Opinion: We must ask the right questions

Question markIn an era of increasingly presidential-style politics, it’s very tempting to fire the party leader when things go wrong – but would this actually help us for next year’s general and local elections?

To answer this, I feel we need to ask what made us successful pre-2010, what is actually going to work for us next year, will doing this be enhanced by having a different leader, and is there a better leader than the one we’ve got?

There are two obvious reasons for our pre-2010 rise. One was that we were either ‘not Labour’ or ‘not Conservative’ so we squeezed those votes to make two-horse races, many of which we won thanks to protest votes.The protest votes have gone for now, but many squeeze votes may still be there.The other was that we gave voters the impression that Liberal Democrats were ‘those nice people who got things done’. These votes may still be there if we fight on local issues.

There are things to shout about from our time in government, but I’m not just talking about £10k income tax thresholds.

Remember what the political climate was like in 2010? It was fiercely anti-politics following the MPs’ expenses scandal, and it’s no less so now. So there may well be votes to be had by saying ‘we did offer a new politics’ – not just coalition, but a leader who largely kept his head down and got on with the business of government. Whisper it softly, but we might even revisit tuition fees: we could say we used the influence we had from students’ votes to press for a fairer deal on university access, and go really big on the fact that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are now 70% more likely to go to college than 10 years ago. Tuition fees won’t go away, so let’s not apologise for what we did in difficult circumstances, especially as we should be proud of some of it.

If we campaign on these issues, sacking the leader won’t help. The strategy since 2011 has been to hope there will be some grudging respect for Clegg by 2015, given that he’s toughed out some pretty nasty criticism. Yes, it’s an act of faith given recent results, but it might yet happen. General elections are always a little different, and with most of our Liberal Democrat MPs standing for re-election on the basis of strong personal reputations, sacking Clegg might undermine their campaigns, not help them.

Clegg certainly needs a script he’s more convinced about than the one for the recent European elections. I know Nick to be passionate about Europe and was looking forward to him being passionate and positive – but passionately pro-European, not passionately anti-Farage. Which strategist talked him into this approach? It’s little wonder he came across unconvincingly.

There’s also the question about whether there’s a better leader than Clegg who’s able to take over now. That’s a topic for another piece, but I don’t see any of the potential alternatives as likely to improve the party’s fortunes over the next 12 months.

All of which suggests that shooting the leader this side of May 2015 would be daft. Campaigning in the recent elections, I sensed a latent willingness among a lot of voters to still support the Lib Dems. Turning this into votes probably hangs a lot more on holding our nerve and voicing local concerns than changing the figurehead.

 

* Chris Bowers is a two-term district councillor and four-time parliamentary candidate. He writes on cross-party cooperation and in 2021 was the lead author of the New Liberal Manifesto.

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21 Comments

  • >If we campaign on these issues, sacking the leader won’t help.

    Of course it will – he’s famous for selling out his principles when joining the government; it’s a big national joke, one that you seemingly can’t have a political comedy show without telling. When did a leadership election harm any party in modern history? Remember how Labour were bust before the last election? They got a new leader. Remember how the Tories were unelectable since Major? They got a new leader (well, 3, to be fair…it took a while). The leader is the figurehead of the brand – nobody would vote for Labour whilst Kinnock was heading it because he was seen as too union-friendly, too anti-business. The soon as they replaced the problem they became an electable entity.

    You’re in denial!

  • We did well in 2010 because we were united, indeed enthused, by a solid manifesto and policy platform, and we’re seen as well meaning ‘doers’ in a stagnant political arena.
    I think the leader must stay until the GE, but between then and now the remaining activist base and voluntary party MUST reclaim ownership of the party from the self selected ‘grandees’ – we have experimented with letting them rule and we are where we are as a result!

  • Bill le Breton 1st Jun '14 - 12:52pm

    You have repeated what the excellent Keith House wrote this morning; that it is a question of trust on which the leader’s reputation is in taters (-65% approval rating, worse than Brown) and the violation of the promise we made to be a new kind of politics. (And which we always were prior to the arrival of Clegg’s version of how to be non-political.)

    So our main vehicle of communication to the electorate is seen as the old Establishment and untrustworthy; or as James Oates wrote so well, opportunistic and self-satisfied.

    So the answer is … hope that that changes.

    You asked the right question; you answered it yourself and then you ignored your own answer.

  • Chris Bowers – Completely agree with you re: Tuition fees there. Good article!

  • Shaun Cunningham 1st Jun '14 - 2:20pm

    Chris

    Let’s us be honest, this party either changes or in May of next year we are greeted with another calamity, that’s fact of matter, it may not be what people want to hear but its reality.

    Yes strategist can give advice but being a leader you accept or reject that advice that’s why you are leader. If it all goes pear shape than is it not reasonable to ask the leader to take responsibility. Being deputy prime minister doesn’t Nick ask others to do exactly that every day of the week. So the question is, why doesn’t he.

    Regarding this question there is no other. I do not accept that argument and nor should you. Run a leadership contest and we will have a candidate who would emerge from the shadows. Presently everyone is hiding in fear they would be part of a leadership conspiracy.

    People think the status quo is the safest bet, well if you are unable to make difficult decisions at the right time then such a decision is the easiest one to make, the problem of course it may be the easiest but not the right one. The hardest decisions always turn out to be right. I also question your comment about holding ones nerve, that’s ok if one can see hope and some light, Just listen what the voters are telling us, they are telling us we need to change, if we don’t it be our lost, not theirs.

  • @Bill Le Breton: it is a question of trust on which the leader’s reputation is in taters

    You’re just saying that because he lacks a peel.

  • Chris Bowers

    I am curious that you include in your piece this phrase —

    “….a leader who largely kept his head down and got on with the business of government…”

    You may have forgotten that not so very long ago the Westminster Bubble gossips and media hacks were buzzing with stories off Cameron being fed up with his Deputy Prime Minister for being lazy, failing to read briefing papers , not up to dealing with the day to day grind of government work.

    No doubt this was spin put about by Tories to undermine Clegg. But this sort of spin only gets attention and reaches the likes of you and Meir thereis at least some truth in it. For all I know you are regularly in touch with a lot of civil servants who depend on policy decisions from the DPM’s office to progress themusiness ofmgovernmeny. If you are, you may like to tell us how many of them would describe Nick Clegg as — “… a leader who largely kept his head down and got on with the business of government”

    I of course know nothing of such things, I am a mere member of the Liberal Democrats calling for change.

    This comment posted at 14.50. Sunday1st June 2014

  • Shaun Cunningham 1st Jun '14 - 3:09pm

    Liberal Democrats plotting to remove Nick Clegg as party leader should “stop it now”, Lord Ashdown has said.

    He told the BBC that those seeking to oust Mr Clegg were motivated by “deep malice” and had made “a bad situation worse” after poor election results.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-27654959

    What a comment. It’s like being at school, behave everyone. Dear oh dear.

  • Chris Bowers “we could say we used the influence we had from students’ votes to press for a fairer deal on university access, and go really big on the fact that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are now 70% more likely to go to college than 10 years ago. ”

    Ok I’ll not repeat what I’ve said elsewhere except the Maya Angelou quote about ‘people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did but they will never forget how you made them feel’. I think people feel betrayed over the broken Pledge and that’s not an easy emotion to counteract with rational arguments.

    However, why not try out your argument about tuition fees with some – dare I say – focus groups? It might give you an idea of how that will go down with voters. Because your argument runs the risk of alienating voters even more and making them even more angry to boot, so some focused research might give you an idea about whether this us a good tactic or not.

  • This is all getting a bit Spinal Tap. Our electorate as just become more selective

    Truth is if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck. It’s a duck. And you can either deal with it now or spend the next eleven months with no legislation and nothing much else to do waiting for our duck to turn into the swan princess.

  • @Shaun
    Well, the coup has failed to produce one person from anywhere in the party who wants the job.
    Everything is going as planned, as Palpatine. The rebel fleet is lost

  • Richard Harris 1st Jun '14 - 5:15pm

    @ Chris Bowers: So there may well be votes to be had by saying ‘we did offer a new politics’

    You have got to be kidding! Clegg blew that hope up by ditching a cast iron promise as soon as he was elected.

  • Peter Watson 1st Jun '14 - 5:56pm

    @Chris Bowers Tuition fees: “go really big on the fact that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are now 70% more likely to go to college than 10 years ago.”
    Is that because Lib Dems increased tuition fees?
    Or is it because of what the Labour government did for the years that those children were in school?
    Or is it because a few years ago entry to nursing changed and became exclusively by entry at degree level, making it the most popular degree subject and one for which the NHS pays the fees?

  • paul barker 1st Jun '14 - 6:33pm

    The point about the “deep malice” is that most of the noisy, Anti-Clegg minority seem to be willing to damage The Party as long as they get Clegg. Their posts are generally entirely negative & often quite nasty; the effect on members must be demoralising.

  • Bill le Breton 1st Jun '14 - 7:04pm

    It is quite clear, Paul, who is damaging the Party. Nor are criticisms from the likes of John Pugh and Martin Tod for instance ‘entirely negative’. They are advocating campaigns based on a Liberal philosophy that sadly has not had a look in for the last four years to devastating effect.

    It is difficult to bite ones tongue when our economic policy has been exactly the same as the Tories and when our welfare policy in a time of growing need has been callous, which added together has increased inequality and poverty of opportunity, and when we are being rejected ignominiously by the people of this country.

    For four years now you have been saying that our poll figures would soon revive. They haven’t. We are at 7% . We managed to get on just 2% of the population to support us in the Euros.

    Anyone with the Party’s best interests at heart would have stepped down on Monday and allowed one of the many very good ministers and ex-ministers in the PLDP to take forward the banner of Liberal Democracy so that we can have a strong showing in 2015.

    After Thursday Nick Clegg should do the decent thing and hand on the baton.

  • Tony Dawson 1st Jun '14 - 9:08pm

    “a leader who largely kept his head down and got on with the business of government. ”

    Chris, you have obviously been living in a parallel universe to the rest of us. Far from ‘keeping his head down’, Nick Clegg has gone out of his way to tie the Party’s fate even more to his own performance over the years, even more than the increasingly presidential UK governmental/political system already dictates. The AV vote debacle, the ‘Party of In’and numerous media initiatives from a grossly-inflated Leader’s Office which dwarves the other institutions of the Party are hardly the output of a ‘Quiet Man’ (sic!)

  • daft ha'p'orth 1st Jun '14 - 10:33pm

    @Phyllis
    Ok I’ll not repeat what I’ve said elsewhere except the Maya Angelou quote about ‘people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did but they will never forget how you made them feel’.
    Here’s another quote for you, this time from Dr Johnson:
    ‘The public are the ultimate judges: if they are pleased, it is well: if not, it is no use to tell them why they ought to have been pleased.’

  • a leader who largely kept his head down and got on with the business of government

    Chris Bowers,
    Examine the facts –
    1. every week for more than a year a morning is spent in the LBC studio broadcasting sometimes bland, sometimes embarrassing answers to often trivial questions
    2. On this radio programme “throws down the gauntlet” to Farage and so spends yet more time in two TV debates and another radio debate
    3. Goes on a well publicised trip round the drugs capitals of Latin America for no obvious purpose other than to fly a kite for a possible party policy on legalising drugs

    Was this the sort of thing you had in mind when you said — a leader who largely kept his head down and got on with the business of government?

  • Daft hp

    Very apt quote!

  • “a leader who largely kept his head down and got on with the business of government. ”…

    Really would this be the same leader who has his own radio show:the same leader who ‘Challenged’ Farage to two Television debates? ( Incidently, after the EU election, Farage gave an interview thanking Clegg for the publicity and support he got)…..

    As for “deep malice” of the anti Clegg faction damaging the party????????How much more can it be damaged before it becomes beyond repair?
    Like it or not the public don’t trust the LibDem party at a national level…..Even those areas where the local vote held firm only did so by avoiding national issues…….Opinion poll, after opinion poll, have shown that Clegg has absolutely no credibility with the public; no one believes (nor will believe) anything he says. His supporters might not think it’s fair but can anyone, seriously deny its truth?

    Major commercial brands employ ‘celebrities’ from sport, etc….If for any reason their ‘celeb’ becomes tainted he/she is dropped…..They understand that, when it matters,”No matter how good the product, if the messenger is unacceptable, so is the product”

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