What Nick can do next…

The Guardian’s Michael White poses the tricky question for Liberal Democrats — “Nick Clegg is doing better, but will it be enough?” — on his blog, following Nick’s well-received speech to the Parliamentary Press Gallery. As Michael points out, only the sharp jokes were reported in the media, rather than the substance which accompanied them (a charge to which I also plead partially guilty). So let’s add a bit of balance…

[Nick Clegg] had three non-jokey points to make – three you didn’t read in the papers today. One was that, whatever happens at the next election, Britain will not return to the binary, red-blue world – “polarised” was the world he used – of the 1950s. Life is more complex, more fluid now.

Second – the coalition wasn’t simply a matter of maths. It came to power in a crisis, the Greek economy in flames, Europe and Britain on the edge of a precipice. … The coalition’s task is to create a more balanced “less whizz-bang” economy. ” A long period of steady, reliable growth is what this country needs,” he told his audience. …

Clegg’s third point was about the Lib Dems’ future. … The DPM thinks that, in 2015, his party will be able to face voters saying it did difficult and unpopular things in government with “our arch-enemies” and has shown it can be trusted. Labour’s Plan B is a B for bankruptcy, he said.

Post-tuition fees, post-AV, post-local elections, Nick Clegg has come in for a hell of a bashing, his name a too-easy punchline for gagsters everywhere. The question Michael White poses is a legitimate one, and it’s one that’s been nagging away at Lib Dems these past weeks: will Nick really be able to fight another election as party leader?

Like anyone else sane, I’m not going to make a prediction either way. It’s possible to see a scenario in which Nick’s reputation never recovers from the perception (however unfair, however unreasonable) that by forming the Coalition with the Conservatives, and compromising to deliver a programme for government, he’s somehow “betrayed” those voters who apparently thought the Lib Dems could get their own way on everything with 23% of the vote.

But there is another possibility, and one I think that is more optimistic and realistic: that, as the economy slowly recovers and reforms such as taking the lowest-paid out of tax begin to bed in, Nick will begin to earn credit for his pragmatically progressive leadership.

For that perception truly to kick in, two things are vital. First, and most obviously, an economic recovery which delivers private sector growth that offsets public sector pain. Secondly, Nick needs to retain his resilience, adopt a ‘stiff upper lip’ to the constant barracking from left and right that resents his role in breaking up the cosy Labour/Tory duopoly. Commentators likes to overplay Nick’s unpopularity for their own ends, as I’ve noted previously:

The media narrative is that Nick is the most unpopular politician in Britain. As I’ve pointed out before, that’s not true: most Tory voters and a majority of Lib Dems rate him as doing a good job; Labour voters do appear to dislike him. So it is not that Nick is unpopular; it’s that he’s divisive.

Most people, and certainly most politicians, and definitely most Lib Dems, like to be liked. To be actively disliked by sections of the population does not come easily. But if Nick can reconcile himself to that state, he has the opportunity to gain something much more important to any political leader: respect. If he can earn that over the next four years, he’ll have every chance of contesting the next election from a position of genuine strength, and one that’s much more deeply rooted than ‘Cleggmania’.

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  • Liberal Neil 18th Jun '11 - 3:24pm

    Yes – it is quite possible that the first year will turn out to have been the hardest.

    As time moves on it will certainly be people’s perception about whether the government is proved broadly right on the economy. If so the intensity of the ‘betrayed’ will ease and consequently the pressure on the Lib Dems.

    Saying that, there is chunk of the anti-Tory tactical vote, and some of the ‘betrayed’ that we will never recover.

    There are other issues to consider too though. Even if public support recovers somewaht a lot of damage has been done to the activist base, and we rely on that for our campaigning far more than the other parties do.

  • Andrew Suffield 18th Jun '11 - 3:50pm

    First, and most obviously, an economic recovery which delivers private sector growth that offsets public sector pain.

    Well, that’s looking good already – despite all the attention about GDP and retail figures being poor, the reality is that somewhere over 100k public sector jobs have been shed so far, and yet employment is up about 90k on the quarter. So the rate of private sector job creation is quite a bit bigger than the rate at which public sector jobs are being cut.

    To put that in context, if this rate of growth was sustained for the next 4 years then long-term unemployment would be largely eliminated in the UK. In fact, it would prove unsustainable for that period precisely because there would be a shortage of employable people. Probably isn’t sustainable at that rate, but at least it looks like Labour’s legacy of unemployment will be erased; we should easily get back to the pre-crash levels.

  • Andrew Suffield 18th Jun '11 - 3:52pm

    Yes – it is quite possible that the first year will turn out to have been the hardest.

    Well, that has been the government’s plan all along. They’ve heavily front-loaded the cuts to get the worst part over quickly before it can cause any long-term damage.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 18th Jun '11 - 3:56pm

    “[Nick Clegg] had three non-jokey points to make … . One was that, whatever happens at the next election, Britain will not return to the binary, red-blue world – “polarised” … world … of the 1950s.”

    Is tha not a joke? Dream on.

    Like you, Stephen, I’m not going to make a prediction. But I’ll be extremely surprised if there are more LibDem MPs after the 2015 (if, indeed, that’s when it is) election than there were Liberal MPs when i joined the Liberal Party in 1962. I think it’s highly probable that the legacy of this ill-conceived coalition will be the re-instatement of two-party politics for at least a generation.

    Cameron will be remembered in history as the man who destroyed the Liberal Democrats and Clegg as the joker who allowed him to do it

  • Nick (not Clegg) 18th Jun '11 - 4:16pm

    “somewhere over 100k public sector jobs have been shed so far”
    Thar’s good news, is it? Try explaining that to former public sector workers (many of them former
    LibDem voters) who have lost their jobs

    “the rate of private sector job creation is quite a bit bigger than the rate at which public sector jobs are being cut.”
    Many of them low paid, part-time and temporary: a flimsy basis for a sustainable recovery

    it looks like Labour’s legacy of unemployment will be erased; we should easily get back to the pre-crash levels.
    Wishful thinking or whistling in the dark?

  • Liberal Neil 18th Jun '11 - 4:24pm

    @Nick (not Clegg)

    On seats – even if we don’t recover at all in the polls I am pretty confident we will end up with more MPs than the 6 we had in 1962.

    On jobs – yes, some of the private sector jobs that have been created will be low paid, part-time or temporary. But so will some of the public sector jobs that went. Do you know of any actual figures for this, or are you just guessing?

    On your final point – surely it is factually correct that if the current trend of public sector job reducations and private sector job growth continues there will be a substantial reduction in unemployment by the end of this parliament?

  • What Clegg needs to do is to firmly implant Lib Dem policies in the minds of the voters. We don’t have any support in the media like the Tories and Labour do, but we should really do our best to make a song and dance about the positive things we’ve done.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 18th Jun '11 - 5:23pm

    Liberal Neil,

    Sorry, I don’t share your confidence. It seems to be just as likely that LibDem poll ratings (and, more importantly the LibDem share of actual votes cast in seats where they might make a difference) will go lower rather than higher between now and tthe next election.

    No, I don’t have any figures, but there is quite a lot of anecdotal evidence. What evidence do you have for your rosy predictions of an economic recovery by 2015? But what really angers me is your complacent celebration of public sector job losses. I expect to hear that kind of nonsense from Tories , from the Taxpayers’ Alliance and from the Daily Mail; to read it on a LibDem blog is deeply depressing.

    On your final point, as my Granny used to say, “if Ifs and ands were pots and pans, there’d be no work for tinkers”

    “a competent and effective party of government is one that has enemies.”
    I wouldn’t know about that; I’ve yet to see one.

  • Nick (not Clegg)

    The scottish election results provide evidence as to the likely fate of the Lib Dems. Given that almost a quarter of the parliamentary party represents Scottish seats, despite Scotland representing about 10% of total MPs, losses there disproportionately affect Lib Dems. Not many people in Scotland think that the Lib Dems are going to survive as a serious party should the current situation continue.

  • “Post-tuition fees, post-AV, post-local elections”

    Two out of three I’m afraid. AV and local elections yes, but due to his politicians reluctance to admit he was wrong on tuition fees (and that is not the same as stating he should not have signed the pledge). His refusal to say sorry to those that trusted him when given ample chance means that for many this will forever be linked to him.

    There is also an issue with being so deeply unpopular with Labour supporters and MP’s. In effect, and by demanding Brown go during negotiations in 2010, he has limited himself to being able to work with the Conservatives. At least some in Labour would turn the demand on its head and require Clegg to go.

    He needs to find ways to bridge this gap, and needs to start soon. Many people will vote Lib Dem with the preference of a Labour / Lib Dem coalition in the event of a hung parliament (accepting outright victory is unlikely at the current time). Personally I accept that change was needed and the current coalition was the correct choice but I will only vote Lib dem again in a general election if there is at least the potential for a more left leaning coalition. If the maths don’t add up, or the deal is not right, I would accept another Conservative led coalition but I will not accept it if that decision is made, or appears to be limited, prior to the results being in……

    For me the Lib Dems in coalition have to curb differing tendancies on the other two parties, with the Tories it is the right wing market is king approach, with Labour it is the authoritarian state is king approach. In either case I want a business like coalition and not the love in that blighted the first year of this one for me. We are starting to see movement towards this, although it would have been nice if MP’s didn’t need to be so publicaly pushed to do the right thing as they were with the NHS plans.

    But I still see no way at present that Clegg could work with Labour or that they would wish to work with him. They don’t need to be best buddies, and at this stage of a parliement this is unlikely. But if all the bridges are burnt there will be no possibility of working together. If that remains the same Cleggs survival will be linked tohow many people are happy to vote for a party which can only realistically work with the Tories.

  • Don Lawrence 18th Jun '11 - 10:05pm

    Sorry Stephen, most Tories like Nick, because he is a convenient patsy.

    According to MORI, he gets +11% with Conservative voters and a massive +14% with LD voters (N.B. these are people saying they would vote LD now. I can’t imagine many of those who voted for us in 2010, but won’t vote for us this time, saying he’s doing a good job.

    David Cameron is nearly as popular as Nick with LD voters, getting +6%.

    I’m afraid you are simply producing articles that are nice mood music, to make the troops feel less bad about things, and when you add “Secondly, Nick needs to retain his resilience, adopt a ‘stiff upper lip’ to the constant barracking from left and right that resents his role in breaking up the cosy Labour/Tory duopoly,” you are really saying, don’t rock the boat.

    BUT IT’S SINKING!! Don’t you get it?

  • Steve Way

    If at the next election, Labour has no majority but has a chance to form a viable government with the LibDems, they’d be foolish to demand the head of the leader of the LibDems (even assuming that it will be Nick Clegg). Their position would simply not be the same as that of the LibDems in 2010, and I think Miliband and his shadow cabinet (yes, even tribal Balls) would surely understand that and not risk a deal for this kind of demand, particularly not if they need the LibDems to get into Number 10, and even more so if the LibDems happen to have the casting vote.

    I agree, though, that a rapprochement between Labour and LibDems has to happen, to a point where a coalition between the two parties doesn’t seem impossible. It’s clearly in the interest of both parties, and I’d like to see the LibDems again let the voters decide the shape of the negotiations and make it absolutely clear that, in the case of a hung parliament, they’d negotiate first with the party that has won more votes and seats, regardless of which of the two it would be.

    It has to be said, though, that it takes two to cultivate friendly relations, and the Labour party hasn’t exactly been the most welcoming of potential friends, either. I have to say, Miliband may well have a struggle on his hands to convince a large part of his party that better relations with the LibDems are a good idea. I think Labour will find this a lot harder than the instinctively pluralist and mostly left-of-centre LibDems.

  • @Maria
    “I think Labour will find this a lot harder than the instinctively pluralist and mostly left-of-centre LibDems.”

    But are the Lib dems truly pluralistic anymore? I think in some quarters the move towards the Tories has been so clear that I doubt it is currently true. I suppose the problem is how can a party remain pluralist whilst in Government ? I think the teams that shared power in both Scotland and Wales did a better job of retaining their seperate identity than the current Wesminster crowd. I hope that’s changing…..

    Clegg demanding Browns head, and ensuring it was public, was simply a mistake. Not because Brown had to go (he clearly did) but because to be able to call himself a pluralist he should have been prepared to deal with other parties whoever their leader was, remember Brown still got more votes. A coalition of the losers would never have worked anyway, and probably never should. The party with the largest number of votes does have the largest mandate. If it is Labour at the next election they should lead the Government whether majority, minority or coalition.

    Labour has huge issues to deal with, not least in putting something on that blank sheet of paper. However, my view is that the party that starts throwing olive branches are the party that will benefit. Remember it is the Lib dems that (in the current position) need to win back voters.

    If nothing is done in the next year or so, it may come too late to make floating voters who see themselves to the left of centre lend their vote. And with those on the centre right seeing a seemingly moderate Tory party, that is where I would fear electoral meltdown.

    Lose the USP of equidistance and lose.

  • I don’t know if he will or not. I do know that I sincerrely hope that he doesn’t. He, Alexander and the Orange Bookers have taken over the party, betrayed it on Education and it took a Party Conference to force him to U turn on health. His dismissal of personal pledges by our MPs over tuition fees will linger in the public mind and it impugned all of us.

  • I don’t want Nick Clegg.

    It’s not because he made the coalition agreement. It’s not because there are things in there I dislike. I think he should have insisted either on AV straight up or a referendum on actual PR: in retrospect it’s obvious how utterly thrashed he was there (at the time I was only disappointed and didn’t give it much thought.. but the team actually making the agreement should have).

    What I do find totally unacceptable is the Tuition Fees issue. He (and others) made a defeinite *personal* pledge to oppose tuitino fees increases in the next parliament *whatever the situation*. There is simply no excuse possible for reneging on that.
    This is a totally different thing from a manifesto commitment that should rightly be considered for compromise in the coalition negotiations (and he made the pledge at a time when coalition was certainly a real possibility).

    I pounded the streets last time but I’m not likely to do the same again with this leadership. Milliband may even get my vote if he takes up electoral reform.

  • A point on Labour: apart from PR (though AV would be a good step in the right direction), what I want from Labour is some evidence that they understand what an abysmal Chancellor Brown was.
    The ONLY thing he did that was actually good was the independent Bank of England (which I’m pretty sure he had no choice about) [well ISAs are ok I think].
    – trash pensions
    – “prudently” trash governemnet finances (including PPPs and PFIs)..
    – ..and throwing money at porly managed areas of govenerment (NHS investment stands out)
    – massively complicate benefits while squeezing hard.
    – wreck what financial regulation we had
    – throw a ton more money at the banks (imo he should have taken the pieces -infrastructure- we actually need, and probably given support beyond the guaranteed £35k to those with savings and let the rump go bust with all its financier nonsense and ridiculous pay/pensions)

    ..perhaps I should have done my screaming at somethign a little more responsive than the radio 😉

  • Oh yeah (last one I promise),

    “Britain will not return to the binary, red-blue world – “polarised” was the world he used – of the 1950s”

    He seems to be doing a darn fine job of ensuring that exactly that does happen for the next 20 years or so (well it’s more a case of Blue-Bluer but 2-parties seems distinctly likely right now)

  • Chris Riley 19th Jun '11 - 5:41pm


    I’d like more acknowledgement that Brown actually managed to keep the UK out of a pretty nasty little recession between 2001 and 2003 that came about as a result of the Enron collapse and the dot.com fall. Check other countries economic records.

    That actually explains a lot of his actions around that time, and it reflects poorly on the economic knowledge of those who don’t even realise – or refuse to admit – it happened.

  • Kevin Colwill 19th Jun '11 - 8:54pm

    So year one…Labour nowhere, Lib Dem members on cloud nine at getting back into govenment after so long, Tory right keeping powder dry. Surely this should have been Nick Clegg’s best year?

    I’m part of the “anti-Tory tactical vote Clegg will never recover” so I admit bias. But, come on, if anyone is going to be disliked but respected it’s Cameron.

    Clegg and all orange book Liberals forget one thing. We have a right of centre party…it’s called the Tory party. There isn’t room for another.

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