Nick Clegg: burying Caesar?

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Am I the only one who finds it quite confusing that LibDems4Chris is written by a guy called Nick?

For the record, I really am still genuinely undecided. My assessment is that Chris is the better strategist and Nick is the better communicator. Nick will win my vote if he can convince me he has some idea about how the party must organise and Chris will win my vote if he can overcome his seemingly poor reputation within certain parts of the media. The latter is important because certain journalists really do seem to have their knives out for him and viscerally dislike him in a way that could be quite damaging. Having seen what they did to Ming, that is currently toppermost on my mind.

Nick Clegg’s speech yesterday was interesting. Unlike Huhne, he made a point of paying tribute to Ming at the start. Unlike Huhne, he laid into Ming’s tenure. Despite crediting Ming for giving the party a clear sense of direction and purpose, he goes on to say that:

For two years now, the Liberal Democrats have been caught up in internal self-analysis. We cannot go on testing the patience of the British people.

I’m not sure these two conflicting statements make any sense together. Without the boring old navel-gazing that Clegg deplores, we would not have the sense of direction and purpose that he praises. And it was Ming, as Chair of the party’s policy, who oversaw that introspection, so it is he, by association, that Clegg is blaming for the party’s shortcomings. To paraphrase another Shakespeare play, is that a dagger I see before me?

The bottom line is that a bit of self-analysis was sorely needed after the 2005 General Election. The last Lib Dem General Election campaign was the least inward-looking we had ever fought; it was did the least to “stand up for the liberal instincts of the British people.”

I suspect that Clegg knows this. Rather, I suspect this is a pitch for that school of activist who has no time for the party’s policy development and prefers, to use Simon Titley’s words, “mindless activism“. This is a way of pushing people’s buttons, of posititioning himself as the blokey, action guy as opposed to the unforgiveably cerebral Huhne. Clearly Team Clegg have been reading The Political Brain during their summer holidays.

Fair play to them. It is something that Huhne can’t afford to be blind to. He needs to find a way of neutering this particular line of attack, and quickly. But by the same token, Clegg needs to be careful not to let himself become a prisoner of his own rhetoric. Despite our democratic structures, the research shows (my research in fact, hem hem), that the Liberal Democrats are in fact the least introspective of the three main parties. It hasn’t gained us electoral pre-eminence. There is virtue in a degree of introspection: I would argue that the “meeting the challenge” project launched by Charles Kennedy (and it is all too notable that I know it as the “meeting the challenge” project, not the allegedly “Trust in People: Make Britain free, fair and green“), has still not managed to give us anything like the sort of coherence that we need. As I wrote on Monday, until our long term aspirations are a closer fit with our short term commitments, we will continue to look opportunistic (because that is exactly what we are being). Nick can flutter his eyelashes at the media as much as he likes, but they’ll continue to give us a hard time if they continue to perceive us as little more than a bunch of chancers. In short, he is in danger of adopting a strategy that will neutralise his greatest single selling point.

12 thoughts on “Nick Clegg: burying Caesar?

  1. I’m glad you’re still genuinely undecided. I’m struggling to be as critical and cautious as I should be.

    I’d be a lot happier if Nick’s website was live so I could get a better sense of Nick’s platform though.

    I understood what he was saying in his speech as saying that much of what we’ve been doing has been focused on making the activist base happy rather than appealing to voters. I suspect reform of the party is on the agenda but he’s going to try breaking the news very very softly.

    What’s more important though? Reaching out or being true to the current mindset of the party?

  2. The problem with Nick’s analysis though is that it doesn’t reflect the reality, or at least not the reality that I see.

    In the last General Election we simply campaigned on our ten most popular policies and junked anything philosophical that might tie them together. That was done in the name of widening our base.

    Do we campaign on things that activists are obsessed with? We’ve certainly been going in the opposite direction, with vetoes on even mentioning things like democratic reform at election time. We weren’t even allowed to call for localism last time round, in favour of our ten point action plan. In short, I can see nothing that we did in 2005 that wasn’t about “widening our base”.

    Small problem: it didn’t work. We comprehensively failed to capitalise on the unpopularity of Labour and the Tories, or of the anti-war feeling (which was all about widening our base). We spent so much time trying to widen our appeal in so many different directions that no-one knew what we were for. We got votes, but not supporters. And those voters have now well and truly abandoned us.

    I have a sense of what Huhne would do differently; rhetoric aside, I can’t see what, in practice, Clegg would have changed.

  3. No, Clegg’s speech was not “interesting”. It was meaningless waffle. I’ve read it again and again, and it says nothing to me. I just though “Er, is that it?”.

    Look British politics is in a crisis – people are really pissed off with it and politicians. They hate us ALL, they really do. The huge and growing gulf in our society between the haves and the have-nots is part of this. But the have nots have been persuaded more than the haves that politics is not for them – and so twisted into rejecting the sort of solutions which are needed – which must involve an active state. What a great trick from the right-wing – put the poor off politics, to make it safe for the right, then put more right-wing policies in which make society even more divided and the poor even more pissed off and less likely to vote.

    I’m looking for a politician who can address this, who can turn people back into seeing that democratic politics is necessary and something for us ALL to get involved in to build a better world. That does mean tackling the big powers that dominate us – not just the state, big business as well.

    And I don’t see Nick Clegg saying that. I’ve forgotten already what Nick Clegg said. It was BORING, standard nice-meaning but vacuous LibDem twaddle.

    So I just have to ask WHAT THE HECK TO PEOPLE SEE IN NICK CLEGG?
    Sorry, I just don’t get it, I just don’t see why he has been put forward by so many as our great hope, when he’s just another posh git in a suit that people will dimsiss as “nothing to do with us”.

    Where the person to lead us who has real fire in his/her belly, who really wants’s to fight injustice, who has that real passion to fight the way those born poor tend to stay poor, those born rich have an easy path to the top? Where’s the politician who really can convince us that the environmental crisis is a big thing, that we are going to have to change our attitudes fundamentally to keep our planet viable? Where’s the politician who can see we’re running a rat race that is making us profoundnly unhappy, and has theh guts to challenge it? Not Nick Clegg, that’s for sure.

  4. James,

    Well, you’re right. If Clegg’s plan is to encourage us to continue throwing out a random collection of ‘popular’ policies in order to court votes then this would be a total disaster.

    In fact, if that’s how you interpret what Clegg’s said then this actually gives me a strong, compelling reason to think twice – or at least be more keen on the idea of another candidate standing!

    People don’t vote in their self interest. They vote on values, trust and identity and our mistake at the last election was to abandon values and identity in favour of a random mish-mash of policies that were, even if you supported them, exceptionally low key and targeted at specific minority interests. There was nothing that was uniquely ‘lib dem’ – or at least, nothing I can recall off the top of my head despite actively campaigning in that election.

    I’d like to see us to offer popular, mainstream policies that, together, make a mass movement of people think, “hey, wow, they think like me!”. That means the policies have to be connected and they have to serve our long term vision for the country. Nothing else can possibly deliver us into government – see the rise of Labour, Sinn Fein and the DUP and even the SNP as evidence.

    But, you’re right. We need to know more about what Clegg might mean by “broadening the appeal.”

    Really I’d like to see us taking on some of the bigger problems. We really have been concentrating on surface tweaks and minor changes with mostly everything else staying as it is. As Mark points out in the comment above, there are systemic problems with some very nasty consequences that need tackling.

  5. Some good points, but let’s not over-interpret one line in a speech. We will find out soon enough.

    There is a little content – the text of the speech – up at nickclegg.com now.

  6. If I was convinced that Clegg really believed that the way forward was to copy the 2005 approach, I’d be cheerleading for Huhne by now. You’re right I shouldn’t over interpret one line, but I have read the whole speech and I see little in there that contradicts this interpretation.

    Bottom line: moving outside of our comfort zone means dismantling at least some of our shibboleths. The one big shibboleth we have as a party, which happens to also contradict our long term policy goals and be economically irresponsible, is our policy to scrap council tax and replace it with local income tax. If Clegg were to call for this policy to be looked at again in those terms, I would look very favourably on him. But that would almost certainly cost him votes from the wider party. The question is, is it just words or does he really mean it?

  7. You’ve been around longer than I have, James. How normal is it for leadership candidates to call for (or hint at calls for) policy reversals during a leadership campaign?

    Wouldn’t such a thing be interpreted by many as an attack on the democratic policy process?

    FWIW I entirely agree with you on Council Tax/LIT.

  8. The 50p rate WAS discussed during the last leadership election, and it has now been scrapped.

    I’ve always defended the right of leaders to take a lead on policy and provide conference with a steer, so long as they realise that it costs political capital and they may need elsewhere.

    What you appear to be saying is that Clegg believes in moving the party outside of its comfort zone, but dare not for fear of, um, moving the party outside of its comfort zone. This is his opportunity to secure a mandate for change. If he doesn’t use it and gets elected, he’ll quickly learn that plans announced AFTER people get elected leader tend to go down like a bucket of cold sick.

  9. Well although Nick and I talk strategy for an hour every morning, we didn’t have time for this particular question on top of Halle Berry. As it were.

    You’re probably right on the 50p rate, I don’t recall it myself. I remember Ming hinting that it should go in his Harrogate ’06 speech, and Paul Holmes going on the radio afterwards to disagree.

    I do think there is a difference between criticising on a policy which is already under review, and criticising one that has just been confirmed by conference. The latter would cost rather more capital.

    But I hope both candidates address this question, and a few others. If they don’t, your guess why is as good as mine. But for the moment, I have pretty high expectations of them both.

  10. I understand from a Times article that Nick is in favour of dismantling the NHS and selling off Royal Mail. Is he intending to campaign on such neo-conservative policies?

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