STOP PRESS: Nick Clegg ends Lib Dem equidistance

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With his Demos pamphlet published today, it has to be said that Nick Clegg has ruled out any chance of doing a deal with the Conservatives in the event of a hung parliament following the next election. That isn’t quite the same thing as saying he has ruled in a deal with Labour but it does look as if our latest flirtation with equidistance has come to an end.

In The Liberal Moment, Nick Clegg makes it clear that while he sees progressive liberals (the tradition of which he squarely places the Liberal Democrats within) as enemies of conservativism, he places Labour within the wider progressive movement – and thus our rivals. Far from sidling up to Labour however, the pamphlet is a denunciation of the modern Labour Party and a declaration that Labour’s time has now past. Just as Labour eclipsed the Liberals in the early 20th century it is now the task of Liberal Democrats to in turn eclipse them in the 21st. Indeed, much of this pamphlet might have been written by Mark Anthony: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones” pretty much sums it up.

Broadly, I agree with him – at least in sentiment. As I wrote last month, I do wonder if “progressive” is a term that means anything to the non-politico. To the extent that I would consider myself to be a progressive – and for want of a better term, I do – I’m not sure I go along with Clegg’s definition:

At the core of progressive thought is the idea that we are on a journey forward to a better, and especially more socially just, society; it’s a political ideology that stems from a restless, optimistic ambition for change and transformation.

I agree with the second clause but not the first. Like Richard Dawkins, whose God Delusion I have thus far failed to write my review of (tsk! tsk!) Clegg seems to have signed up to the quaint enlightenment notion that progress is somehow inevitable. I disagree and consider that idea to be fraught with problems; if we assume that we are trundling along the road to progress then there is a danger that we tend to assume that each staging post is a step along the way. If we are on a journey, then it needs to be emphasised that we very much need to be in the driving seat and alert to every bump in the road (I think that metaphor has been safely tortured to death now, don’t you?). Indeed it is that lack of critical faculties that Labour can be blamed for; blindly following the “greater good” regardless of the cost.

If we are serious about replacing Labour then we need to resolve three things: funding, strategy and thought. When it comes to funding, it doesn’t matter how dead the Labour parrot is the unions will have the muscle to prop it up for years to come. How do the Lib Dems compete? The last time the Liberals were in the ascendency, party funding was a form of cheerful corruption, as the hereditary peers created by Lloyd George can testify. These days that simply isn’t an option.

Secondly, strategy. We aren’t going to ever replace Labour via an election strategy focused on target seats. It will take us decades, during which time Labour will surely regroup. Yet what is Lib Dem strategy except targeting? This isn’t a question we especially need to answer now, but we do need to have a significantly different game plan in place by the next-but-one general election if we are really serious about this.

Thirdly, thinking. There is an odd paradox when it comes to the Lib Dems and policy. On the one hand we undeniably have tended to be ahead of the curve when it comes to a range of issues, be they Iraq, the environment, democratic reform and now the economy. On the other hand, frankly, that policy comes across all too often as slapdash and poorly joined together. The party’s policy making process is more democratic than our rivals’, yet the party as a whole discusses policy least of all. Quoting Lord Wallace, Chris White wrote on Next Left last week that

He said, in effect, that when he joined the Liberals in the 1950s/60s (?), the party was great at talking about its philosophy but hopeless at campaigning. But now the situation was the reverse.

I for one find this incuriosity about policy within the Lib Dems extremely frustrating. It matters because I don’t believe things like “narratives” and core values can be handed down from on high; they have to be absorbed. Somehow we repeatedly fail to have the debates we need to have; each year we get excited about a specific policy here and there but in terms of broad priorities we thrash very little out.

Partly I feel our policy development process is at fault; it isn’t the democracy that’s the problem but rather its inflexibility. It’s extremely resolution heavy and deliberation light. But the other major weakness we have compared to Labour and the Tories are a lack of think tanks out there producing helpful research and original thinking. Both the other parties have a host of different organisations beavering away at this; the Lib Dems have the Centre Forum.

Ultimately, I don’t think the Lib Dems can hope to replace Labour until we start thinking of ourselves more widely than just a political party and build around ourselves a liberal movement. Labour and the Tories both have these; by contrast we have a liberal diaspora squatting inside the other parties. The decline of Labour and (inevitable?) failure of Cameron to fulfil his promise of liberal conservativism may help us change this, but at the centre the party needs to be ready for it.

It’s a worthy ambition, Nick. Now make it happen.

UPDATE: other responses from Anthony Barnett, Graeme Cooke, Costigan Quist.

9 thoughts on “STOP PRESS: Nick Clegg ends Lib Dem equidistance

  1. From what I read there are some good things in this paper, but it also needs some fleshing out.

    The targetting strategy remains worthwhile, but it goes with the depressing tactic of hoovering up protest votes. As we continue to grow as a political force we are going through the growing pains of developing an all-encompassing stance and becoming more coherent (as seen with Gavin Webb, whose defection to the fringe LPUK shows we have a more resolute and definable core), thereby becoming less dependent on targetting and showing ourselves to be a party more capable of governing (with a track record in major authorities to prove it).

    This matches our ability to join up campaign thinking to show there IS a narrative behind our philosophy. Our critique during the economic crisis has turned into a growing attack on the market distortions caused by Labour’s unbalanced tax and spend policies and the false incentives vreated through city bonuses structures, while the expenses scandal showed our inherent distaste for corrupt and dishonest practices.

    This recent desire for a more honest appraisal of situations traces its’ way back to the pure lies disseminated in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, and followed through with our somewhat heartless dumping of Kennedy, Oaten and Ming Campell from their positions in the party – we have thankfully started to judge ourselves by the standards we set ourselves.

    But there is still much lacking. For example with Jo Swinsons’ ‘Real Women’ campaign – it is a good start, but what about the other half of the issue? Are we intending to start a ‘Real Men’ campaign?

    Once we start linking together these issues we will give voice to an underlying ‘honesty’ narrative that is at the heart of what we stand for. Honesty means accepting all sides of the unpleasant truth and finding a balance between them to enable forward movement.

    We want to be seen as honest brokers and we have made lots of tentative steps in this direction. We know it is the best way, but we need to be more realistic and say that in the long run it is the only way.

    The choice which faces the country must be between those parties happy to play with the truth where it suits them to do so and a LibDem party which refuses to deny the truth even when it is uncomfortable.

    This might be a difficult choice for many to make, but it is the real choice.

    Hmm, I’m veering off into speechwriting mode. If I’d planned it it might’ve sounded really good…

    Anyway I’ve not got a problem with equidistance, so long as it means equally distant from Labour and tories rather than slap bang between them and trying to play divide and conquer: we might be geeks and freaks but we can trade successfully on the fact we’re set apart from their slice ‘n’ dice consensualism.

  2. Re: building the liberal movement, that’s the first time I’ve heard it expressed that this might involve lots of reading and writing as opposed to lots of setting up Facebook groups. I can do reading and writing! Shall we start a think tank?

    Oh, you already have. Bother.

  3. I wonder if the ‘liberal movement’ that James envisages is best thought of in formal party terms. Anthony Barnett has an interesting post on Clegg’s pamphlet at OurKingdom where he comments on the failure of the Lib Dems to connect their agenda with that of unruly citizen politics of a non-party kind – I guess he means things like Climate Camp or, perhaps, London Citizens (or Power2010). Maybe a ‘liberal movement’ will emerge as much from these civil society groups as from the Lib Dems. And it might feed into, and get fed by, other parties, including Labour and the Greens.

  4. There are certainly some parallels with what I’ve written and what Anthony has (which can be found here). And yes, there is a constituency in things like Climate Camp we need to exploit.

    Far too often initiatives like this are written off by the party establishment as being lead by extremist radicals. It certainly is the case that it has always been a core part of, for example Socialist Worker strategy, to get in with these groups. But one of the reasons a number of us were so keen to get the party participating in the anti-war demo in 2003 was that we recognised that the anti-war movement was far, far wider than that. Despite that, I don’t think Kennedy got it and I’ve yet to see Clegg make meaningful moves in that direction either.

  5. Thanks Stuart I do mean that but there are many more NGOs who need a bit of waking up as well. I hope Power 2010 will do some shaking. But, James, beware of trying to “exploit” Climate Camp! Language, language!

  6. On a narrow point: We happen to be on a journey to a better society. Contrast the present with Victorian/Feudal times. This is not to claim inevitability, just that the stock is currently rising over the long term.

  7. Nick Clegg in this pamphlet gives the impression that the Labour Party replaced the Liberal Party in the early part of the 20th century because it had better policies. This is incorrect. Its policies then were incoherent. It was the Liberal Party, with its “Yellow Book” which produced the most coherent policy response to the times.

    The Labour Party won out because before it was founded, politics was seen as a competition between wealthy people for power. One lot was toffs but claimed this meant they were naturally better and would look after the people in a more paternalistic way, the other lot weren’t quite in that social bracket and had the message “work really hard, and you might just become types like us”.

    The Labour Party came along and looked not like some superior class, but an organisation of ordinary people which said “Don’t just choose between those two sorts of governors, band together and let’s put a few people like ourselves into Parliament”.

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