Opinion: The Clegg Catastrophe: What the Guardian didn’t mention

The esteemed political journalists Patrick Wintour and Nicholas Watt of the Guardian have made an interesting, if long contribution to the debate about how the Liberal Democrats ended up in their current predicament.

Interestingly, it says very little about the 2010-12 era when Tim Farron and Norman Lamb chaired the party’s two main committees, the Federal Executive and Federal Policy Committee respectively.  However, it does shed some interesting light on the internal debate on the central issue that caused the electoral catastrophe: tuition fees.  The tales of what might have happened had David Laws not resigned, and why fees was not debated at our Special Conference, remain to be told.

Perhaps its biggest flaw is the typically lazy conflation of the debate around the party’s as being between “Liberals” and “Social Democrats”: an analogy that should have been buried quarter of a century ago.  As a social liberal and indeed Co-Chair of the Social Liberal Forum from 2012-14 I can testify that plenty of social democrats were on both sides of the debate.

There are at least three areas where the piece is weakly researched or just plain misleading.  All are the result of relying on a relatively narrow number of interviewees.  The full account offers lessons for the new leader as to how to avoid future pitfalls.

The first is just how the party at large was prevented from engaging with the issues that most damaged the party.  Wintour and Watt suggest that the SLF emergency motion on the economy in Spring 2013 was defeated: it was not.  Despite a majority in Conference voting to suspend standing orders to hear the debate at a critical time for the party, Conference Committee did not take it and the vote did not achieve the required two-thirds majority.  At the time there were desperate efforts made by Clegg advisors to influence Conference reps to block the debate.  The ‘Shirley Williams view’ of the Health and Social Care Bill is another; Shirley’s name was used to try and defeat, with only partial success, a motion to get our MPs to vote this legislation down at Third Reading.

The second is how the party’s internal apparatus failed or was not allowed to do its job to hold leaders to account.  From 2011-14 Nick Clegg attended the Federal Policy Committee only once, suggesting as he has said since that he did not hold this body with very much respect.  Party secrecy rules were ramped up so members of Federal Committees, elected by the party, were forbidden from communicating what they were doing or even discussing.  The Party President, Tim Farron, was being as regularly briefed against by Lib Dems as Vince Cable was.  Largely as a result of the huge and ever-increasing phalanx of Special Advisers, discussion at all levels on key issues was curtailed.  This is probably the time to highlight that there was an attempt to have me removed from being the FPC observer to the Parliamentary BIS and Treasury backbench committee after my outspoken opposition to his and Vince Cable’s stance on tuition fees.  The standoff lasted for some months.

Finally, the botched coup on Nick Clegg.  As co-chair of SLF at the time, this record needs to be set straight,  as Wintour and Watt have taken the word only of the person they bill as the sole chair at the time, Naomi Smith.   I was well aware that backbench MPs were restless, but that a number of people were not prepared to put their heads above the parapet and call for a contest or say that they would stand.  One of those people, unreported, was Vince Cable in 2013.  I felt before the European results were declared, while the party’s situation was dire, but whereas in 2013 a new leader might have stood a chance of getting the party’s reputation back on a sound footing, in 2014 it was too late.  Worse, nobody wanted to do it.  So I didn’t join the coup; while being critical of he leadership’s strategy but not calling for an election I consulted SLF’s 20-strong Council, and they made clear the Oakeshott coup did not command support.  This tallied with the lack of momentum for the coup among Parliamentarians resulted in 28 May 2014, an odd day where The Times reported completely wrongly that SLF was backing the coup, and I used the pages of LDV to correct this gross inaccuracy and request a correction that, in the finest tradition of the Murdoch press, never came.  The next day all became academic as the coup imploded.

In due course I am sure a fuller account can be written of the goings-on of the secret “Wheelhouse”, but this will have to wait.  In part, it is what conversations at Conference are for.  Overall Wintour and Watt – two of the more authoritative and informed journalists on Liberal politics – could have done better this time.  The full story, as ever, will out in due course.

* Gareth Epps is a member of FPC and FCC, a member of the Fair Deal for your Local campaign coalition committee and is an active member of Britain’s largest consumer campaign, CAMRA. He claims to be marginally better at Aunt Sally than David Cameron, whom he stood against in Witney in 2001.

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53 Comments

  • “Party secrecy rules were ramped up so members of Federal Committees, elected by the party, were forbidden from communicating what they were doing or even discussing.” Well there goes “No-one shall be enslaved by ignorance”. I suppose the key questions are “Who were supposed to be our watchdogs over these changes?”, and “Why didn’t they have any success in getting it changed?” Were they unwilling, too nice, unable or even worse not listened to?

    No wonder the party collapsed, if it was unable to defend itself and its values from attacks from within.

  • Gareth,
    You are quite correct to say —
    “…Perhaps its biggest flaw is the typically lazy conflation of the debate around the party’s as being between “Liberals” and “Social Democrats”: an analogy that should have been buried quarter of a century ago. ”

    It is hugely misleading to describe members of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 in this way. I can seldom if ever remember too many former members of the SDP even being on the “left” of the party. Yet even in his LBC interview today Nick Clegg referred to Vimce Cable as “one of the most left-wing Liberal Democrats”. A bizarre comment.

    Perhaps in future we might drop the habit of describing existing groups and individuals withn our party in terms of another party which briefly existed in the 1980s.
    Many of our voters and Liberal Democrat members were not even born when the SDP ceased to exist.
    Perhaps the Guardian will catch up on the last 25 years eventually.

  • Paul Pettinger 25th Jun '15 - 11:19am

    Sorry you feel upset about not having been interviewed, though as you write, the coup wasn’t an SLF thing, so I don’t understand then why it follows you should have been interviewed as one of the then SLF co-Chairs. I am further confused because you said you were privately in agreement with the letter at the SLF AGM last year in Reading.

  • The Oakshotte coup didnt flop because of a lack of support from MPs but because the wider membership were against. The idea that it was too late & that it would be better for the Party that Clegg carry sole responsibility for the losses was quite widespread. Its important for the future that the majority of us take responsibility for our defeat, blaming this or that person isnt helpfull.

  • You middle sentence was certainly my view at the time, Paul Barker, though if the MPs HAD been up for it, my view might well have been different, even at that late stage! That they were not spoke volumes. With hindsight, they might have been wrong, but that is arguable both ways. 2015 might well have been an even bigger debacle had we been seen as divided.

  • Gareth says that a leadership change in 2013 would have been OK but 2014 would be too late. While this might have been true were the Party merely floundering a bit and in need of a bit of a fresh injection, what was actually happening in 2014 was the latest in a series of absolute disasters. While it was true that ‘nobody wanted to be leader’ then, the bottom line was that we were doing so badly that even having no leader at all would have been better than continuing with the one we had. It was that bad.

    It appears that a majority of the Parliamentary Party simply did not want to believe how bad things actually were.

    What intrigues me is the line in the Guardian article:

    “Clegg commissioned an official review of the election defeats, but little changed in the aftermath.”

    Can someone explain to me where this ‘official review’ is and how one can get to see it? Or is that an ‘official secret’ upon which the Party will never Act?

  • I am sure that more people could, and should, have been interviewed, but we’re down to 8 MPs and the media don’t care that much. They seemed to have talked to many people in the know and got a sense of who was on each side of the divide as the party took major turning points. Martin Shapland, Naomi Smith, and Shirley Williams probably came off best from the whole farrago. Richard Reeves looks like he probably emigrated because he would never be able to get a job in British politics again!

  • I think newspapers use SLF to put some heft behind accusations of plotting. I think accusations that Ms Smith must have briefed that SLF was (why do that anyway?) is probably undermined by the broader point that the article had many inaccuracies.

  • Eddie Sammon 25th Jun '15 - 12:03pm

    Honestly I think these Patrick Wintour long-reads are over-rated. Good, but not fantastic. A lot of the time people rebel in politics because they personally disagree with policies or because their support base does. It is not because some principled activists have suddenly become cold-hearted political strategists and panicked because they saw the party was going to lose seats. They mainly panicked because they didn’t like the policies.

  • Paul Pettinger 25th Jun '15 - 12:12pm

    So you would have signed the letter had you sensed more people supported it? No one signed the letter on behalf of anyone but themselves – the letter wasn’t about groups, but individuals

  • @Sara: I can’t imagine anyone “using” Seth. He’s one of the best minds in the party, and not easily manipulated. I’m not privy to knowledge about organisational minutiae, but I can’t imagine Seth going along with and leading something he doesn’t agree with.

  • Mark Blackburn 25th Jun '15 - 12:43pm

    This is completely wrongly turning into a finger-pointing debate about a potential coup over a year ago, when it should be about what went wrong and how we all fix it. The SLF was totally divided as to whether Nick Clegg should go – many thought he should, many thought it was wrong to change horses. As a mature, consensual group we respected each other’s opinions, made a post which explained our joint position, and left it to other groupings to pursue the removal of our leader. Though I personally thought Nick Clegg should have gone and signed the letter (and I still do – I’m sure we’d have more than eight seats if he had), that’s irrelevant. I was and am an SLF Council member and had hardly heard of Seth Thevoz, and to my knowledge had never met him. To claim he was some sort of front for the SLF is verging in the libellous, and is utter nonsense.

  • If anything, Naomi seems to have been the front for more prominent people in deeper cover – her father and Matthew, and perhaps Vince. Though she was Joint Chair at the time, the other clearly thought it disloyal and/or bad tactics. Personally I have a great deal of respect for both Naomi and Seth, but It wasn’t an SLF coup – merely one which a prominent member of the SLF was involved.

  • Stephen Hesketh 25th Jun '15 - 1:06pm

    @David Evans25th Jun ’15 – 10:53am
    [[“Party secrecy rules were ramped up so members of Federal Committees, elected by the party, were forbidden from communicating what they were doing or even discussing.” Well there goes “No-one shall be enslaved by ignorance”. I suppose the key questions are “Who were supposed to be our watchdogs over these changes?”, and “Why didn’t they have any success in getting it changed?” Were they unwilling, too nice, unable or even worse not listened to?
    No wonder the party collapsed, if it was unable to defend itself and its values from attacks from within.]]

    Clearly comments made on LDV and elsewhere regarding the bunker mentality prevailing in the upper echilons of the party were completely accurate.

    Party structures must now be changed and power dispersed to ensure this can never befall the party again.

  • As an outsider I think it was the MPs who should have stepped up to the plate. The others overestimate their own importance. Clegg was correct about the committees.

  • Stephen Hesketh 25th Jun '15 - 1:41pm

    Sara Scarlett25th Jun ’15 – 1:28pm

    … and when the person attempting to stir things up is a self-declared member of the Conservative Party Sara, what shall we make of that?

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Jun '15 - 1:43pm

    As liberals it ought to be fundamental to our beliefs that leaders are our servants and not the other way round. If we wish to dismiss a servant and put another one in place, that should be regarded as natural and normal, not dramatised and portrayed as some horrendous and terrible thing. We are not Leninists and we should not subscribe to the Leninist view of political party.

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Jun '15 - 1:50pm

    Gareth Epps

    The esteemed political journalists Patrick Wintour and Nicholas Watt of the Guardian have made an interesting, if long contribution to the debate about how the Liberal Democrats ended up in their current predicament.

    The Guardian ran plenty of “nah nah nah nah nah” attacks on the Liberal Democrats during the time of the Coalition, yet its own coverage and commentary on the party has always had a very firm bias to its right. So the Guardian was running attacks on the Liberal Democrats for shifting to the right, alongside firmly contributing to that shift.

    The two commentary articles in the Guardian today show clearly that bias. One is the usual Tory line that tried to make out that “liberalism” should mean Thatcherite economics plus a few token social liberal policies so long as they do not conflict with the interests of the wealthy. The other is the Wintour and Watt article, with its extraordinary claim that the “Orange Book” was trying to move the Liberal Democrats to a “centrist” position. That is the equivalent of saying that when the Militant Tendency was active in the Labour Party it was trying to move the Labour Party to a centrist position.

  • John Tilley 25th Jun '15 - 5:13pm

    Stephen Hesketh 25th Jun ’15 – 1:06pm
    “…Party structures must now be changed and power dispersed to ensure this can never befall the party again.”

    Stephen, yes indeed.
    But not just the structures, the culture and attitudes need to be turned upside down.

    There has been an ever-growing tendency over decades for various leaders to win a leadership election and then claim legitimacy for absolutely everything they say and do.

    We are seeing this repeated during the course of the present leadership election with one of the candidates clearly the choice of last year’s bunker.
    By way of evidence — in our house we received a mailing today in the name of one of our octogenarian members of the HofL. She is someone who was a teenager during the 1939-45 World War, who has been near the centre of the British Establishment all her life and has bags of useful experience no doubt.
    Is she or her annointed candidate really the best to chart the opening up and democratisation of the party in the 21st Century with their underlined leadership message of “more of the same”?

    There is a clear choice in this leader election and everyone knows who is the candidate for change and who is the candidate of the Ancien Regime.

  • If only those brave enough to try and take action against a party heading for disaster had got the support they deserved. Those in SLF who sat on their hands probably shouldn’t be that eager to correct a record that made the others look prescient.

  • One of the Chairs, Sara. This one didn’t speak to Oakeshott after he took the hump when I took the mickey out of his notoriously quietly-supported football club (among other things).

  • Two good candidates – only one who will build “from the bottom up” – by listening to all members, make a modern system of participation. Then use all of us to remain up-to-date as a campaigning team – always listening and reporting from our voters to “representatives”. And please make it easier to change leaders [at all levels] in an organised and polite way.

  • All of this shows that the Party just wasn’t ready to deal with power . I am seriously worried about the secrecy tendency as it is the opposite of what Lib Dems campaign for in other organisations. Unfortunately there was no proper mechanism for MPs to consult their constituency members about major issues and I believe there was also a strong tendency for our MPs to see themselves as above anyone else in the party in every way and so they failed to listen. This culture has probably existed for decades.
    Now we know what we don’t want to happen when the Party is next in power, we can change the Constitution and put checks and balances in place but above all we must change the culture so that the Party embodies our beliefs and values.

  • John Tilley 26th Jun '15 - 2:27pm

    Paul Walter 25th Jun ’15 – 8:58pm
    ” “Clegg commissioned an official review of the election defeats, but little changed in the aftermath.”
    Yes, it’s linked here:
    http://www.libdems.org.uk/james_gurling_review_into_the_local_and_european_election_campaign

    Thanks for this, Paul.
    I followed the link which required me to transfer to another page and then to have a password to gain access.
    My attempts to establish a password to access the document failed more than once.
    I usually assume I am at fault (or my aged iPad) but I have persisted several times without getting through.
    Is there a public version which does not require me to jump the impossible password hurdle?

  • Laurence Cox 26th Jun '15 - 2:48pm

    @David Evans

    You may think that this secrecy is something relatively new, but as Gareth and I both know from a LibDem conference in another place (in accordance with their rules I am not allowed to name it), it has been developing for more than a decade. When Paddy was leader he lurked there and posted occasionally. Charles never seemed interested in it as a means of communicating with and listening to members (or at least some of the active ones). Certainly, as far back as 2004 there were objections to FE minutes being posted there (in an environment where the circulation was restricted to current Party members, with one of the Membership Department staff acting as gatekeeper).

    All we have seen over the last decade is a progressive tightening of who is allowed to know what is going on, with the inevitable result.

  • David Evans 26th Jun '15 - 3:26pm

    Thanks for that Laurence. It doesn’t surprise me. Indeed I rather expect it, even though I oppose it wholeheartedly and fight against it continuously. It is sad how many Lib Dems think openness and honesty are great, but for too many it doesn’t apply to them once they get in power, because it may allow others to stop them from getting just what they want. That includes some very senior figures indeed, who are sadly just too used to other’s deference leading to them getting their own way.

    That is why, although I agree with Sue S when she says we don’t want it to happen when the Party is next in power, and we must change our constitution and the culture so that the Party embodies our beliefs and values, I know it won’t happen easily (and I think she does too). The one weakness in this is the assumption that you can have a party where everybody embodies our beliefs and values all the time and problems never happen. We all know that that is quite impossible in our party as in any other organisation. What is needed is a party whose members are prepared to stand up for its beliefs and values when it is being attacked and destroyed from within. There was what has happened over the last few years but sadly although quite a few were prepared to moan about it, too few were prepared to do anything about it.

  • Simon Banks 26th Jun '15 - 4:52pm

    QUOTE: Mark Blackburn 25th Jun ’15 – 12:43pm:

    “This is completely wrongly turning into a finger-pointing debate about a potential coup over a year ago, when it should be about what went wrong and how we all fix it.”

    Hear, hear. I’m depressed by the to and fro about who did what. It also seems fairly basic to me that a quality newspaper should say an organisation is backing something if that organisation, as an organisation, is doing so, and not say this if some leading people within it were taking one position, and others thought differently, and no vote had been taken.

    I don’t know there’s much point those who, like me, thought Nick Clegg was the wrong leader, arguing over precisely what happened in 2014. As it happens, I thought a graceful resignation by Nick then would have been good for the cause and the party, but a messy assassination, very likely a failed one, seemed unhelpful to put it mildly. What struck me at the time was that the coup was ill-organised and didn’t seem well-prepared, while the counterattack from those around the Leader seemed effective and well-prepared. Oh, and some people may have “panicked”, but hardly, Eddie, because they didn’t like the policies, since at that stage the policies had hardly changed for four years and those who didn’t like them were hardly panicking.

    The comment that Nick had the right opinion of the party committees is depressing if I’ve understood it correctly. They’re elected committees of the party and a leader must engage with them seriously. By analogy, there’s some profoundly unimpressive people in Parliament, or on any local council, but that doesn’t mean they should be bypassed by those who know better.

    Finally, the confusion over Liberals and Social Democrats is depressing from journalists who should know better, but it does point to a need for Social Liberals to set out clearly how a Social Liberal is not the same as a Social Democrat.

  • Tony Dawson 26th Jun '15 - 6:18pm

    Like John Tilley, I have struggled and failed with the nationbuider loop trying to get into the site to see that report.

    I am, however, interested in the summary of his own report published on LDV by James Gurling:

    “we made clear that over the next 9 months the party should ensure that we are producing inspiring and motivating messages for our activists and the electorate, and ensuring that our manifesto is centred on Liberal Democrat policy – not a defence of the status quo.”

    I would suggest that in the nine months leading up to the May 2015 election (and for a long time before) precisely the opposite happened.

  • Tony Dawson 26th Jun '15 - 6:24pm

    I have, however, found a public copy of the review into the 2011 election

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/63934201/Liberal-Democrats-Election-Review-May-2011-elections-and-AV-referendum

    Interestingly, it is conducted by the same James Gurling as conducted the 2015 review. Unfortunately, there appears to be no similar review available of the disappointing 2010 campaign.

    Given that the effectiveness of the Party’s campaigns and communications would seem to me to have been a major issue in all these elections, it seems rather surprising to me that anyone should feel it appropriate procedurally that the Chair of Campaigns and Communications should have been invited by anyone to conduct one such review, let alone two. That is said without any knowledge of or inference about the individual concerned.

  • Neil Sandison 29th Jun '15 - 11:24am

    The sad thing about this is that Cleggs inner circle began to believe their own propaganda and that despite result after result thought they would retain those parliamentary seats.The party in the country became the collateral damage they seemed prepared to accept.We must ensure we have an achievable mechanism to hold parliamentarians to account should their future actions put the liberal movement in jeopardy perhaps through a special conference or call in process.

  • patrick wintour 29th Jun '15 - 7:47pm

    I have enjoyed reading much of this, including the “must do better next time” strictures. Can I point out the piece does not mention the SLF as organisation supporting the attempt to oust Clegg in 2014 ? It quotes Naomi Smith as chair of SLF and states specifically she was anyway not the prime mover behind the letter calling for Clegg to stand down. Clearly, it would have been more accurate to describe her as co-chair at the time. Apologies.

  • Eddie Sammon 29th Jun '15 - 8:46pm

    Patrick, thanks for gracing these boards with your presence. :). I often cringe when I find someone has read what I’ve been saying about them – reminds me to be polite! 🙂

  • Jonathan Pile 2nd Jul '15 - 6:28pm

    What is in incredible about 2014 is that now that the truth is starting to emerge that everyone including Nick Clegg himself felt he should go but only a minority of the party had the guts to make it happen. the revelations about how party managers were able to blunt the howls of anguish coming from the party. The complexity of party democracy is clearly anything but. The sad thing is were all thinking the same thing but not acting together. a metophor for our current mess and the plight of the anti-Tory progressives.

  • I have been reading the Manchester Guardian on a daily basis ever since it changed its name. For most of that time most of its political specialists have assumed that part of giving support to Labour means insisting that anyone quitting Labour for the Liberals / Liberal Democrats must become part of the “Liberal left”. God preserve us from that sort of sentimentality as we get on with the hard thinking and debate that is required within our party over the next twelve months. If ever there was a moment to stand by the Preamble while attempting ruthless analysis of what has happened, is happening and may happen, this is it.

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