Nick Clegg: It’s beat up an activist day!

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Oh dear, oh dear, and he was doing so well:

Nick Clegg will unveil plans to end state interference in schools this week as he moves to bury the Liberal Democrats’ traditional approach to public services.

In his first keynote speech since becoming party leader, Clegg will challenge many of the party’s supporters in teaching and local government by issuing proposals which will “effectively take schools out of state control”, according to one official.

David Laws, the Lib Dems’ schools spokesman, paved the way for changes to the party’s approach at its annual conference in September, pledging to inject more choice into the system by making it easier for parents and community groups to set up new schools. The plans won the backing of the conference, although some activists and MPs are uneasy about the approach – which chimes with many of the policies proposed by the Conservatives.

I’m not opposed to “effectively” (weasel word) taking “schools out of state control”. Indeed, it’s just possibly I might actually be happy going further than what Clegg has to say on Saturday; he’s certainly already ruled out school vouchers, something I have in the past said I’m open minded about. Indeed, the party is totally up for taking schools out of state control, if by state you mean central government; always has been. The devil however is always in the detail.

What annoys me is that we’re back to activist-bashing again, and less than a month into Clegg’s leadership. It’s an old leadership tactic: make yourself look bold and radical by portraying your own party as awkward and out of touch. The worst thing is, it is with reference to a policy that has already been passed by party conference.

Do I have to remind Team Clegg of these results? Clearly I do:

  • Nick Clegg: 20,988
  • Chris Huhne: 20,477

Nick Clegg had a chance to spell out his vision for public service reform during his leadership election campaign; he bottled it. By all accounts he should have won an easy victory; he failed. If he wants to make the case now, that’s fine, but he doesn’t have a mandate and the price he has to pay for only just failing to pluck disaster from the jaws of victory is that he has to treat the intelligence of the party membership with a modicum of respect. Spinning before making a major policy speech that we aren’t going to like what he’s going to say is pathetic, counter-productive and yaaaawn! so like his predecessors.

Spinning that he plans to copy the Conservatives is equally foolish; apart from making it sound like he will utter little more than a “me too!” this is the party of the National Curriculum and standardised national testing we’re talking about, remember?

32 thoughts on “Nick Clegg: It’s beat up an activist day!

  1. Seems more like ‘taking schools out of local democratic control’. As a Liberal Democrat I’ve always been proud to have the second part of our name – which seems to be too often neglected.

    We need to be the party that supports democratically elected people, and the party that has a proper internal democracy too.

  2. Any sensible definition of state should include local government too. They are as much part of the state as central government.

    I’m not sure where you read ‘activist bashing’ in this, except the Guardian trying make the party sound divided…

  3. The fact that the first bullet point in the article is about emphasises that these new plans will “challenge the Lib Dem faithful” suggests to me that a line is being spun.

    I’ve made it my New Year resolution to not grudgingly assume that journalists make mischief when stories like this appear. Last Autumn I got increasingly irritated by newspaper reports about Lib Dem MPs being “in revolt” about Ming Campbell’s leadership when no names would be named or even quoted. It is now clear that such noises off were going on. Ultimately, most journalists are like sponges for information – feed them a line and as often as not it will end up in their articles with little or no fluffing by themselves. I’ve done it myself.

    True, this article doesn’t contain the sort of direct quote from a “source close to the leader” that we’ve had in the past, but it smacks of the same tactic. Many of the people responsible for Clegg’s near catastrophic leadership campaign are the type always going on about the party needing its own “Clause IV moment” and bemoaning “activistocracy” and so on. The truth is that when party leaders go beyond this and simply take their policies to the party directly, 90% of the time the party lets them do what they want.

    I voiced concerns way back before the leadership election about Clegg’s apparent buying of this line, in the face of all the evidence. This article suggests to me that he plans continue down this cul-de-sac. Currently there is still time to change course. I’d rather be open to the accusation of over-reacting to this story than the accusation that I’m being complacent to it. We’ve simply been here too many times in the past.

  4. James I agree with Tristan, the quote above is how the Guardian have spun the story, not a quote, what reason do you have to believe there is intentional ‘activist-bashing’ or alignment to Conservative-thinking coming from the Leader’s office on this? The Guardian are quite capable of writing their own angles.

  5. I’m not alleging a conspiracy, I’m taking the story at face value: a “senior official” was interviewed by a journalist, pushed a line and that line was duly taken.

    You’re the one alleging a conspiracy Andy…

  6. I really don’t see why you’re reading so much into this, James. I did a work placement over the party conference season in the political programmes section of a certain British public service broadcaster which shall remain nameless (insert all due disclaimers, this is just my own personal opinion and not that of the BBC etc etc). So many times, I saw journos approach a story by just writing the story they thought was the most interesting, even if there was the slenderest piece of evidence, and even if it had to be manufactured out of a total non-story. I don’t think any party was exempted.

    There’s a really unhealthy mixture of laziness and general cynicism towards party politics – and that results in journos trotting out one of a handful of recycled, stock “stories”. “Party leader provokes the faithful – it’s brave, but can he carry it off?” is a much-reused classic. The press would love to write a headline about “Nick Clegg’s Clause IV Moment”.

    If journalists just absorbed the lines spun at them by party propagandists, Ming would have lasted a lot longer. We spent the first few months of his leadership telling the press that age wasn’t an issue. It was only when it became obvious that the press were going to write the “Will embattled and ageing Ming survive?” story anyway, whatever we said, that the party started subtly deserting him.

  7. “…some activists and MPs are uneasy about the approach…”

    Surely if Nick is going to be taking us out of our comfort zone, as he promised during his leadership campaign, we would have to be uneasy?

    And anyway, what’s all this harking back to the leadership election results? He won, by getting more votes; not many more, but more than anyone else did – so if Nick doesn’t have the mandate then who does? Beats having his name pulled out of a hat…;-)

  8. I have no objection with Clegg taking us out of our “comfort zone” so long as that is because he thinks X or Y is the right thing to do. Let’s have the debate. I have rather more of an issue with Clegg talking about taking us out of our “comfort zone” because of some preconceived idea about what the party thinks or because it fulfills some media stereotype about the party. That way lies dogmatism and symbolism of the kind I was objecting to Labour employing yesterday (and I don’t recall anyone questioning my conclusion then).

    This takes me back to the whole Orange Book affair in 2004 when the book itself was actually quite bland but David Laws managed to stage manage a fake debate within the party that was largely false. Ever since, the media have been fixated on a framework of “Orange Bookers” and “social liberals” despite the fact that a large number of people who were literally “Orange Bookers” such as Steve Webb and Chris Huhne get regularly presented as opponents to the very book they contributed too.

    I don’t think anyone seriously questions that David Laws staged the controversy himself; nor do I see how this caricature has actually managed to help us move one.

    By tipping off the press here that “the activists won’t like it” people are stage managing a debate whereby legitimate concerns get dismissed as being reactionary. To an extent it is irrelevant whether this is media spin or spin from the “senior official” because the fact remains that if we are to have a sensible debate we now have to unspin it before it progresses too far.

    Consider this post my contribution in an attempt to do precisely that.

  9. James, I agree with you and i think you are right to raise the issue now and be proved wrong than be right later when its to late to stop it.

  10. ‘To an extent it is irrelevant whether this is media spin or spin from the “senior official”’

    Except it isn’t is it, as you’ve directly attributed the spin to Nick Clegg in your headline “Nick Clegg: It’s beat up an activist day!”

    This would be rather like me printing an article saying “James Graham: It’s undermine the Leader day!” and then claiming it was rather irrelevent whether that was your intent or not as that’s clearly the subtext of the spin.

    So come of it Jimbo, you’re flying a kite in an attempt to have someone deny it. In doing so you’re rather proving that it is sometimes the writers of stories who spin rather than their sources.

  11. ‘This would be rather like me printing an article saying “James Graham: It’s undermine the Leader day!” and then claiming it was rather irrelevent whether that was your intent or not as that’s clearly the subtext of the spin.’

    Well as it happens, I am deliberately undermining him, I think this article reflects poorly on him, he needs to accept ownership and I think his press operation was a weak feature of his campaign and this is an example of that problem continuing. All I’m saying is that although I disagree with your theory, it is ultimately irrelevant which of us is right.

    I think you should come off it yourself Andy Pandy; you’re always banging on about the evils of “activistocracy” and calling for party leaders to pick fights in this way.

  12. On the last ‘fight-picking’ point I think you’re confusing me with Mark Oaten, who made remarks that he ‘didn’t think we had a militant tendency but it might be quite useful if we did’ to the BBC in 2001. And I hope that’s the only confusion you have between the two of us… I for example still have all my own hair.

    On activistocracy yup, I stand by fully by what I wrote in 2005

    http://www.theliberati.net/quaequamblog/2005/11/22/pity-the-rich/

    “The problem I have with Gareth’s activistocracy arguments is that he appears to suggest that the Lib Dems representative democracy should trump parliamentary democracy. I don’t see how that can help the party develop good popular and robust policies that keep up with the public debate.”

    And what that broadly means is that in the event of a dispute between the Shadow Cabinet and Conference, particularly were we in government, the Leader is perfectly at liberty to choose to ignore the latter at their own risk.

    Not so much deliberately picking a fight as having some sense that Conference should be consulted but ulitimately it is the parliamentarians not Conference that are elected by the public. In extreme cases the sovereignty of Conference is a chimera. But that’s not the same as suggesting it should therefore be ignored at every opportunity.

    Where I believe we are in agreement is that the Leadership should consult very extensively on policy making, including the members through e-surveys, voters through polling/town halls etc., and external stakeholders through varients on the current process. But that’s about good leadership and policy-making rather than what happens in a crisis.

  13. They should take a look at what is happening to schools under new Labour. The Academies programme may well create an educational oligopoly with two or three organisations running most of the country’s secondary schools. They’re still under central state control as the state funds them, just not local control. Many if not most academies have removed elected parent governors, using appointed parents instead. I would be reassured if there is a commitment to localisation – too often this sort of rhetoric just turns out to be an attempt to swing the party behind dodgy new Labour gimmicks.

  14. Re: your last paragraph. I’ve already heard “Oh great, now we have THREE tory parties and I am completely disenfranchised” more times than I can count. Trying to sound like you’re being a Tory, even when you’re not, is stoopid.

  15. Aaaah!!!!!

    Jennie I SO agree with you. Andy, sadly, I SO don’t agree with you! I am sorry but frankly the logical conclusion of your argument is that we follow the ranks of the Labour and Tory parties into the stage managed rallies rather than proper democratic accountable conferences. I joined a party, a liberal democrat party, a party that believes in……………democracy, a party that stands out against the other main parties as one that has a grass roots and listens to it. Much as I love our shadow cabinet they do not have godlike characteristics – they are all there, frankly, because of us, the footsoldiers who delivered their leaflets, canvassed their constituents, contributed to their fighting funds. Yes, they have an accountability to those who voted them in, but, please remember, they were voted in as members of our party, not independents. If this is the debate we need to have, so be it. I’d rather get it clear now!

  16. “I don’t think anyone seriously questions that David Laws staged the controversy himself; nor do I see how this caricature has actually managed to help us move one.”

    But once you subscribe to the view that the end justifies the means, you lose the ability to criticise this kind of thing. The OB, for all of its faults, did actually get people talking about the Lib Dems and made people realise that the party was more than just one man. There were, to the surprise of many, a whole bunch of other people in the party and some of them actually had ideas! I’d have thought that you would be the last person to criticise the use of stunts and gimmicks to ensure a wider audience for previously-ignored points of view.

    Jennie: “I’ve already heard “Oh great, now we have THREE tory parties and I am completely disenfranchised” more times than I can count. Trying to sound like you’re being a Tory, even when you’re not, is stoopid.”

    I’m going to sound awfully grumpy here, but the whole “third Tory party” idea is a complete fiction which, if believed at all, is believed only by those too stupid to have acquainted themselves with even the most basic facts. I’m sorry, but I’m getting more than a little fed up of the opinions of morons being used as some kind of guide for the direction we should be taking as a party. (This, ladies and gentlemen, is why I could never be a politician).

    Let’s be honest here – whatever any leader tries to do is going to piss some people off. If we advocate reducing state control over schools, those who don’t like it will liken it to Tory policy. If we go in the opposite direction, other people will liken it to imagined Labour left policy. It seems as though everyone wants the party to take a stand and propose serious policies, because everyone always imagines that the perfect policy process will be executed, resulting in – surprise, surprise – exactly the policy that they wanted to be implemented. The thought that the policy process might not always be perfect, and the end policy might not be the one they wanted doesn’t cross anyone’s mind when they’re talking up the need for clarity. No, when it doesn’t work exactly how we want, suddenly the slenderness of the leader’s victory becomes an issue again.

    I don’t really like having to participate in this kind of conversation. It’s entirely negative, but I don’t really see any other way in which I can possibly respond to the post above.

    (I’m entirely willing to bet that by tomorrow morning I will have posted another comment regretting having got so worked up. I might even admit that the provocation of this post has caused me to think more carefully about the issues involved, but only grudgingly).

  17. “is believed only by those too stupid to have acquainted themselves with even the most basic facts. I’m sorry, but I’m getting more than a little fed up of the opinions of morons being used as some kind of guide for the direction we should be taking as a party.”

    But Rob, sweetie, 95% of people ARE morons. I’m not saying that any of the policy decisions that Nick has taken are wrong. I’m not saying that people are right in assuming that X policy is right wing/Tory and Y policy is left wing/Labour; mostly because those distinctions haven’t applied for some time.

    I’m saying that we (and when I say we, I mean you) need to find a way of countering this sort of crap, and actively encouraging people to think of you as Tory-like is silly.

  18. Lots of stuff to respond to here.

    Regarding the Orange Book. The abiding memory most people have from that episode is that the party looked split, and just a few months before a General Election. As such it created more heat than light.

    Three years later and we’ve just had a leadership election where much of that fallout was played out. Chris Huhne repeatedly played the Orange Book card during that election in a manner that most people commenting here, at the time, found deplorable.

    As Jonathan Calder has commented, much of what Clegg is now talking about could and should have been brought up at that stage. That’s why I mentioned the election results. Almost half the members who voted in that elected voted for a candidate who was taking an explicitly “social liberal” line in the public services debate. Many of Clegg’s voters voted for him having received lots of assurances that he wasn’t going to go too far down the “Orange Booker” road. I find myself in the relatively rare position of voting for Clegg partly because I preferred his stance on public services, but boy did it take a lot of prodding to get it out of him.

    So to start bringing this up now, having consistently attempted to shut down the debate during the leadership election, and in terms reminiscent of the old “beat up the activists” lines of yore (please to see significant numbers of people agreeing with me on that), is a gross insult to the membership’s intelligence.

    All I ask is that in light of how the election campaign went and the decisions that Clegg made within it, these issues get raised in a way that doesn’t present anyone who might have legitimate concerns about it as some kind of dinosaur. I’m a sympathiser, but I can already think of several concerns I might have; as someone who has family in East Grinstead I’d rather not see the Scientologists take over all their local schools for instance! By having a reasoned debate we can hone a better policy. By playing this game of “if we can’t convince the membership, we’ll simply over over their heads” MPs risk coming up with policy which has not been subjected to adequate levels of scrutiny.

    Regarding Jennie’s point about appearing like the Tories, I accept that the line in the article about “chiming” with Tory policy is more likely to be journalist embellishment than the rest, but we need to be careful about putting ourselves in a position where we allow ourselves to be presented like that. That is just harsh political reality.

  19. I went to TWO hustings and Clegg gave no hint about this. In fact he said ‘there’s no difference between me and Chris on public services’. Not true, obviously. Shame.

  20. Linda

    “I am sorry but frankly the logical conclusion of your argument is that we follow the ranks of the Labour and Tory parties into the stage managed rallies rather than proper democratic accountable conferences.”

    If I were proposing that it would pertinent to point out both these parties have larger memberships, better attended conferences, and a track record of electoral success that wouldn’t lead me conclude their conferences are a source of crippling weakness in respect of either membership, participation, or outcomes.

    But I’m actually not proposing anything. Simply observing that our “proper democratic accountable conferences”, actually have no great power other than to produce official policy papers.

    These papers have no mechanism to bind what the MPs do other than their consent to be bound. That consent in reality can be withdrawn in respect of what goes in the manifesto, what thinktank papers they write, what they campaign on, and what they vote on in Parliament. Withdrawing that consent, or ignoring conference is a risk, but it is a risk they can take, without there being any real sanction against it.

    “a party that stands out against the other main parties as one that has a grass roots and listens to it.”

    You have a point, only we both know the public don’t care about these internal process matters, rather more that we are a party that listens to them.

    “Much as I love our shadow cabinet they do not have godlike characteristics”

    Sure, but they do have the power to commission polls, surveys and other forms of consultation and research that are more representative of public, member, and expert opinion than party conference can hope to be.

    That doesn’t mean the opinion of conference is irrelevant, just that our elected representatives have to strike a balance. On rare occasions that balance might mean defying a majority of conference delegates, or acting without consulting conference. Is that contraversial?

  21. Andy

    Defying conference and acting without consulting conference……….yes I think that is contraversial! Of course we have to take into account public opinion, but frankly if that means going down the focus group route I for one would be very worried. What is the point of a party if it doesn’t have a role? We are a Liberal Democrat party aren’t we? So sorry, but if the electorate want us to adopt policies that are Conservative, or Socialist or Fascist………our bottom line has to be this is what we stand for. And lets be honest, leaders rarely fail to get their way at conference, if they are smart they will anticipate the battleground areas and seek solutions prior to conference. I fear we are not going to agree on this one!

  22. Linda,

    “if that means going down the focus group route I for one would be very worried”

    We already do. We don’t use the focus group technique specifically, but we do use depth interviews (which is a focus group of one) and opinion polls. One issue facing the Bones Commission is whether we use them enough, and where we don’t, what we do instead to get a sense of public opinion. But these are operational questions, they don’t say much about who we are other than like the rest of the world we recognise the value of research.

    On your penultimate point about the electorate wanting us to be other things, that misunderstands the point of using research. Although parodied as a creature entirely of his focus groups, Blair was never that. What Philip Gould’s research programme did was show how utterly out of touch the Labour MPs and party were with the public. He was then able to use that to adapt the Labour programme to be more acceptable. It’s rather hard to argue that after a decade of massive tax and spending rises with a grotesque centralisation of power and largely token reforms of public services that this isn’t a real Labour government, even if it’s been spun as something more ‘third way’.

    “What is the point of a party if it doesn’t have a role?”

    A bit of an OTT conclusion from what I wrote… there quite a lot more to our party than the absolute right to decide policy by majority of a selectorate of conference delegates… and that starts with

    “We are a Liberal Democrat party aren’t we?”

    Well quite (although I’d say ‘the’ Liberal Democrat party and or ‘a’ liberal party) and I think you answer your previous question there. People join the party for difference reasons, mostly though to get liberals elected, and hopefully form a liberal government.

    In that context what powers Conference has is a similar operational question to whether or not we use focus groups. Does it help or hinder the election of a liberal government with a liberal agenda.

    I personally think the answer to that is that consulting the party is vital, but must be balanced with other consultations so we’re not just talking to ourselves. I don’t though think that debates at Conference are the only or best way to consult the party, or that the votes following those debates can absolutely bind our elected representatives. If they veto there’s not a lot the party could or would do about it, and they already propose new ideas between conferences in response to events.

    A version of what the Tories have, which is that conference votes on ideas and papers, but something is not actually policy unless also agreed by the Shadow Cabinet strikes me as a very sensible balance.

    The other minor problem I have with the “we’ve got something special / protect absolutist party democracy or chaos is come” lobby in the party is that they tend also to oppose one-member one-vote for policy. It’s rather a peculiar position to argue a small group of MPs can’t be trusted on one hand but also that ordinary members can’t be trusted either.

  23. “Regarding the Orange Book. The abiding memory most people have from that episode is that the party looked split, and just a few months before a General Election. As such it created more heat than light.”

    This is probably where we differ, then. Speaking purely for myself, I found the whole Orange Book episode rather interesting, as it suggested that there was an actual debate going on about ‘big issues’ at a time when no other party was doing that. For me, it made me want to get more involved. I know other people for whom this was also the case. Now, you may argue that the party already has too many people like me (and the others I’m referring to), but I can’t imagine that the OB did us much harm amongst the wider electorate. Perhaps I lack a long enough historical perspective to judge this.

    “I’m saying that we (and when I say we, I mean you) need to find a way of countering this sort of crap, and actively encouraging people to think of you as Tory-like is silly.”

    Yes, but in this case it’s hardly our fault that the Tories are proposing to do the kinds of things that we want to do. It’s annoying that they got their policy out there first, but years of inactivity under Kennedy and the failure to grasp the agenda under Ming have left us where we are.

    I’m intruiged by the notion that it’s somehow my personal responsibility to spell out to people why we are not Tories (I assume that you didn’t mean me personally, but who did you mean?). Were I in charge, I’d probably make it a priority to do and say some things that the Tories genuinely couldn’t match, but that doesn’t mean making our entire raft of policies subservient to that aim. Sometimes the Tories will have the right policy too – even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day, and all that.

    I’m sorry, but I just can’t conceive of how people can’t tell the difference between us and the Tories. Can someone enlighten me on exactly how this works? This is an entirely serious question.

    If we accept that people are morons, and will therefore believe things that are entirely at odds with the facts, it doesn’t really matter what our policy is. We should just have a real policy (doing The Right Thing), and a big lie that will make the morons believe that they want to vote for us. If they’re not judging us on reality, what difference does it make? (I blame this comment on having listened to excerpts from The Prince all week, as it’s been book of the week on Radio 4).

  24. You as in plural you, members of the Lib Dems, as opposed to we, which includes me, non-member. I didn’t mean that the entire responsibility for the public perception of the party should rest on one man’s shoulders…

    The problem with morons is that they don’t want to think for themselves, they want to be told what to think. Most of those doing the telling are saying that the Lib Dems are an irrelevance, that it’s pointless to vote for them, that Clegg is Cameron-lite, etc. People believe this because it’s not a priority to them to find out the truth. Each person only has a finite amount of attention to pay to stuff, morons have less than non-morons, and thus the number of things that each can pay attention to is less. Westminster politics is just not important to most people, and they give their limited thought processes to other stuff. We can lament that they are shortsighted and silly for this, but that won’t change it.

    I think the trick would be to change the way the party is portrayed by the opinion makers… As for how to do that? No clue.

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