Opinion: A change of leader will make no difference. A change of heart and pride just might.

RomseyAs a young, recently-selected Lib Dem candidate for next year’s general election and in a winnable marginal seat, I’m rather more interested in what my fellow voters think – over 70,000 of them in my area – than a small number of disaffected Party members looking for a scapegoat after recent election results.

Standing in an area which includes smart middle-class patches as well as tougher urban ones, I’ve spent the past few weeks meeting hundreds of constituents. The words ‘Nick Clegg’ have been mentioned about three times. Nobody I’ve met really seems to mind who the leader is. They DO mind that the Lib Dems are no longer clear enough about what we stand for and that we once appeared human but increasingly sound like political robots.

These are the concerns which I want to address in my area and, quite frankly, I fail to see how shunting a couple of blokes around in London will help. All possible candidates are tainted by the blurred identity of Coalition Government, in the same way that they all share credit for its achievements. Those to the left or right of Nick would lose us as many votes as they would gain us. Those who have spoken up against the Government would turn away voters impressed by the maturity of Coalition politics (and I’ve met many) as much as they would bring others in.

What I’ve always hated about politics – and I know many voters agree – is the petty infighting which for many years has characterised the Labour and Conservative camps. My plea to fellow Lib Dems is that we avoid going down that path, which I believe would lose us far more support than any particular Party Leader ever could (or has). We have proved, despite last week’s disappointing results, that we can still win where we are united and hardworking. That, and a confident response to voters’ concerns about what we really stand for, has surely to be our ethos for the 2015 election campaign.

None of this is to say that I don’t recognise the concerns expressed by my colleagues as well. I’m as devastated as anyone about the decimation our party experienced last week. Locally we lost one of our most hardworking councillors, a woman who has campaigned tirelessly for her ward. We sit in the only region to maintain a Lib Dem MEP and yet we saw our vote share drop even in some of our traditional heartlands. To get that back, we must unite, work hard and sound like humans again. What we mustn’t do is squabble and navel-gaze all summer when we could be out listening to people and getting stuff done.

Someone asked me recently why I’m a Lib Dem. It’s because I believe in freedom, in equality, in a decent chance for every child. It’s because I believe in protecting the environment, in international cooperation, in a supportive but submissive state. It’s because I believe that liberalism really is the solution to many of society’s most entrenched problems. I want to shout about that from the rooftops and this is my challenge to my fellow party members.

We have to stop bickering with each other, get out and tell people what being a Liberal Democrat means and, if we manage to say it in language that doesn’t sound like we’ve spent our whole lives cooped up in Westminster (which most of us haven’t), we might just get somewhere.

* Ben Nicholls is PPC for Romsey and Southampton North. He works in education and runs the youth theatre charity RicNic.

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36 Comments

  • Joshua Dixon 27th May '14 - 5:35pm

    “than a small number of disaffected Party members looking for a scapegoat after recent election results.” I did not read on after this. I just hope you don’t hold as much contempt for your constituents as you do for fellow party members.

  • Radical Liberal 27th May '14 - 5:37pm

    ”They DO mind that the Lib Dems are no longer clear enough about what we stand for and that we once appeared human but increasingly sound like political robots.”

    Yet you don’t think this has anything to do with Clegg?? He is the leader after all. Also the way you dismiss activists and members who have serious concerns about Clegg is unacceptable. I hope many refuse to now campaign for you.

  • Radical Liberal 27th May '14 - 5:39pm

    ”We have proved, despite last week’s disappointing results, that we can still win where we are united and hardworking”

    So all those of you who lost you just didn’t work hard enough. It’s like reading a HQ press release.

  • Shaun Nichols 27th May '14 - 5:44pm

    I think these election results DESERVE someone be held to account.

    Clearly, one thing you don’t believe in is for party members having an open and adult discussion about the FACTS of this and other elections under Nick Clegg’s leadership. It is self-evident that the voters are not backing the Lib Dems with Nick in charge.

  • Ben Nicholls 27th May '14 - 5:48pm

    @Joshua – if you do have time to read on, you’ll see that I say how much I share the concerns of fellow party members – I just disagree with them on how to fix it. @Radical Liberal, I deliberately used the words ‘can still win’, not ‘will always win’. One of our very best councillors lost in Southampton after working phenomenally hard for four years and all through the campaign. I share the devastation – just don’t seem to agree on how we should move from here.

  • Martin Land 27th May '14 - 5:50pm

    Speaking as a campaigner who had very good election results last week I can assure you this was very much in spite of Nick Clegg.

  • Bill le Breton 27th May '14 - 5:57pm

    I take it then that you won’t want to use Sandra in any of you campaigning material or ask her to speak for you at any rallies.

    Here is a piece of advice, remember trust comes on foot and leaves on horseback. It is a piece of advice nick Clegg was never given, alas.

  • Radical Liberal 27th May '14 - 6:02pm

    Good point Bill. I wonder why this candidate has turned on the former Lib Dem MP for this area. Its bizarre. I wonder if the local press will notice it….

  • Ben, right on the money. In Eastleigh, Winchester and Romsey we have great prospects to win in 2015. We should be getting on with the hard work. This leadership debate is very damaging. It will do nothing for our election prospects.

  • “They DO mind that the Lib Dems are no longer clear enough about what we stand for and that we once appeared human but increasingly sound like political robots.”

    How many Lib Dems do you think people in the public at large can name? The idea that the party leader isn’t the one responsible for this shift in perception is bizarre to say the least. Parties are judged by the public, to a large extent, on the basis of their leader; the perception of the party will not improve until Clegg is gone.

  • Maggie Smith 27th May '14 - 6:18pm

    The more I read on here the more I realise that sometimes people would do better saying nothing.

    This is one of those pieces that really is going to make it all worse.

    I know how I would feel losing my seat and being told those who worked hard won.

    Surely in any group of adults (although I am beginning to seriously wonder) you can find some way of congratulating your winners (actually let’s call them survivors) and trying to put a gloss on the loss without totally kicking down those who lost through what seems like no real fault of their own?

    Is management and diplomacy that thin on the ground here?

  • @ Ben Nicholls

    Generally I believe that comments on internal party disputes should be conducted on the private side of Liberal Democrat Voice. I am afraid that your piece is provocative enough to cause me to lose my sense of self discipline on this matter. For five years in the early eighties I campaigned in northern Southampton. Every year since then I have contributed to their campaign funds. Adrian Vinson has represented the area for thirty years. He led the Council from the difficult position of minority control, he organised the delightful open area theatre performances at Netley. I am convinced he did not lose because he does not sound like a human being. Rather I put it to you that had only Clegg/Cable stood by the pledge on tuition fees they gave to the electorate in 2010 he would still be representing Portswood Ward today. As it is we now have the same number of councillors in Southampton we had in 1925 ie zero.

  • Ben Nicholls 27th May '14 - 6:37pm

    Richard – I agree that did a huge amount of damage, but I still don’t think that changing leader would help. I have nothing but respect for Adrian. Of course many many people lost who had worked very hard indeed and this is devastating – but I think changing leader would still so more harm than good on balance.

  • Battered and bruised?

    So here we are, paper cuts from leaflets, nipped fingers by dogs through letter boxes, sworn at by UKIP supporters and that’s just me! Our local party chair even managed to break his ankle after slipping on glossy leaflets whilst delivering

    Are we beaten? I shout with the loudest voice I can NO !

    The vast bulk of voters, even UKIP ones want us to stay in Europe. They may not have voted for us but the policy is right.

    We need to bounce back and bounce back quick and fiercely. In this world of 24hr news we can not afford to spend a single second idle.

    We must get back to delivering focuses, to tweeting sound bites, to fighting the fight.

    We know that our liberal view is right for Britain.

    We lost an election, but if we don’t fight back we will loose the war! So let’s all dust ourselves off and get back to doing what we all do so well.

  • I have not yet seen Nick Clegg’s defenders put forward the single most convincing argument for retaining Nick Clegg as leader. As they have made this curious omission, I feel obliged to make it good.
    Nick Clegg and his ministerial allies are in the position of having two power bases: one in the Liberal Democrats, and one in the support and good will of David Cameron and the other Tory ministers. Should one base appear to be getting soft, there’s every reason for them to jump to the other.
    There is precedent for this. Austen Chamberlain stuck by his colleagues in the Lloyd George ministry even after the rest of the Conservatives deserted it in 1922. Ramsay MacDonald was ousted by Labour for allying with Tory ministers in the National Government of 1931. About the same time John Simon and his Liberal Nationals broke with the Liberals to support the Tory-dominated government, in which Simon served as Foreign Secretary.
    Given these precedents, it seems reasonable to be concerned about whether, if Clegg were to be given the sack, he might not retaliate by ratting to the Tories, and most likely taking several of his colleagues with him; or, perhaps more likely, but with the same effect, forming a Tory-aligned independent group, or even a new party — shall we say, the Conservative Democrats.
    In light of the possibility that Clegg could defect and take a significant portion of the Lib Dem MPs with him, perhaps there’s a case to be made for complete inaction, and simply silently and fecklessly (or “resiliently,” as they like to say) accepting future losses as inevitable. After all, Clegg is bound to step down by 2020, and the Party’s four remaining MPs will know what to do then.

  • Ben. Replacing Sir Anthony Eden as Prime Minister helped the tories put the Suez fiasco behind them. Replacing Margaret Thatcher with John Major helped them put the poll tax fiasco behind them. Replacing Nick Clegg with one of the twenty MPs who stood by their tuition fee pledge will help the Liberal Democrats demonstrate that they do care about integrity in politics once again. We can’t get our message across unless people are prepared to trust us enough to listen.

  • Little Jackie Paper 27th May '14 - 7:14pm

    Barry Holliday – ‘The vast bulk of voters, even UKIP ones want us to stay in Europe. They may not have voted for us but the policy is right.’

    Out of pure interest, can you elaborate on this?

  • When a business loses two thirds of its customers the Chief Executive’s position must be seriously considered. People are not buying Lib Dem policies no matter how nice we, those who won’t shop elsewhere, think they look in the window yet the leader shows no sign of having a clue how to get the customers back. So, IMO, the leader must grow a backbone and start making robust changes to how the party operates in Government, or get out of the way. Discussing this isn’t disloyal, nor bickering, nor in-fighting, it is probability of oblivion driving a need for decisive action. Parties hitting 35% should be worried about internal debates on leadership and direction; they could lose the casual voters. Parties on 6% are already down to the diehards and need those debates before they completely disintegrate.

  • What Richard says…

  • Nich Starling 27th May '14 - 9:16pm

    The argument that anyone who signs a petition against Clegg is somehow sat there with their feet up and not campaigning is deeply unfair and so wide of the mark as to be out of touch with the party as a whole. I looked through the list and found names of many people’d I’ve known in the Lib Dems for 20+ years, in good times and bad, some ex party employees, some ex council leaders, but essentially a large group of dedicated campaigners.

    I signed the petition because of the reasons you highlighted. That is , to quote you

    “They DO mind that the Lib Dems are no longer clear enough about what we stand for and that we once appeared human but increasingly sound like political robots.”

    And why do they think this ? Who is our lead spokesman, the man who sets our direction, the person who is the face of our party ? Indeed, that’s why I signed. Clegg has failed to deal with this perception because although he speaks on these things, the public don’t listen and don’t trust him, and why should they. I don’t !

  • Ben, what planet are you on. The leader is such damaged goods, the publics perception of him and us is very poor.
    You are playing games and should feel very guilty about that. You are trying to encourage the party to be led by a lame duck until the gereral next year, if that happens I will not send any more mopney to the party.

  • Tony Dawson 27th May '14 - 9:53pm

    @Ben Nicholls

    “I think changing leader would still so more harm than good on baa nice man and a lance.”

    This sounds like a quasi-religious statement.

    Our party is toxically-tainted by a Leader who every survey shows makes IDS and Michael Foot both seem highly-popular and whose political judgement fails at every opportunity that is offered. He happens to be a nice man and a reasonably-able administrator. That is not the job.

    You currently stand as much chance of winning Romsey with Nick Clegg leading the party as Ken Dodd stands of winning the Eurovision song contest. Now, you may not win it without him. But at least give your team a chance.

  • It is good that Ben has spent the last few weeks meeting hundreds of “constituents”. If he was doing this in the Test Valley Council area for every Lib Dem voter he spoke to you he spoke to three Labour ones, three Green ones, 11 UKip voters and 12 Conservative ones. I am really surprised that no one mentioned trust and Nick Clegg to him.

    ”We have proved, despite last week’s disappointing results, that we can still win where we are united and hardworking” So Ben is saying that his Local Party is disunited and a bunch of slackers because they achieved less than 10% of the vote.

    I can tell him that as a candidate I share no credit for going into coalition nor for its achievements or errors. If I had gone to the special conference then I would share some credit and blame for going into coalition, but no credit or blame for what this government has done. I would need to have been an MP who voted for or against what the coalition did to share in its credit or blame. I helped Sandra get elected in 2000 but I will not be going to Romsey next year to help Ben.

  • Sorry it should have read – “ If he was doing this in the Test Valley Council area for every 3 Lib Dem voters he spoke to, he spoke to three Labour ones, three Green ones, 11 UKip voters and 12 Conservative ones.”

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th May '14 - 6:28am

    Joshua Dixon

    “than a small number of disaffected Party members looking for a scapegoat after recent election results.” I did not read on after this. I just hope you don’t hold as much contempt for your constituents as you do for fellow party members

    Well put.

    While we are seeing a lot of purely negative Clegg-bashing, I don’t see it coming from people who are members of the party. People who are members of the party and want Clegg to go are mostly putting time and effort into explaining why. Very few of them are saying it was an outright mistake to join the coalition in the fist place. There’s something of a debate over whether Clegg could have got more out of the coalition, but I think most members have the maturity and political experience to realise that the line that is often coming from outside, that Clegg could have said “jump” and all 300 or so Tory MPs would have jumped over and supported any LibDem policy he proposed, is completely unrealistic. Most of us can see that compromises were necessary, and inevitably they mean reluctant agreement to things we wouldn’t want if we had it all our own way.

    Clegg has undermined us and the defence we would be willing to give him and the coalition by the way he has handled it. This involves two things. First., just looking too pleased with himself, not making it clear that so much of what comes out from this government is agreed by us only reluctantly, over-exaggerating the role we can have, so making us look far more responsible for these Tory policies than is the case. Second, showing a heavy bias towards the economic right-wing fringe of the party, which again undermines us, as it raises suspicion that all the Tory policies we find hard to accept weren’t agreed as a necessity, but were agreed because as “economic liberals” we actually liked them – so all that defence about them being necessary compromise or necessary because of the economic situation looks to others as just a weak excuse.

    This is combined with just so much poor quality material coming from the party centrally, so many campaign directions that are not just suggestions, but we are told we must adopt them and push their message, which those of us with long experience campaign on the ground know just won’t work or will further give the wrong idea about where the party is going.

    Up till now, members of the party have been trying to drop hints, but without expressing open opposition. I think those members who are unhappy with Clegg and know why his leadership isn’t working have been REMARKABLY patient with him, just hoping again and again and again that somehow he will get the message, will listen to us, will change his ways. But he hasn’t – they’ve got worse. The negative campaigning material coming nationally for both the local and Euro elections, with its heavy focus on the person of Nick Clegg was an example. We’ve had lots of tears for the loss of good hard-working MEPs and councillors. But it’s too late now. Why didn’t they feature heavily in our national campaign material, putting across a positive message? Why was it instead wall-to-wall Clegg? Why so much dreary ad-man’s slogans which just don’t work – people just see it as alien stuff from planet politician? We needed to put across a human local side.

    Sorry, but if Clegg is not responsible for all this, who is? The line put forward by his defenders that it’s not to do with him, we are just suffering because we are “in government” is wrong. The complaint is not about the existence of the coalition, it’s about how that was handled, and also other aspects of party management and promotion.

    The way that so many of Clegg’s defenders ignore all this, and just dismiss this constructive criticism without reply, using insulting and untrue language such as that used here by Ben Nicholls says a lot about them. What it says is not very pleasant, and it indicates why if they are left in control of our party, it is doomed. They are not listening, they don’t show any signs of listening, they don’t want to listen, and they think they are so right and superior that they don’t need to listen – so they just dismiss the concerns raised in this way, with insult. That is how the party as they are running it comes across to the electorate, what they are doing to critics internally in the party is also how they think of anyone who isn’t 100% their supporter outside.

  • Paul Murray 28th May '14 - 7:46am

    @Matthew Huntbach – “insulting and untrue language”. No Matthew, that was so 48 hours ago. The centrally approved strategy now is “lovebombing”. Cf Ashdown’s change of tack from talking about “laughable” to “sincerely held” criticism of the leadership. Keep up with the programme!

  • “A change of heart and pride”…Sorry but this smacks of the, “where we work we win” rubbish…

    It more than implies that the Local/EU elections were a disaster because of a lack of ‘heart and pride’ from the grassroot membership…

    The only reason I can see for Clegg remaining leader is that whoever takes over after 2015 will have 5 years, in the political wilderness, to rebuild the party….

    But, just suppose that Labour win the next election without a majority….What will be the LibDem position on the NHS/Bedroom Tax/Welfare/Education/etc…..Will it be “Stay true to our beliefs”?….. What beliefs; those prior to 2010, those between 2010 and 2015 or those post 2015?….
    “I’ll still be the Vicar of Bray, sir” comes to mind…

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th May '14 - 11:15am

    Paul Murray

    Cf Ashdown’s change of tack from talking about “laughable” to “sincerely held” criticism of the leadership. Keep up with the programme!

    Just to let you and anyone else know, I happen to be working in Beijing this week. No, not plotting with Vince … Teaching software engineering to a class of 500 Chinese university students. Means it isn’t easy to keep up with what’s happening due to patchy access to usual information sources.

  • “…. than a small number of disaffected Party members looking for a scapegoat after recent election results.” Oh, dear, Clegg and his supporters really are getting desperate if they need to sink this low.

    “….a scapegoat for recent election results.”? Some of us disaffected party members have been politely pointing out that Clegg simply isn’t up to the job for 2 years or more, even those of us who supported the Coalition.

  • > I believe that liberalism really is the solution to many of society’s most entrenched problems

    …which is why you’re backing a leader nobody likes? How is 5 years with no power at all going to help liberalism?

  • @ Mike B

    Ben, right on the money. In Eastleigh, Winchester and Romsey we have great prospects to win in 2015.

    Not in this Candidate’s Constituency you haven’t. Sandra Gidley got 20,189 in 2010, under Clegg’s leadership he will find that vote goes to Labour and UKIP allowing an easy win for the Tory with an increased majority.

  • AC Trussell 29th May '14 - 1:05pm

    Don’t know if it’s been said above (no time to read all) but it sounds like a lot of you have been brainwashed by the Lab/Tory supporting media. Practically the entire media will report in the most negative way possible when it comes to the LIB/Dems- if anything at all, and nothing ever positive. Every “politician” will use student fees as the best discription of Lib/Dems.- of course never saying what they were going to do( worse!)
    The Party voted for all we have got and i find you all a load of wimps giving in.
    This is the best Party and Nick Clegg is the best for the job (PM); most people have no idea what the Lib/Dems have done and stand for because no one tells them!
    It doesn’t matter who leads we will be in the same position- You Wimps!!

  • Matthew Huntbach 30th May '14 - 1:52pm

    AC Trussel

    This is the best Party and Nick Clegg is the best for the job (PM); most people have no idea what the Lib/Dems have done and stand for because no one tells them!

    Sorry, I seem to spend half my time arguing with trolls who seem not to be able to get the point that 57 LibDem MPs were not going to get 300 Conservative MPs to roll over, drop all they ever believed in and start singing the Land Song, and half my time arguing with people like you who continue to put out your bland “Clegg is the best person for the job” stuff without any attempt whatsoever to engage with all the careful argument I’ve given with lengthy explanations of why I feel he is not. Just repeating this without even giving the courtesy to those who disagree of showing you have at least read what we have written even if you don’t agree with it will not help your case.

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