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.