence earlier mismanagement, which precipitated the financial crisis during and after 2008 (before the coalition was formed) when Labour’s unsustainable investment model was uncovered.

    Also I don’t understand why you think the jobs maket needs significant additional stimulus after it added net 200,000 jobs in the most recent quarter. Surely this suggests massive economic restructuring to cope with the new reality of less freely available credit.

  • @Bill le Breton
    “This has left UK NGDP 15% below that which the 2007 trend rate would have delivered ”
    “I have just done a back of the envelope calculation. Coalition economic policy has cost this country £750 billion in lost output since summer 2010.”

    This is totally wrong. Do you not realise that the pre 2007 trend rate was totally unsustainable, based as it was on spending the whole next ten years’ growth in advance by building up private and public debt? Your whole calculation seems to be based on a false premise that growth is just somehow just going to revert to an imaginary trend line.

    To ascribe the state of the economy to Coalition policy is a totally erroneous reading of current economic figures.

    Take Q2 2012 GDP. The contributions to that were as follows:

    Government: 0.0%
    Consumption: -0.2%
    Investment: +0.7%
    Net trade: -1.0%

    Total: -0.5%

    Without net trade pulling us down, in the last quarter growth would have been 0.5% i.e. 2.0% a year. Excluding the Jubilee effect, generally estimated at 0.5%, that becomes 1.0% a quarter i.e. . 4.0% a year.

    If it is net trade not fiscal policy that is dragging down GDP growth, how can you possibly make the claims you do?

  • Bill le Breton 3rd Sep '12 - 11:08am

    The 5% trend rate of growth in NGDP was not only in the few years leading up to 2008. It was sustained over a long period. And was so, because the Bank of England was targeting that 5% growth. The markets, the entrepreneurs knew what the level of aggregate demand was going to be next year – 5% and could plan accordingly.

    Markets and entrepreneurs knew that if AD began to exceed that figure monetary policy would be tightened. (That the Bank of England changed (under King and ratified by Brown) to a target that did not factor in property asset inflation does not weaken the argument for returning to NGDP targeting.)

    Which is why I argue that there is nothing but our own inappropriate monetary policy stopping us returning to that trend growth rate for NGDP. In fact under Darling the 5% rate was regained by the spring of 2010.

    Hence my assertion for the lost output since then.

    The reduction in NGDP resulted from our policy of communicating very forcefully that we were going to increase the speed of deficit reduction without a complementary easing of monetary policy. And later by the drop off in export markets.

    Markets here and entrepreneurs did the maths – AD would decline, investment projects would be less viable. Stash the cash. Ditto the commercial banks could see from the same figures that many of the investment projects put forward by more adventurous clients would no longer be viable, despite their client’s optimism.

    My understanding is that the latest annualized figures for NGDP are + 1.7% annualised, Real GDP – 1.6%. And the prospects remain bleak.

    Hope this answers some of your concerns with my thinking.

  • @ Bill le Breton

    Still you persist!

    “Which is why I argue that there is nothing but our own inappropriate monetary policy stopping us returning to that trend growth rate for NGDP. In fact under Darling the 5% rate was regained by the spring of 2010.Hence my assertion for the lost output since then.”

    The WHOLE POINT about nominal gross domestic product is the split between inflation and real output. Unless you have low inflation, it is utterly futile to talk about it.

    Since 2010, the GDP deflator has been consistently higher than projected because of high oil, food and other commodity prices. These are determined fundamentally by the international markets and are not under the control of government policy. This means the share of NGDP that is left over for real growth GDP has been correspondingly reduced. This is what has held back real GDP growth, not government policy.

    In previous recessions, these prices have fallen back in response to lower demand from western countries, allowing their economies to revive. However, this time round, demand from emerging economies has meant this has not happened. Oil and food prices have remained high, with the result that consumers have been squeezed by the high cost of basic items, while industry has received little boost from lower input prices.

    I am surprised that concept of the difference between nominal and real GDP seems to have passed you by.

  • Bill le Breton 3rd Sep '12 - 12:23pm

    RC, I am happy to trade ideas but not insults. I am quite aware of the make up of NGDP/AD, which is why it seems to me to be a more useful description than Real GDP – the way it avoids the money illusion.

    Level Targeting deals with those times when cost inflation takes the figure over the target. I refer to government policy only in the sense that it is ultimately responsible for giving once-a-year the MPC its target. Let us continue to call it the UK’s monetary policy, as managed on behalf of the Quad by the Bank’s MPC.

    Why is NGDP so low (especially given the persistent size of the deflator) if not because monetary policy is too tight?
    Do you agree with these figures for Q2 2012: NGDP 1.7% Deflator 3.4 RGDP -1.6.

    If the monetary authority did or communicated with conviction that it would do everything in its power until NGDP reached 5% ie open ended QE until the target is reached (and let us assume deflator remains 3.4) what would RGDP be?

  • David Allen 3rd Sep '12 - 12:53pm

    Mark Valladares said:

    “My article is an attempt to make the point that simply getting rid of the leader is not enough, you have to be clear about what you want to do instead. …if we decide that Nick must go, it’s no good then sitting around asking ‘what do we do next?’. … If you believe that Nick is a liability, and clearly some people do, then you have to have a clear idea what removing him is intended to achieve.”

    Perfectly fair point, provided it is not just a rhetorical question, designed to encourage us all to cling to Nurse for fear of something worse.

    Mark, I did write a considered response to the question, and it might surprise you. Although I think the Clegg coup was a disaster for our party and that we need to reverse it, I also concluded that it would be premature for him to go now, when his removal would not achieve the things we would want to achieve. If you are serious in asking the question, then perhaps you could read my response and comment on it? Thanks. The response is at:

  • Yellow Bill 3rd Sep '12 - 1:36pm

    Getting back to the subject

    Why get rid of Clegg? As leader of the Lib Dems he oversaw the desertion of our principles and party ethic in order to gain cabinet posts. The chickens came home to roost when the general public (who by and large held us in higher regard than the other two parties) began thinking of us as no better than Labour or the Tories.

    Let Clegg stay on as Deputy PM, it is a poisoned chalice which would not enhance the standing of anyone to whom it was passed. His resigning as Leader of the Lib Dems will be the (very small) first step on the road to electoral recovery

  • @Yellow Bill
    sounds like you want to cut off your nose to spite your face.

    I completely disagree that Clegg ‘oversaw the desertion of our principles’, rather he faced the dilemma that our principles could be applied in two different, conflicting ways.

    The NUS pledge was impossible to honour in full because it was a mish-mash of a direct demand and a general requirement – and if we satisfied one we’d be preventing the other.

    Unless we became the largest party overall (which was always improbable) we were always going to get hounded to the hills for signing it and failing to implement it in full, yet we couldn’t refuse to sign it because party strategy was to appeal to the student vote and many of our seats are in university areas. We were a hostage to fortune with the odds fixed against us.

    In the end we’ve given the NUS almost exactly what they wanted in a modified graduate tax, despite such voluble negativity. You’d think they’d be happy for such a significant achievement.

    Frankly the NUS behaved disgracefully and caused massive damage to it’s reputation as a constructive force in education policy. Though it’s not really surprising considering turnout for student elections rarely gets into double figures. Can you name any current student leader?

  • “Cameron has told colleagues that Mr Clegg and Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, are among the most Right-wing Lib Dems the party has seen in recent years “and that they must be protected from criticism. – Telegraph

    A full -blown Lib Dem/ Tory merger on the cards?

  • Peter Watson 3rd Sep '12 - 2:52pm

    Even if I accepted the notion that we have delivered the graduate tax that the NUS wanted (which I don’t because we haven’t), then I don’t think that it’s much of a defence for Lib Dems charged with breaking a pledge to claim that their honour is intact and they were merely stu pid to make the promise in the first place.
    Besides which, why do you think it is impossible for an MP to honour both parts of a “pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative”?

  • @Oranjepan
    “In the end we’ve given the NUS almost exactly what they wanted in a modified graduate tax, despite such voluble negativity. ”

    Tuition fees are:
    (a) Fees – they total repaid is linked to the cost of the course
    (b) Regressive above middle incomes – higher earning graduates pay less as a proportion of their income.

    A graduate tax, as advocated by the NUS,is:
    (a) A tax – it is related to the ability to pay and has nothing to do with the cost of the course
    (b) Is progressive across all incomes.

  • @Peter
    Reading through my previous comment I also don’t see that I made any such defence.

    The ‘fairer alternative’ on HE funding, given the combination of HE funding crisis and financial crisis, had to include a greater element of fee-paying by students in order to reflect and balance the massive increases in entry numbers. The situation found that the two parts of the pledge were inconsistent. Ideally not, but the context created a requirement.

    So in the first instance you make a false claim and in the second you answer your own question.

  • @ Orangepan”The NUS pledge was impossible to honour” ? If so why did we make it? If the party strategy was to sign a personal pledge to win university seats knowing that we couldn’t deliver What sort of leadership is that?
    If this were the case then our leader would compounded blatent (and transparent) dishonesty with catastrophic political judgement. My local paper even has a Tory letter blaming us for the Tuition fees hike.
    Sorry to go on about it but it’s only that I knock doors and joe public remembers it.

  • It doesn’t really matter that the way the guaranteed loans for student fees is administered is similar to a (slightly regressive) graduate tax. Many, many people do not think about it for long enough to see this. They see fees, they do not read or perhaps trust the small print.
    This has been a disaster for the Party by providing a totally negative context to the tough decisions of government. There is no sympathy or credibility amongst many people who may otherwise have tolerated the Party’s support for a Tory-led government. The main loss has been amongst the young, and whilst their turn-out is low their media impact is far greater. The media sets the political mood for a lot of people not interested in politics but still vote.
    The decisions on this one, to renege on the such a clear pledge to such a significant section of the population, when the result was so similar in practice to what had been promised, could probably have benefitted from some better advice.

  • @BrianD
    “…in full”. If you read and quoted the comment – in full – you’d see this. Meantime, because you didn’t, you make yourself look like a fool.

    That’s meant to provide more cadence rather than sound aggressive, and as another canvasser I hear similar things, so I find it’s important to quickly filter between those with constructive intent, neutrals, and the naive, in order to prevent myself sounding like one.

  • Actually, the issue of tuition fees is a lot simpler than the leadership’s apologists like to make out.

    Obviously there are two separate issues involved: (1) the split of funding between graduate payments and general taxation and (2) the fairness of the graduate payment scheme,

    Quite obviously it would have been possible to vote against an increase in graduate payments as against general taxation AND to reform the graduate payment scheme to make it more progressive. The argument that an increase in graduate payments was inevitable is extremely strange, considering that Lib Dem policy was to abolish graduate payments altogether and fund the universities wholly from general taxation.

    I’m not sure which is worse – to say that the party’s manifesto policy was impossible to carry out, or to say that the party’s parliamentary candidates signed promises that they knew they would be unable to keep. Sadly, the party loyalists seem to be telling us both these things are true. Depressing.

  • @ Bill le Breton

    I merely expressed exasperation. I did not insult you.

    The reason why money GDP isn’t growing is because consumers are deleveraging i.e. paying off debts, while businesses are hoarding cash. There are some things the government can do about this but with a massive financial crisis looming over us in the form of the Eurozone and huge uncertainty about the global economy, these are not normal times (certainly not comparable with pre 2007) and to a great extent any monetary policy initiative is “pushing on a string” and so offers limited effectiveness.

    @ Orangepan”The NUS pledge was impossible to honour” ? If so why did we make it?”

    We have to accept that it simply wasn’t deliverable. We as a party fouled up, mainly because we are so used to not having to reckon with the realities of being in power. This was a huge mistake.

    Where we went wrong was in not apologising soon enough and explaining why it could not be honoured. Nick Clegg should have gone on TV immediately after the Coalition agreement was signed and issued an apology and explanation to the country – that there was no money to implement it and that the Tories would not agree to raising the taxes that would have been required to fund it, which is the fundamental truth. It was the largest concession we had to make in going into power and the most difficult one.

    Leaving this to fester behind the scenes like this, unexplained, is what has done us huge damage.

  • “A full blown Lib-Dem Tory merger on the cards” This would not be the decision of Clegg or Alexander butof the total membership of the Lib Dems. The result of the vote – I could be a percentage point out – IN FAVOUR OF MERGER .3%, anti-merger 98%, Uncertain 1.7% ! Not sure who composes the point three % !

  • George Miles 3rd Sep '12 - 4:25pm

    If the votes at the next Westminster Election suggest a Labour/LibDem coalition then I guess the first Labour demand would be for a new Libdem leader not tainted by Camerooning (as the LibDems demanded Gordon Brown resign as Labour Leader for a coalition at the last election)

  • I’m surprised how few people have remembered that Oakeshott was one of Huhne’s key cheerleaders in the leadership election. I remember a conference debate between Clegg and Huhne when Ming was leader, and Oakeshott loudly started a round of applause every time Huhne spoke. He clearly has always begrudged Clegg his victory over Chris, and is doing his best to stick a knife in now he can.

  • Bill le Breton 3rd Sep '12 - 5:40pm

    RC, ah! if you had just said that you believe that at the zero-bound monetary policy is pushing on a string, we could easily have agreed to disagree. I know some people hold that view. To me it is a canard. If you believe that then why argue against QE. Surely all we have to do is buy up all the assets in the UK with QE. It would be just pushing on a string and have no affect at all!

  • Peter Watson 3rd Sep '12 - 7:24pm

    I apologise for implying you think our candidates were stu pid. But you do believe that Lib Dem candidates signed up to a pledge which “was impossible to honour in full because it was a mish-mash of a direct demand and a general requirement – and if we satisfied one we’d be preventing the other.”, so do you believe that was foolish, dishonest, or is there another excuse which would make Lib Dems worth voting for? One tory MP at least had the sense to modify the pledge before he signed it for the photographers.
    Equally, even with the economic backdrop at the time, our manifesto stated that we would, “Scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree, including those studying part-time, saving them over £10,000 each. We have a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, so that the change is affordable even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university income. We will immediately scrap fees for final year students.” So we campaigned on the basis that phasing out tuition fees was affordable.
    Individual candidates pledged to vote against increasing fees and to press government for a fairer alternative. As a party we opposed (and confusingly still oppose) tuition fees in principle. So regardless of the merits of the system that has been introduced, the party has not been consistent and must have been wrong before, wrong now, or both. On this one issue the party looks dishonest and incompetent; at least a coherent story from Clegg et al would allow us to choose to be one or the other.

  • oranjepan

    yet we couldn’t refuse to sign it because party strategy was to appeal to the student vote and many of our seats are in university areas……….

    But the problem was that the party portrayed itself as being above this sort of approach throughout the election – that the party was going to have a new try at a new politics – is it any wonder that if the party really was just buying some votes its getting a massive kick back from the electorate.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Sep '12 - 12:00pm

    I have written this so many times, but once again …

    Clegg made the basic mistake at the start of letting the idea grow that the Coalition was some sort of ideological choice in which the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives would be equal partners in a government whose core policy would be “economic liberalism”. While he might not have put it that way himself, others did and he made no move to slap them down. Rather, so much of what has come out from Liberal Democrat Head Office seems designed to confirm the attacks on our party being made by almost all politically active people on the left who are not still active members of the Liberal Democrats. These attacks are all nonsense – there really was no way a government not led by the Conservatives could have been formed in 2010 (and if there were, then why doesn’t Miliband offer it now?), and with our number of MPs in the coalition our only real influence is to counter-balance the extreme right-wing of the Conservative Party – it just is not possible to get the bulk of Tory MPs voting for any Liberal Democrat policy that does not have at least a fair amount of support amongst the Conservatives. However, when I try to defend our position I feel as Geoffrey Howe put it – like going out to the crease only to find your bats have been broken by the team captain.

    We ought to have been let off the hook of being accused of “jumping into bed with the Conservatives” by the mere arithmetical fact that there was no alternative, and we ought to have been able to counter accusations of our weakness in the Coalition by pointing out it is due to an electoral system that Labour and the Conservative Party support for very reason that it makes us weak. So we should have been able to put out the line “If you don’t like what you see, next time, don’t vote for it”. However, we lost all this by the silly idea that if we pretended to very strong in the coalition, people would be impressed by that.

    The other big mistake was to give the impression we had been converted to the Conservative Party’s economic policy. The ideas was allowed to grow that it would work, turn the economy round, and we would benefit in 2015 from having been involved with it. We should have had the courage of our conviction to stick with the attacks we made on it in 2010 – since what we said then is now being said by many industrialists and others who in 2010 were all for the Conservatives’ policy of rapid cuts. Instead of saying “me too” to the Conservatives economic policy once the coalition was formed, we should have said “They won the election, we are letting them get on with it, we’ll see how it works out, and you the people can be the judge in the next election”. I’m not saying from within the Coalition we should have been making outright attacks on all of it, but we should have laid the ground for us to be able to say “Look, it isn’t working as we told you in the general election it wouldn’t”.

    The problem is now that with all the attacks on us from the left which do not acknowledge the real position we faced after the general election and are based on the fantasy notion that somehow a left-wing government could have emerged, I feel forced to give some loyalty to Clegg because to do otherwise would be seen as accepting those attacks, which I do not.

  • Liberal Eye 4th Sep '12 - 2:13pm

    Stephen’s third thought (“If there is ever a right time [to go] it needs to be Nick’s decision”) accurately reflects the long held attitude of Lib Dems to their leaders.

    As a matter of party culture rather than constitution (I stand to be corrected if this is wrong) we are very defferential towards them and only in extremis are leaders persuaded to tender their resignation. Even then it can remain their own decision since, as I understand it, removal of the leader requires a vote of members to appoint someone else so a popular leader could conceivably appeal over the heads of MPs to the armchair membership and win.

    This is surely wrong. We have been lucky so far to have had leaders who are decent people but it is not necessarily so. Politics disproportionately attracts carpetbagggers, sociopaths, narcissists and the like. So we should be prepared – and have the necessary constitutional mechanisms – to summarily evict leaders who are past their sell-by date (eg Thatcher) or who are revealed to be not up to the job (Brown). The party does NOT in any sense owe them a sinecure.

  • David Pollard 8th Sep '12 - 10:47am

    Nick really ought to apologise for signing that pledge and he must promise never to do it again. I still believe that if he does that, the electorate will forgive him. Everyone is entitled to one mistake.

  • Peter Watson 8th Sep '12 - 11:12am

    @David Pollard
    Was the tuition fees debacle his only mistake or just the first?

    Besides which, I think it is too late for nothing more than an apology. And what would he apologise for? Making a pledge that was consistent with our manifesto but choosing to ignore it? Introducing a system which he has claimed is better? Failing to communicate adequately? Allowing distinctions to become blurred between what he says and what he means?

    Tuition fees is an issue that was debated heatedly at the time, and explored from every angle. Clegg and many of our MPs chose to break a promise, either because it was made in poor faith or foolishly. It would not be enough for Clegg to raise his hands and simply say ‘mea culpa‘.

  • Nick’s (and Vince’s come to that) big failing on fees is explained by that quote of Sir Humprhey’s:
    “If you must do this damn fool thing, please don’t do it in this damn fool way”

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