Opinion: Muscular liberalism works, but only if you exercise the muscles

Nick Clegg had a visit to Birmingham on Wednesday, and members had the chance to question him in a private location. He invited the “vitriol” of people, as well as hopefully some positive questions, as he accepted, as leader, he has to take the flak.

He gave some interesting responses to questions ranging from the interventions in Libya, education policy and what people should do to help hold and increase support for the party.

It was this last point that struck a chord with me, because Nick espoused a view that I’ve held for months – we cannot allow our party to be still painted as the wishy-washy nice little liberals. We have a right, and almost a duty, to ensure that people who are wrong in their facts about LibDem policy should be corrected.

Some are saying we should learn lessons from other parties and start to play dirty (but sticking with the truth), I disagree. Whilst I accept we need to be stronger in getting our message out, using stronger but factually correct and louder messages, we cannot forget our foundations. To say we should never play dirty to win seats, to not become “like the rest” is not about taking the moral high-ground, it’s about doing what we believe to be right (or not doing what we think is wrong!). There is nothing wrong with being robust – those who have heard me speak know I am very robust, to use a word! – but we shouldn’t join in on the mudslinging just to win seats, and say it was a necessary evil.

Whilst we lost 5 seats, the last General Election still showed that in 57 constituencies, we have enough support to hold or gain a seat in parliament. Despite the severe bashing we took in May, there were some examples of increases in majorities or even gains in local councils.

A key example of an area where we have had vital input is the criminal justice system, in widening the debate from a classic Right argument of “just sling more people in prisons”, even if no concrete policies have been decided yet. Clearly, the NHS has been toted as a big “win” for us. I still would rather see the Health and Social Care Bill scrapped, and start again with working on a programme of NHS improvement rather than taking a classic New Labour approach of fixing everything by trying to legislate.

In terms of what we can do: Nick made a good point about how other parties, specifically the Tories, seem to protect their leader and share the flak. As LibDems, we seem to have the propensity to blame the senior people in the party only (who of course have their share of the blame on failures), yet have no thought that sometimes we could do more to help.

There is an old adage in the party of “where we work, we win” – of course that can’t always be true, however it’s HOW we work that is vital.

So, if you believe in something the LibDems have put into government, shout out about it. Tell your friends and family, debate it in the pub, write to your local or national newspaper, and phone in to the radio debate or TV programme. Just make sure you do something to spread the word.

As I’ve said repeatedly, and Nick said in this week’s meeting – if you cannot believe in your political-self or the party, why should we expect other people to?

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  • “As LibDems, we seem to have the propensity to blame the senior people in the party…”
    While I have a lot of respect for how Nick has handled the appalling levels of vituperation that have been directed at him I will continue to blame him for what has happened to the party until he genuinely seems to get it on the subject of the tuition fees pledge and makes an unreserved and grovelling apology. If it needs saying again, I don’t care what we have negotiated for students: we gave a PERSONAL pledge that we would oppose tuition fees and the party leader and many others broke that pledge. As a result there is no reason why any elector should believe anything a candidate says in the future: that kind of makes it difficult to trust the party, with the consequences we are seeing at pretty well every election now.

  • Norman Fraser 3rd Jul '11 - 5:13pm

    But Lee, Clegg is to blame for everything!

  • I agree very much with what you say about not playing dirty to get support. I expect it’s very easy to want to use a lot of spin and withdraw information once you get into government, but if our party believes in open and honest politics, we shouldn’t fall for that. Nick Clegg once said he went into politics to change politics and I hope he still believes that.

    Nick made a good point about how other parties, specifically the Tories, seem to protect their leader and share the flak. As LibDems, we seem to have the propensity to blame the senior people in the party only (who of course have their share of the blame on failures), yet have no thought that sometimes we could do more to help.

    One of the things I love about this party is that unlike the other two large parties, we debate our differences among ourselves (without it descending into warring factions) . That’s why I don’t like the idea that we should pretend that we agree with everything our leadership does. Most of us support the leadership in general and we are being constructive in our criticism – that’s exactly what the Social Liberal Forum is doing!

  • Well Norman he can’t be blamed for everything. I went to the Conference in Birmingham, I voted to go into the coalition. I guess I didn’t read the small print, something I used to blame my fellow Councillor for doing. We all got too excited and forgot we really hated the Tories who we all knew we couldn’t trust, we also didn’t like the alternative, a Tory minority Government and an election in the autumn. .

  • Whilst Clegg should accept blame for allowing the party to do the NUS pledge, the fact is the party voted for a policy of scrapping tuition fees. That put us in a very serious position because considering how you would have had to completely change other budgets to fund free university for over half a million people a year, it was very unlikely that the smallest party in a coalition would have got that without making massive concessions everywhere else.

    The whole party should share the blame for the damage that policy has done to us.

    I agree that we need a more robust or muscular liberalism. I also think we need to get rid of the exaggerated name-calling between ‘social liberals’ and ‘orangebookers’, and work together create policy we can all believe and create a more easily understood identity for the public.

  • Ian Stewart 3rd Jul '11 - 6:25pm

    Nick made similar comments regarding the protection that the Cons give their leader when he spoke the previous Saturday in Bristol, but where we are is working with the Cons for the good of the country, and just because it’s what they do is no good reason why we should follow that path.

    Totally agree regarding the muscle thing, but after the disposal of Kennedy and Campbell only our opponants wanting to propagate a myth of us as “soft & fluffy” and unable to take difficult decisions can really think that we haven’t got muscle. In fact not just muscle, but the ability to take actions which are not in our short-term interests, but nonertheless are the right things to do.

    So let’s agree that we get most of our things right, and clearly try and do better. However, let us never be like the vindictive Blue team or the hypocritical Red team, and if that means that occasionally our leader gets a kicking from our members……….that’s life…………next!

  • Sam – that is just more obfuscation. The Party’s policy is to abolish tuition fees: that may or may not be economically feasible in current or future economic circumstances. The pledge, on the other hand, was a personal promise made by individuals who, in many instances, went on to break that promise. That means they cannot be trusted now or in the future unless they are prepared to face up to what they have done and make a sincere apology. How much more clearly does this have to be spelled out?

  • @tonyhill
    “The Party’s policy is to abolish tuition fees: that may or may not be economically feasible in current or future economic circumstances.”

    It isn’t the pledge issue that grates with voters – it’s the fact that you did the diametric opposite of your party policy by increasing the regressive tuition fees when the party policy is to scrap fees and replace with progressive taxation.

    Voters vote for manifestos and policies, and when parties do the complete opposite and then try and justify it by twisting the word ‘progressive’ and claiming a tripling of fees is somehow ‘fairer’ than the previous system, then they have every rational reason to detest the politicians that betrayed their trust.

  • TonyHill – I actually agree an apology might be a good thing to do. I’ve said on another post on here that if Nick Clegg was to use a party political broadcast to apologise and be open and frank about what happened and not be defensive then that might earn some people’s respect. Of course people may just interpret it as weak or self-interest, but I feel tackling the issue head-on might be the best way to go about it.

    You say the pledge was different, and it is to a degree, but how how often have you heard that manifestos don’t mean anything because parties always break their promises? I’ve heard an awful lot of how the LibDems can’t be trusted because they’ve broken lots of manifesto commitments (even though we’re in coalition and have quite a lot of good stuff from the manifesto being enacted).

    My point is that if we’re going to collectively decide policy, then if we have a bad policy then we should all take some blame. Even if you do believe we should abolish tuition fees, you can’t deny that the policy put us in an almost impossible position in a coalition situation and the fact that lots of students voted for us solely for that policy.

  • Tony Dawson 3rd Jul '11 - 8:37pm

    “we cannot allow our party to be still painted as the wishy-washy nice little liberals.”

    Presumably that statement is an umbrella endorsement of the party taking ‘necessary measures’ including removal of factors which ‘taint the brand’ at an appropriate point well before the next General Election?

  • I personally think that if it hadn’t been student fees it would have been another issue that was picked on as supposedly demonstrating how the Lib Dems are “yellow Tory” traitors and can’t be trusted.

    There is just a hell of a lot of nasty financial problems that the government currently has to deal with and no money to do it. Just how WOULD we have afforded that commitment while still assuring universities of the growing income streams they need? What other areas would we have cut even harder or what taxes would we have raised in order to do so?

    There is a hell of a lot of free floating anger out there, with people seeing their real incomes reduced and living standards fall. It suits both the big parties to make the Lib Dems, and Nick in particular, the scapegoat for everything and unfortunately the mood of the country is to lash out at whoever the media tell them to.

    What we need to be doing is to point out more clearly the vicious array of self interested parties that hide behind Labour and Conservatives, from greedy union bosses to the Tories’ array of press tycoons, tax dodgers and bankers. The country has never needed a centre party more urgently than in these divisive times. Unfortunately our destructive conflict-based political system makes co-operation rather than conflict a well nigh impossible task.

  • No Lee, I think people who change their minds affecting others that they have promised something for, ARE expected to apologise. When it affects no-one adversely, or it seems to be a much better decision, then of course you wouldn’t need to apologise. The problem for our leadership is that they are trying desperately to say we have the latter case, whereas it is actually the former!

    My belief about why our promise and what happened afterwards are so toxic, is this:

    Our leadership (being generally “orange bookers”) knowing that the “what do we do when we have abolished tuition fees” would be highly controversial, within, and outside the party, didn’t acknowledge the fact that they were “moving our policy to the right”, thinking, probably, that they wouldn’t be actually tested with that in practice. A comment was, in fact made, to the effect that “we didn’t expect to be in government”. When it came to it, Vince Cable suddenly started talking about a graudate tax replacing tuition fees, which of course, is very much a like for like replacement. It is noticeable that Labour under Ed Mili seem to have adopted that as an alternative (as had the “moderate” leadership of the NUS). However, for many of us, our intention by abolishing tuition fees, would be to return to funding from general taxation, and I would bet a pound to a penny that is what most students backed us to implement.

    In relation to what actually happened, no-one would have blamed us for not being ABLE to implement this in a coalition where the majority party didn’t believe in this – but we were blamed for not even trying. The same applies to the general economic and cuts policy – the leadership had ALREADY moved further right than the party’s centre of gravity, and have used the Tories as a human shield “we can’t do everything we want to because they are in the majority and won’t let us”. THAT is where the trust has gone. I could add that the party has ditched an anti-nuclear stance, has allowed vulnerable groups to be disadvantaged, local councils to be eviscerated over education, planning and various other policy areas, in exchange for a few “freedom” snippets, a referendum decisively lost, and small economic compensation for bigger losses for the lower paid.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 3rd Jul '11 - 10:43pm

    “As I’ve said repeatedly, and Nick said in this week’s meeting – if you cannot believe in your political-self or the party, why should we expect other people to?”

    Exactly so. That’s why many former activists have biine their rosettes.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 3rd Jul '11 - 10:45pm

    Sorry, strange typo there: meant to say “biinned their rosettes”

  • Old Codger Chris 3rd Jul '11 - 11:00pm

    “I personally think that if it hadn’t been student fees it would have been another issue that was picked on as supposedly demonstrating how the Lib Dems are “yellow Tory” traitors and can’t be trusted”.

    No – at least not to anything like the same extent. Unless the “other issue” had been made the subject of a personal pledge backed by a petition.

    The leadership believed all along – rightly or wrongly – that the promise on tuition fees was unaffordable “but hey, we’ll never be asked to deliver on it, as we’re the Protest Party”. Sadly the old criticisms levelled at the Party by both Tory and Labour politicians turned out to be true.

  • We are in a rather big financial crisis the seriousness of which is not grasped by the average voter.
    In part of course this is due to the wish not to cause panic. We don’t need runs on the banks.
    Simply changing the government isn’t going to stop this crisis.

  • Manfarang – we are not only in a rather big financial crisis, as you say, but a rather big environmental crisis. We need to make sure policy is going in the right direction (by this I include international cooperation). I would have severe doubts as to whether quite of the components of current government policy are indeed going in necessary directions.

    I do take your point regarding the information given to / understood by voters. The trouble is, in a situation where people are not given “the truth” (or various versions of the truth, together with supporting evidence) they are easily manipulable when nothing else can happen except to react to an immediate crisis. What responsible politicians should be doing is NOT ‘blaming the other lot”, or seeking to heap blame on possible scapegoats (immigrants, welfare claimants etc). Our party, with its early history in the 90s of evidence based policy making, its attempts to create a policy whole, not a collection of reactive little bits, was in a position to help with this structure (you could call that “the new politics” if you like). This competitive advantage has been thrown away.

  • As a postscript, many “orange bookers” look back to the 19th Century to claim that their form of “economic liberalism” has its roots there, ie their liberalism has genuine early roots. I think the message there was that those Liberals did see themselves as a different sort of politics, “Conscience and Reform”. They did preside over periods of withdrawal of special privileges, over extensions of the voting franchise, and over an increasing publicly owned and regulatory framework.

    Yes, Liberal Democrats today should be wary of too intrusive systems, but when you consider that the world today is so much more all-encompassing, and the increased use of privately owned resources not only risks, but has actually reintroduced vested interests where those had been abolished, and has reintroduced levels of inequality last seen in this country in the 19th Century. I don’t think this is a good thing. Do you?

  • Nick’s point about defending the leader is an interesting one.

    In the other two parties, the leader has a much bigger influence on policy than in the Lib Dems, particularly in the Tories. As a result, a direct attack on the leader is effectively a direct attack on the party, and so more likely to be defended.

    In the Lib Dems, though, the policy making bodies are the various Conferences – Federal, Scottish, English and Welsh. If a Conference creates a policy which the leader doesn’t like, he can find ways to minimise it but will never be able to directly oppose it unless or until it comes back to Conference again. If the leader does something party members don’t like, or creates a policy position without consultation (this happened a fair bit in Scotland in the last Parliament) then members will let their feelings be known.

    Nick is in the position where he’s leading Lib Dem ministers through policies which the party doesn’t agree with and doesn’t like. Given the history of the party, he can hardly expect his members to be fully behind him at all times (I recall Paddy Ashdown frequently being openly accused of “bouncing” the party into policy, at a time when he was generally very popular.)

    Nick’s position isn’t helped when he dismisses out of hand the concerns of Ross Finnie after the Inverclyde byelection – someone who is a former Scottish minister, held, until last May, an elected position in the Inverclyde area for over 30 years, and is a former Scottish Liberal Party chairman. That approach seems to me to be increasingly typical of his office, and that’s why he’s not getting more support from the membership.

  • The Coalition Agreement did not cause the tuition fees fiasco.  It required the Government (not just the Consevatives)  to take a view of (not just accept) the Browne Report.  Clegg and, alas, Cable decided to renege on their pledge in forming their view, and given that you wonder what else they could get up to before the party demanded their expulsion.

  • Paul Holmes 4th Jul '11 - 1:10pm

    Roger says ‘we didn’t read the small print of the Coalition agreement carefully enough’. But we did.

    I was at Birmingham, read the agreement very carefully and voted with a very heavy heart for a Coalition with the Cons.

    The agreement said that our MP’s could abstain if they did not like whatever policy was adopted on Tuition Fees. Weak, but given that the Cons were always gung ho for Tuition Fees (Baker tried to introduce them in 1988 when I was Head of Sixth Form in a Comprehensive school -and I have opposed them ever since) and Labour actually introduced them, then trebled them, then set up the Browne Commission which recommended letting them rip with no ceiling at all -we had little chance of abolishing them as a junior partner in a coalition with either Lab or Cons. But we did not have to vote for trebling them to £9,000.

    But instead of following the Coalition agreement our Leaders put Vince in charge of coming up with the new policy (and Vince was always in favour of Tuition Fees and had to be fought hard at Parliamentary Party meetings over the issue before the 2010 election) and then told our MP’s not to abstain but to vote in favour!

    As for the NHS the Agreement did not propose a massive top down reorganisation (quite the reverse if anyone read the Cons and LD Manifestos) and the introduction of a presumption in favour of commercial competition. But Paul Burstow negotiated such a White Paper (closely involved as he ‘reassured’ us at the Liverpool Conference) and Danny Alexander and Nick signed off on it without a murmur. Only the unanimous opposition at the Sheffield Conference made them go into reverse.

    As for other Parties ‘protecting’ their Leader -I seem to recall a lot of Labour criticism of Blair and Brown (plus plunging Labour membership). John Major was crippled as PM by what he termed the ‘bastards’ in his own party and Thatcher was dumped as soon as she became a liability over the Poll Tax. I read Conservative Home most days and there is plenty of criticism of Cameron plus observations about how Cons membership has plummeted since he became Leader. Ed Milliband is having trouble finding a Labour fan club too!

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