Tag Archives: nick-clegg

Three thoughts about Police and Crime Commissioner elections…

You can’t politicise the police any more than they have politicised themselves

Every time the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Police Federation or someone like Lord Blair complains about the “politicisation” of the police, the Baby Jesus cries. The police have always been political, and over the last decade have become quite shameless about this: Ian Blair representing perhaps the apex of this.

Let’s not forget the hacking scandal, and the close links between the police and media that it revealed. Or the interplay between police and politicos over the De Menezes shooting. Or the transparent way in which the Police Federation and the Sun worked together over the Andrew Mitchell affair in a blatant attempt to divert attention away from the Hillsborough inquiry.

I don’t like PCCs for very many reasons, but in terms of “politicisation” the only thing they will do in terms of the police is to take that politicisation slightly out of the hands of the establishment and put it slightly in the hands of people at a more local level. Of all the reasons to oppose them, this is the weakest.

The Lib Dems are to blame for holding the elections in November

They deserve the credit for this and twelve months ago, Nick Clegg was claiming it to everyone who would listen internally (I was on the party’s Federal Executive at the time and can claim first hand experience of this). They insisted on this partly because the party was woefully unprepared for fighting the elections in May 2012, the government’s original plan, and partly because they very much wanted them to be held as far from the council elections as possible, fearing that the increased prominence of law and order issues during that period would damage the party. This went hand in hand with a mindset, not universally shared across the party, that it shouldn’t field candidates in the PCC elections at all.

In retrospect, I’m not entirely convinced of the wisdom of this. The answer to the party being weak on law and order issues is to be better on law and order issues, not to pretend they don’t exist. I disagreed with the argument that the party should not field candidates and am pleased that in the face of some quite strong pressure from the centre, the FE did at least say it was a local issue rather than the original position of attempting to actually ban local parties from fielding candidates.

Nonetheless, as it is a stupid policy anyway, moving polling day to November has only undermined it further – and thus increased the chances that PCCs might get replaced with something better sooner rather than later. My only real concern about it is what the Tories got in return for this delay, which I fear we won’t discover until the main player’s memoirs are published.

The Tories are to blame for everything else

The sad fact of the matter is that the creation of a role like Police and Crime Commissioner goes hand in hand with the mindset that you can hold elections without having to promote the elections whatsoever. It’s all part of a “no such thing as (big) society” philosophy that dictates that participation in elections is solely due to personal responsibility and the ability of individual candidates. I’m only surprised that someone managed to force them to provide any online information at all, and that they didn’t ban the Electoral Commission from doing what it could.

Returning to Andreas Whittam Smith, it is hard to see the creation of these posts and not see clear parallels between them and the direction he wants to see British politics to go in: surely this shift from politicians to “managers” is exactly what he wants, so why not simply support the Conservatives? And it is hard to see what he brings to the table. 12 independent PCCs were elected on Thursday, out of a possibly 41. Meanwhile, Democracy 2015 managed to garner just 35 votes in the Corby by-election.

More than 4,000 people have signed Unlock Democracy’s open letter to Theresa May, calling for her to take steps to ensure we never see a repeat of Thursday’s elections, and for her to consider alternatives to PCCs. Please add your name.

Clegg and coalition six months on

Nick Clegg signing the NUS anti-tuition fees pledge.The fact that Lib Dem conference is rapidly approaching means that I have a semi-anniversary of my own to mark. It’s now been just over six months since I left the Lib Dems.

Life after party politics

How do I feel? I’ve had a tough, and at times frustrating half year: negotiating the fineries of coalition politics when your full time job is focused on delivering democratic reform is not easy. But I can honestly say that I’ve been happier in myself during that period than I have been for pretty much any period in the last 12 years.

People who follow my blog, my twitter feed or my Facebook account will probably have noticed I’ve been exploring my non-political interests with far more gusto than I had before that period (and yes, I will finish my A-Z of Judge Dredd soon). Although I’ve never had much in the way of personal political ambitions, there has always been a tiny shiny suited version of myself in my head screaming at me to only ever present the world with a cookie-cutter version of myself. I’ve always been a geek and been quite open about it, but these days I feel I can let it all hang out a bit more: it’s heavenly.

Fundamentally though, I’ve felt less guilty. In fact, I’ve felt so much less guilty that I feel a little guilty about that in itself. There’s a significantly louder voice in my head that believes that it is important to feel the weight of the world and to do your bit to stop it from sliding into chaos, and that it is better to have tried and have got it wrong than to have not tried at all. But it would be a total lie for me to deny that the feeling of not coming home from a hard day’s work to angst about all the other awful things happen and what I can do to sort them out is anything less than bliss.

I know this feeling is temporary and that at some point I’m not going to resist getting back into the thick of things. But I’m less inclined to believe that will mean returning to the Lib Dem fold any time soon than I did back in March. Party politics feels so broken for me at the moment that while I am enormously grateful that there are still people working from inside the system, I can’t really imagine myself doing the same.

My quitting the party was a long time in coming. I haven’t been a shiny faced new believer since my disastrous party job in Leeds, which ended more than 10 years ago. Since then, things like party conferences have mostly been a chore for me: a place where there is work to do, and where some of my closest friends could be found, but something which I would escape from every evening at the very first opportunity I got. To truly love the Liberal Democrats in all its idiosyncrasies is to love Glee Club, and I haven’t been able to stomach that rather grotesque and self-congratulatory tradition for years.

I can think of no better way to sum up my six month “holiday” than to refer you to the lyrics of Blue Lagoon by Laurie Anderson (sorry, I did say I was letting my geeky side hang out more). Nonetheless, as it has been a while since I wrote about any of this and since we are about to enter the conference season, I did think it would be a good time to type up my thoughts on the party, its future and the state of politics in general. This has been somewhat precipitated by two things this afternoon: Richard Reeves’ new article in the New Statesman and Nick Clegg’s now seemingly ubiquitous apology:

Tuition Fees

On the apology, I think it fair enough, not too badly expressed and is relatively heartfelt. It’s long overdue. For whatever reason, the tuition fees incident is a running sore that has come to dominate pretty much everything the party has done in coalition since and it is hard to see how the party can move on without somehow getting over this incident. I’m not saying that Clegg’s apology will achieve that, but it will do more good than harm even if the short term effect has been to open up some slowly healing old wounds for some people.

There is a problem with it though, which is that Clegg is apologising for making a promise he was never in a position to keep. That’s not entirely true. He could have made it a dealbreaker for the coalition. I’m not saying that he should have done, in fact I think it would have been downright foolish, but he had a choice and made it. For the past couple of years, Clegg has been altogether too much in love with claiming there is no alternative to what he and the coalition have undertaken to do – as if he is some unwilling victim being buffeted along by events. If you listen to his speeches, you will rarely see him take responsibility for anything: everything is expressed as being either obvious or inevitable. It gets to the heart of his weakness as a politician, and why people find it so hard to like him any more.

So let’s have a short reminder of why he is very much the architect of his own destruction. Throughout his time in opposition, Clegg made no secret of his hatred of the Lib Dems’ policy on tuition fees. On two occasions he attempted to win a vote on the conference floor to scrap the policy; on two occasions he lost the vote. Anyone with any sense at all within the party could see that he was never going to be able to win that fight, and that there was little point in wasting his political capital in fighting that fight.

As an opponent of the policy, what he should have done is attempt to de-prioritise the policy and make it a negotiable add on to the manifesto rather than a core goal. In fact, in terms of the manifesto, he more or less achieved that and he probably could have gone further if he hadn’t raised so many people’s hackles (even a number of tuition fee supporters ended up turning on him in the end and his failure to respect the party’s wishes). The problem is, by exhausting so much energy in attempting to scrap the policy he caused a backlash. A number of parliamentary candidates, not to mention the campaigns department itself, was so determined to alleviate concerns that the party couldn’t be trusted on the policy that they ramped up its status in their campaign literature and their personal statements. Just to make things even crazier, Clegg ultimately went along with it, agreeing to be photographed signing the NUS pledge.

I have to say that the campaigns department was extremely foolish to put the party in this position – not for the first time it behaved like it controlled the party and knew better than the people in charge of the manifesto, the Federal Policy Committee (I still find it frustrating that the 2005 manifesto was essentially usurped by a 10-point pledge which had little resonance and was completely useless to those of us fighting seats in Scotland at the time). But Clegg went along with it. He bottled it. He made a calculation that he could get away with signing his name to a policy which he was personally hostile to. That doesn’t just represent weak leadership and poor judgement, but an outlook on life that raises serious questions about a fitness to hold public office. It reveals the inner core of a politician who, if you look at his track record, has never had to fight particularly hard for anything at all, and has always depended on political patronage (thanks to Leon Brittan who discovered him in the European Commission, Paddy Ashdown who championed his bid to become an MEP, Richard Allen who bequeathed his Sheffield Hallam constituency to him and Ming Campbell who kept the leadership chair warm while he got himself ready) and never really had to fight for anything. It is one of the reasons why I find his constant talking up of social mobility at the expense of tackling all other forms of inequality so empty and galling; I really do think he has fooled himself into believing that he’s got where he is today through his own effort and thinks that everyone else would have the same life chances if only they had a slightly better school.

But since I have been defaming Clegg, I will say this: whatever you think of his apology, at least he has apologised. You won’t hear anything even close to an apology coming from the lips of his fiercest critics on the left. And the left really do have a lot to be sorry about.

I actually think the new higher education policy marks a real step forward compared to the policy we had before that. Most students will end up paying less but over a longer timescale. It has been poorly presented, but it represents a tax on the relatively affluent which is not being paid out of poorer people’s income taxes. But even if it was the worst system imaginable, there is a real question of priorities. Why is it that the left, particularly the far left and those engaged with student politics, have been far more exercised about this single policy than they have ever demonstrated in terms of the NHS, welfare or Educational Maintenance Allowance?

Oh, and if you’re a lefty reading this, yes I’m quite sure you believe those things were equally if not more important. But you simply didn’t get the numbers out on the streets for those campaigns did you? The NHS reforms in particular were in a particularly vulnerable state in 2011 – yet the only people doing the running in terms of stopping that policy were Liberal Democrats – mostly the Winchester local party and the Social Liberal Forum. If even a proportion of the numbers who turned out for the student funding marches turned out for the NHS, it would have been a dead reform. Instead, they mostly sat on their hands.

The collective failure of the left to get its priorities even marginally correct during this period of economic uncertainty is going to be something academics will be scratching their heads about for years to come. I have no easy answers: all I hope is that a few more people would act (and speak/tweet/blog etc.) with a little more humility and responsibility than they do.

Richard Reeves

So much for Nick Clegg and the left; back to Richard Reeves. His article previewing the party conference is utterly bizarre, but manages to sum up both his success and his abysmal failure.

In terms of success, Reeves and his fellow “Orange Bookers'” greatest victory has been to frame the debate in the Liberal Democrats as a struggle between noble Liberals seeking to defend the tradition of Gladstone with sinister entryist Social Democrats. There is an irony there of course because it was entryism within Labour that the Social Democrat Party was in part a reaction against. But of course it is utter bollocks, not merely because it essentially writes off the entire Liberal Party history from 1900-1950 – including the party’s proudest moments in terms of establishing the welfare state – as an aberration. It also blithely ignores the fact that many Orange Bookers come from the Social Democrat wing of the party themselves – Richard Reeves himself was a Blairite loyalist (as he himself alludes to in his assessment that Clegg exists to fill “a Blair-shaped hole in British politics”).

It is very notable that in his rather long and rambling article, Reeves seems incapable of defining what he means by “liberalism” other than say that it is neither Conservativism or Labour. What Reeves calls “radical liberal[ism] of the political centre” emerges as little more than the triangulation of Clinton and Blair: take two extremes and position yourself between them. By sheer, breathtaking coincidence, this is the same triangulation of Cameron – and even though many of his leftwing supporters would prefer otherwise, of Ed Miliband. In short, Reeves’ answer to the Lib Dems’ ills is to simply continue obsessively pursuing the same agenda which has dominated Anglo-Saxon politics for well over two decades now and has lead to a disengagement with politics the like of which we have never seen.

For all my mocking, there aren’t any easy answers. What I can tell you is that the last thing the Lib Dems can afford to do is to take Reeves’s advice and doggedly resume the politics of the centre ground. Nye Bevan’s warning of what happens to people who stand in the middle of the road applies doubly to third parties attempting to recover from a mortally wounding coalition. The fight for this tiny bit of political real estate has already reached its logical conclusion, with three virtually interchangeable parties finding themselves completely at the mercy of global, cultural and economic forces.

To talk with most party politicians, you would think this was the only game in town and in a sense they are correct. It is simply undeniable that to win a majority under any electoral system you need to be able to win over those undecided swing voters. Their mistake is to massively overestimate what you can achieve once you get there if you have done nothing whatsoever to prepare the groundwork for what you actually want to achieve. In short, unless you can answer how you can widen the Overton window onto your territory, you really are wasting your time.

Regardless of my earlier criticisms, at least the relatively sensible members far left get this. The purpose of UK Uncut and later Occupy was not to foist revolution on our doorsteps but to alert people to the possibility of change. While people are often quick to dismiss the anti-Iraq demonstrations as a failure, the fact that Bush and Blair were prevented from their headlong rush into attacking Iran was at least in part due to the enormous cost the protest movement forced them to pay in toppling Saddam.

The far right definitely get this: the Tea Party may be making Mitt Romney unelectable at the moment, but they’re successfully chipping away at issues which the left long presumed had been won such as abortion rights – and they have done a terrific job at putting the Democrats on the defensive on the economy despite the Republican’s own dire record. Obama’s own options in office have been limited precisely because the right have made it almost impossible to get any of his agenda through Congress without paying a blood price.

Thatcher, and the people behind Thatcher got this – and that it would take them decades to achieve. Every lobbyist worth their fee understands this. Yet, for some reason, it is a lesson which mainstream party politicians stubbornly refuse to learn – possibly because mainstream party politics is dominated by people who only seek power for themselves.

The future of the Liberal Democrats lies not in obsessively worrying about mainstream acceptance and chasing the centre ground, but in winning the argument across the country. That means that any future Liberal Democrat party is going to have to agree pretty darn quickly about what it wants to achieve. It is hard to see what the Orange Bookers achieve by remaining in the party when the best chance for implementing their policies lie in the Conservatives and Labour. If post-coalition Liberal Democrat politics is dominated by the same fissure which came to dominate the party over the past eight years, then annihilation will be all but inevitable. If by contrast it can rally relatively quickly around a clear vision of society that it wants to achieve, then it will be in a position to make a slow and painful recovery – and if it acts smartly it will see the political ground shift in its direction long before it gets another sniff of power.

Clegg and coalition

There are two questions which I suspect will dominate the late night conversations at the Lib Dem conference next week: when Clegg needs to go and when the coalition needs to end. One of the reasons why I’m better off out of it is that my head and my heart tell me completely different things in answer to both.

I’ve come to loathe Clegg and his style of leadership with a passion. At the heart of his leadership bid was a dishonest failure to come clean about his agenda; something which he attempted to impose on the party indecently soon after his narrow victory. One of the reasons the coalition has been quite the failure it has been is that Clegg negotiated a deal which he and his narrow base of allies in the party felt relatively comfortable with, knowing full well that at the same time they got to junk all the policies they never supported in the first place. During the first few months of the coalition, it was very clear that Clegg was enjoying the fact that he’d managed to get one over the party enormously (and we should admit at this point that the left of the party failed prevent this and must bear heavy responsibility as well). He didn’t govern as the leader of the party but as its usurper and it was only once he had been made painfully aware of quite how unpopular his own policies truly were that he suddenly rediscovered the “progressive” concern which he normally reserved for bluffing his way through elections.

So yeah, I’d quite like to see him out on his rear. I’d like to see that quite a lot. My big problem though is that I’m pretty non-plussed by leadership at the best of times and find the choices on offer to the party to be remarkably poor.

Dismissing out of hand the option of the Lib Dems selecting a rightwinger like David Laws or Jeremy Browne as Clegg’s successor (I suppose it could happen; suffice to say it would be political suicide), there appear to be two real choices available:

  • Vince Cable: despite stumbling over tuition fees and then being stripped of his media regulation powers by indiscreetly claiming to be at war with the Murdochs, Cable has had quite a good couple of years. He’s made little secret of his disdain for the coalition or for George Osborne’s economic policies in particular. The problem with Cable though is that he is very much his own man. A vote for Vince Cable is a vote for the party going down the Conservative Party route of having all party policy decided by the leadership – this in spite of the fact that Cable’s attempts at autonomous policy development have consistently ended in disaster. The man is simply not collegiate and has an ego the size of a planet. And let’s not forget the fact that he was fully signed up to Clegg’s project; it is only Clegg’s unpopularity and Cable’s own unpopularity within the Conservatives which has lead him to reinvent himself since joining government. There has been a lot of reinvention going on which he has largely got away with – such indulgence will end the second he becomes leader.
  • Tim Farron: Tim is charismatic and charming, and decisively leftwing. He’s a contemporary of mine, which makes his rise particularly interesting on a personal level. My problem with Tim is threefold: firstly, he has a notorious tendency to speak before thinking and to rhetorically overreach in a way that is veritably Clegg-like – he hasn’t come a cropper in the same way that Clegg regularly does, but I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t simply because he is subject to less scrutiny at the moment. Secondly, he consistently wobbles on cultural liberal issues, whether it is regarding homeopathy or his links with gay cure supporting CARE organisation. And finally, there is the fact that I simply haven’t been very impressed with his time as party president. I can see very little evidence that his crusade to bring back community politics (but without all the “it’s worth doing for its own sake” nonsense) has come to anything; similarly his membership pledge has come to nothing. What I see in Tim is a lot of dynamism, a lot of charm and heaps of rhetoric – but very little substance.

The only other person who I can conceive could take the mantle is Steve Webb. But while Steve has, by all accounts, done a great job at keeping in touch with the parliamentary party, he has been all but invisible to those of us outside the Westminster bubble. He appears to have done a competent job in terms of pensions reform inside the Department of Work and Pensions, but it simply isn’t clear how great an extent he takes responsibility for many of the more controversial welfare reforms being lead on by Iain Duncan Smith. So as a leadership contender he would have to deal with both his disappearance from the public gaze and serious questions about his own complicity: even if he tackled himself well in both respects, I somehow doubt he’d get a look in.

In short, I don’t think the Lib Dems have all that much in the way of talent on their benches, and that makes getting rid of Clegg an especially risky premise. The fundamental problems pre-date Nick Clegg, which is why the last leadership election in 2007 was fought by two former MEPs who had only taken their seats in 2005. Sadly, this dearth of talent is a natural outcome of an electoral strategy which has focused so much on casework and community work at the expense of vision and clear strategic thinking.

The other issue is when the coalition should end. Many would like it to end tomorrow, or even sooner – as articulated by Nick Barlow. I find it hard to argue against Nick’s charges against the coalition: to call it fundamentally dysfunctional would be generous.

But Lib Dems who imagine that there is some dividend to be earned by leaving the coalition early are simply misguided. The public won’t thank them – they’ll simply conclude the Lib Dems are even more of a waste of time. By contrast, there is a historic, long term gain to be earned by simply allowing this coalition to last a full five years.

The electorate has a short collective memory; I’ve lost count of the number of people who hated the Labour government but now look back on it with rose-tinted spectacles. No matter how painful this coalition feels at the moment, or what damage it does, the fact is that if it lasts the full five years it will be seen as a success for coalition politics while if it falls apart it will be seen as a loss.

If the Lib Dems ever want to return to power again, persuading the country that coalition is not the scary thing that both Labour and the Conservatives insisted it was during the last election will have to be a priority. Adding another footnote to the argument that all coalitions fall apart after a couple of years will slow any chance of a Lib Dem recovery for the simple reason that people will see a vote for the Lib Dems to be a vote for chaos and weak government.

None of this is pleasant to say and the counter-argument that this coalition is so uniquely awful that it simply can’t be allowed to continue carries a lot of weight. But again, the question needs to be asked about how effective the alternative would be. A majority Conservative government is still just about conceivable if an election were called tomorrow: the Tory argument that they need a mandate to finish the job, and that Labour aren’t fit for office will carry substantially more weight than the polls suggest. Such a government would be an utter disaster.

And a Labour government wouldn’t be much better. Labour simply do not have an economic policy at the moment and under Ed Balls it seems inconceivable that they will want to adopt one. A Labour government would probably spend a bit more, and have somewhat better priorities, but it would be a mistake to think that they would be drastically different in terms of the coalition. So destroying a long term gain (not just for the Lib Dems, but for pluralist politics as a whole) in favour of a short term highly marginal improvement simply doesn’t appear very enticing to me.

Finally, there is the question of confidence and supply. Many coalition supporters cling to this as if it would be the answers to all their problems: yet all it would mean is that the Tories would be able to speed up their spending cuts with the Lib Dems voting their budgets through. And even disregarding how votes in the Commons would be likely to go, the damage a solely Conservative government would do would be immense.

I simply don’t see an easy way out; merely a long, painful haul. Having made this bed (which I have to accept some personal responsibility for), the party is going to just have to lie in it. Instead of worrying too much about the next couple of years, the Lib Dems ought to be thinking bigger, and what they will be doing during their wilderness years. Fundamentally, they need to get over their obsession with winning parliamentary seats and start thinking much more about the sort of society they want to see. Ultimately, the problems are far bigger than simply Nick Clegg’s own incompetence and dishonesty.

Why Charlotte Henry’s purity test of “real” liberalism is misguided

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Charlotte Henry has a curious article on the Total Politics blog, suggesting that Clegg’s speech on a more participatory form of industrial democracy will help us to seperate the “real liberals” from the “SDP-statist-sandal wearers”.

There are several problems with this diagnosis. For one thing, the famed “sandal wearers” and the SDP members are very different people. Indeed, when I joined the party in the mid-90s, the two were at daggers drawn. The “sandal wearers” – a term generally used to describe the aging young liberals “red guard” of the 60s and 70s would cling to their copies of Liberator, openly mocking the “sogs” who had produced their own Reformer (which eventually became the house organ of the Centre for Reform) in response. The two groups could not have been more different; indeed, if anything it was the SDPers – with their support for “the Project” – who were perceived as more rightwing than the basket weaving liberals, the latter with whom I personally identified more closely with at the time. Indeed, the forerunner to Liberal Vision and the Orange Book, Liberal Future, was an odd hodge-podge of SDPers and former pro-Euro Conservatives.

A decade and a half later, the people on both sides of that rather silly schism have moved on. A great many SDPers now identify closely with the what is lazily known as Orange Book tendency as well as the Social Liberal Forum. The people from the liberal wing of the party find themselves on both sides of the debate as well.

But is there a disagreement with them on employee-ownership schemes? I don’t see it. The first Social Liberal Forum Chair Richard Grayson, who is quite proud of his SDP heritage, was especially keen that we take on the task of reviving industrial democracy as a central plank of the Lib Dem platform, and argued to this effect when the party was drawing up its last manifesto (indeed, one of the SLF’s first meetings was on this topic).

Much as I might like to pretend that the more classical liberally inclined members of the party would have a problem with Clegg’s speech, I doubt it very much. I would humbly suggest that this is probably for two reasons: 1) the people Charlotte feels free to take potshots at may be rather more liberal than she assumes and 2) there is probably rather more to unite the party than some of our more factional members like to think.

As David Howarth points out in Reinventing the State, the party is essentially social liberal – the only real dispute between groups like the SLF and the Orange Book tendency is a rather pragmatic one about what method of public service delivery works best (admittedly, this is a debate which can get pretty heated at times; rightly so, given the stakes). There certainly is a fairly deep schism between those who identify with a narrowly defined view of classical liberalism and the rest of the party, but you can count the number of these people on the fingers of one hand.

Calling people out on some kind of “real” liberal purity test is self-destructive at best and claiming employee-ownership is likely to be a sticking point is to fundamentally misunderstand the real debate within the party. Let’s not try to make up disagreements which aren’t there.

Speech: Where we are and how we got here

Note: I got into a bit of a state preparing for my speech at the Social Liberal Forum Conference on Saturday, staying up the previous night writing and angsting about it: for some reason I found the prospect of sharing a platform with Neal Lawson, Will Hutton and Simon Hughes (who ended up replaced by Evan Harris at the last minute) quite intimidating. In the end, I would have been better off just writing half a dozen notes, having a good night’s sleep and winging it. I never got round to doing the final section because I went massively over time.

I’m not really happy with it – in particular I really need to spell out better what I’m trying to say about corporate culture and how the banking crisis is connected to IP wars and body image – but for what it’s worth here it is. In the event, a lot of what I didn’t get a chance to say was touched on during the day in any case, which was pleasing.

We established the Social Liberal Forum in early 2009, but its conception arose out of the Lib Dem 2008 Autumn Conference. Many will have forgotten, but that conference was dominated by the publication of the so-called “vision and values” paper Make It Happen.

The party leadership’s line to the press in the run up to that conference was that this paper signified a shift in policy, and specifically a move towards the party promising overall tax cuts at the following general election. This caused a predictable outrage and equally predictable froth about Clegg having a “Clause 4 moment”. In fact, the policy motion going to conference said nothing specific about tax cuts but was sufficiently vaguely worded that it was open to interpretation. The result was an absolute mess, with people hopelessly confused over what the debate was even about and the official line changing on an almost hourly basis. It was possibly the lowest point in the party’s proud history of deciding policy in a transparent and democratic manner.

In the end, the motion was passed, but it was a hollow victory. While we spent our time debating the prospect of tax cuts in Bournemouth, in New York Lehman Brothers was falling apart. By the end of the conference, it was already clear that we were going to have to tear up our economic policy and start all over again.

It is important to recall that incident because we need to be clear about where the SLF was coming from. We didn’t set up SLF to be some kind of Tribunite vanguard of a fringe liberal left. Our concern was that the mainstream voice of the party was being sidestepped and bypassed. The social liberal majority within the party had grown complacent about its predominant position, assuming that the party’s internal democracy would prevent the party from going in a direction it wasn’t willing to take. The 2008 conference made it clear to a number of us that it was important we got organised. As it happens, with the formation of the coalition, the need for that organisation is now more apparent than ever.

Was SLF established as a ‘response’ to the Orange Book? Well, it is true that several of its founding members were involved in the publication of Reinventing the State, which certainly was a response to the Orange Book. But I don’t think that portraying tensions between “social” and “economic” liberals within the party is some kind of ideological schism is helpful or especially meaningful. Within the Lib Dems, the debate over how public services are delivered ought to be entirely pragmatic and evidence-based. That isn’t to say there aren’t disagreements, merely that such an internal debate ought to be something that can only be constructive – as long as that debate is conducted fairly and democratically. It is the dogmatic approach of Andrew Lansley’s health reforms that, above all, should cause us concern, not the prospect of reforming the NHS at all.

The real ideological struggle we face is not over how we should deliver public services but over the size and the role of the state. This is clearly a dividing line between the Lib Dems and Conservatives. Is it a dividing line within the party itself?

There is certainly a libertarian fringe, but it isn’t a grouping that any senior party figure has ever chosen to associate themselves with. And despite the fact that senior figures within the party have occasionally appeared to flirt with libertarianism, I have never got the impression that this is part of a thought through position. Indeed, in some ways, it would be less problematic if it was. Rather, this flirtation appears to have more to do with an anti-intellectual tendency to confuse policy making with posturing.

This anti-intellectualism is not limited to the top of the party; indeed I would argue that it is one of the biggest challenges we face as a party. For my job at Unlock Democracy a few years ago, I conducted a survey of Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem local parties. I was shocked when the figures came back to show quite how little policy discussion actually went on in the Lib Dems, even in comparison with our rivals.

For too many within the Lib Dems, party involvement begins and ends with winning elections. For them, policy is only a means to an end. All too often that leads us down the road of populism and all too often populist policy proves to not be terribly practical when it comes to implementation. We have a tendency to focus too much on what makes a good slogan.

There’s a very specific reason why, for me at least, we decided to call ourselves a Forum, and that’s because we wanted to foment debate within the party at all levels.

But what direction should future party policy take? Spearheaded by Tim Farron, and no doubt in response to the Big Society, there has recently been a flurry of excitement about the idea of reviving community politics as the party’s core strategy. I welcome this, but feel it will only be a worthwhile exercise if we can work how to prevent the hollowed out form of community politics, which exists as little more than a technique for winning elections, from predominating. Despite many of its adherents’ best efforts, community politics has been indirectly responsible for helping to form the very intellectual vacuum that we are now so concerned about. Somehow, the reinvigorated communicty politics of 2011 needs to avoid this.

What other policy challenges are there? In my view, we need to urgently come to some kind of understanding about what we mean by inequality, and thus fairness, as a party. We have to come up with a more compelling answer than “social mobility.” It isn’t that social mobility is a bad thing to aspire to, merely that it is hard to see how you can truly tackle it without taking on entrenched privilege, or recognising that it is harder for people to rise from the bottom to the top is the gulf between them is so high. I fear that there is a lot of talk about how to loosen up society at the bottom but very little focus at the other end of the spectrum. To me, you can’t seriously discuss inequality or social mobility without talking about wealth – and specifically land value – taxation, yet we continually shy away from it.

Closely linked to both the idea of community politics and the need for a more fair society is, in my view, the need for us to create a more dynamic, people-centred economy. It frightens me how the very financial corporations and institutions which took us to the brink less than three years ago have already reasserted themselves, and in such a way that appears to have achieved little other than the seizing up of the global economy. But it is about more than just banking; corporate culture has commodified everything. The mass expansion of intellectual property legislation has meant that our culture has been quietly privatised. Information technology has made our purchasing habits and even the friends we choose on social networks a commodity to be bought and sold.

I’m no Ned Ludd and this isn’t a plea to go back to a simpler age; I’m a great lover of technology and am deeply immersed in it in every aspect of my life. It’s capacity to liberate and empower people is something that inspires me every day. Nor is it anti-capitalist; in fact I’d go so far as to say that in wanting to challenge entrenched oligarchies and monopolies, this is very much a free trade argument.

Fundamentally however, I don’t think our politics has yet woken up to the implications of how the combination of information technology and trans-national corporations is changing society and making the very possibility of a fairer and more just society increasingly difficult. It links the drugs we take with the books we read and even questions about body image and low self-esteem which Jo Swinson and Lynne Featherstone have been doing so much work on recently.

How should we tackle this? It’s a good question and not one I have a comprehensive answer to. We need much stricter banking legislation of course and a vital aspect of it is to scale back our ever burgeoning intellectual property legislation. We also need to rediscover industrial democracy: a concept which the liberal party embraced and championed throughout the 20th century yet have forgotten in recent years.

But if we’re going to achieve anything over the next few years, we need to do more to build alliances, both inside Westminster and beyond. By holding the balance of power in both Houses of Parliament, we are in a real position of strength. We undermine that when we go out of our way to disparage and alienate the Labour Party. What’s worse, for many of the people who voted for us in 2010, it confirms all their worst fears. For a party which has always objected to a culture of two-party politics, we have done a remarkable job of reinventing it.

On a great many issues Nick Clegg is in a position to negotiate with David Cameron on behalf of the majority of parliament rather than on behalf of a minority third party. This doesn’t mean being uncritical of Labour by any means, but it does mean choosing fights with more care and positively encouraging Labour when does the right thing.

Yellow Peril

Being a comic geek, “Yellow Bastard” makes me think of Frank Miller and the eponymous paedophile and child-murderer of one of his Sin City stories. I never cared much for it. Still, there are worse things to be called I suppose. Labour members call Lib Dems Yellow Tories.

Still, the noises off within cabinet have inadvertently given us something to aspire to at last. It is a generally good rule of thumb that if Tim Montgomerie doesn’t approve of you, you must be doing something right, and so Conservative Home’s decision to launch a Yellow Bastards League Table suggests that the Lib Dems are finally starting to have an impact in government.

All in all, it suggests that the party has finally woken up to the fact that some of us have been shouting about for over a year: by occupying the centre ground in Parliament, the Lib Dems needn’t negotiate with their coalition partners as a junior party in government with just 57 MPs. Rather, in a great many policy areas, our true negotiating position is as the vanguard of the ragtag anti-conservative consensus which, on most days, can defeat any proposal David Cameron tries to bring forward. The Tories are the minority in this Parliament, yet for most of the past twelve months we’ve behaved as if they are in the ascendant.

Of course, it isn’t enough to simply know there are a lot of Labour MPs out there who don’t like the Tories; it is incumbent on Nick Clegg to build bridges. That’s why his inept talk about “new” versus “old” progressives and of never being able to resist and opportunity to take a potshot at Labour is so unhelpful. David Hall-Matthews outlined a more sophisticated way of dealing with Labour a couple of months ago on Left Foot Forward, but his advice seems to have gone largely unheeded. Clegg’s failure to even resist taking swipes at Labour in his speeches on AV during the referendum campaign period suggested that he was beyond rational thinking on the subject.

Clegg’s new doctrine of a more “muscular liberalism” at least shows that he has finally got the message about the need to show more distinctiveness, but if it is to amount to more than the Deputy Prime Minister flexing his biceps in a yellow posing pouch, he needs to start reaching out across the House of Commons. After all, we’ve seen with the referendum quite how willing many Labour MPs are to side with the Tories if they think it will help further destroy the Lib Dems. However futile and counter-productive their thinking is, many Labour politicians see the return of two-party politics as a strategic aim worth any number of Tory policies being introduced.

Perhaps, instead of replacing one futile attempt of toughness with another, he ought to try a bit of soft power for a change?

Yes to Fairer Votes: the briefing has started

This is an interesting quote:

Last night a senior source in the campaign for the alternative vote admitted they knew “very early on” that there was no chance of winning the referendum and that Clegg had become part of the problem: “Every time Clegg spoke about AV our polling numbers went into free-fall. We knew from very early on, before the new year, that we couldn’t win, our message wasn’t getting through and the Liberal Democrats in the whole were worse than useless. Clegg was toxic and everything [Chris] Huhne did in criticising the Tories just put the attention on the political spat – made it a Clegg versus Cameron affair. Utterly unwinnable.

“We even brought in an advertising man to save us. He came up with the idea of constructing a giant pin-striped bottom to take around the country for people to throw things at as a way of illustrating that AV makes MPs work harder. It was desperate stuff.”

I have a pretty good idea who this senior source is and it is nice to see that he (or, I suppose, her) is getting his (yeah, theoretically possible it may be a her) excuses in first, and it is certainly the case that Clegg was not helpful. But a couple of points:

1) The biggest poll dip was the weekend the No campaign freepost leaflet hit doormats. That certainly had Clegg on it, but by that stage Clegg himself was keeping a low profile.

2) Clegg was no less damaging than the continued string of high profile Labour politicians campaigning for a No vote. Why was Ed Miliband incapable of stemming that, thereby denting his own local government recovery in the process (by ensuring that the Tories received almost no scrutiny in the media for six weeks).

3) Yes, the idea of taking a “big butt” around the country was really stupid, but no-one ever seriously considered it. Instead of blaming our defeat on bad decisions which senior staff didn’t make, is it not possible that it was the decisions they did make that had a lot to be desired?

4) The admission that the individual concerned thought the campaign was unwinnable as long ago as before last year is shocking. If the individual concerned believed that then he (or she) should have resigned. If they are as senior as they claim to be, they were certainly coining it. Essentially, they’ve just admitted that they’ve spent the last six months coasting on a gravy train.

It would be so easy to blame it all on Clegg, but it won’t help us win next time.

Crawling from the wreckage

Hello? Is this thing still working? Can anyone still hear me?

Testing… testing…

Ahem.

Hi. I’m back. It’s been a long time. How are you?

Me? Well, for the past nine months I’ve been working for Yes to Fairer Votes and, by mutual consent, it was agreed that it might be better if I suspended my gobshite-related activities for the duration of the campaign.

Needless to say, those restrictions no longer apply and so I’m free to resume my blogging activities. I have to admit that it feels good to be able to express myself again, although I’m still finding my feet again.

I can’t really get away with resuming this blog without reflecting on the campaign that has dominated my life for a whole year (and it is a whole year – one year ago, I was busy working on the final preparations for the Take Back Parliament demo that took place the following day. At the time we had absolutely no idea what a success those demonstrations would be).

As you may be away, we lost, and we lost badly. Why is that? Well, yes, the No campaign was an absolute shocker. They lied and they lied and they lied. Unlike many however, I am struggling to be that angry with them. You need only look at the people behind the campaign to realise that that is simply in their nature; it’s what they do. If a mad dog mauls your child, that is of course terrible; but the real question is what you did to protect her.

I don’t want to dwell too much on what the official Yes campaign did right or wrong here; I’m still feeling bruised and I have a tremendous amount of respect for most of the people who worked so hard on the campaign – both paid and unpaid. I don’t think it would be fair to them for me to wash my dirty laundry in public this weekend. Suffice to say that I am pretty confident that I’m not the only staffer who feels that that wasn’t the campaign we signed up for. There are some serious and hard lessons to be learned and I hope we face up to them in a constructive, honest and ultimately conciliatory manner.

But the fact is that we’d have struggled to win a Yes vote even if we had run the best campaign we could. There are at least three factors which seriously hindered us:

Firstly, let’s face it, Nick Clegg and the Lib Dem brand more generally hung around our necks like the proverbial albatross. We anticipated this as long ago as June last year, but the party’s Gerald Ratner moment over tuition fees took even the most cynical among us back.

It can’t however all be pinned on Clegg. The simple fact is if Labour had a stronger leader we would have been in a much stronger position. I like Ed Miliband personally and sincerely hope he can turn it around. But it is clear that he commands very little authority or respect within both his parliamentary party and the Labour Party at large.

There is no escaping the fact that if David Miliband had won in September, the Labour No campaign would have been a rump compared to what it ended up being and that if David Cameron had wanted to find a convenient Labour figleaf to share a platform with, he’d have had to settle for a no-mark like Tom Harris rather than Lord Reid.

(Why this is, to a certain extent, mystifies me. Ed Miliband won the Labour leadership fair and square by winning the union vote. How Labour members can be both precious about their “historic Labour-union links” and so disparaging when the union members do something they don’t like is beyond me.)

Labour really needs to learn the lessons of this week. A lot of Labour politicians are hellbent on a strategy that is about destroying the Lib Dems, even if it means effectively letting Cameron off the hook. There’s no getting away from the fact that the Lib Dems are now seriously weakened, but what has that gained Labour? There is no sign of us returning to a two-party system; look at Scotland. Labour let the Tories win the popular vote in England, which is an absolutely extraordinary failure. Even at the Lib Dems’ nadir, one in four people just voted for a third-party candidate. And there are signs that it is other third parties that are filling the vacuum, with the Greens now the largest party in Brighton. The combined failure of Labour and the Lib Dems to ensure that the cold light of scrutiny falls on the Conservatives is nothing short of tragic.

But finally, the process leading to the referendum itself was highly problematic. If there is one thing the No campaign argued that has merit, it is that it was a political stitch up.

Unlike some, I am not of the view that AV was the wrong system to fight the referendum on; it may well have been our best option. The fact is that the British don’t like radical change and AV was a quintessentially modest reform. With the country unused to coalition government, it is entirely plausible to believe that the public would have turned against any system which would have all but guaranteed future hung parliaments.

But that said, the way in which AV became the preferred system was not ideal. Making a specific voting system a precondition of a coalition agreement is problematic because it will inevitably look as if the only reason that particular system is being pushed is that it suits one of the coalition parties. That’s why it was so hard to separate the Lib Dems from AV itself, even though it isn’t even our preferred system.

What should have happened? Well, holding out for PR would have been a pipedream and we would have found Labour formally backing the No campaign. In my view what we should have done was to establish a Citizen’s Assembly and guarantee that any system agreed by that body would be subject to a referendum. Would the Tories have agreed to an independent process which could potentially have lead to a PR system being proposed? It is for better informed coalition watchers than I to decide that question.

Where now for electoral and political reform? Well, there is no question that we have our work cut out, but I’m feeling oddly optimistic. A lot of people around the country have worked hard on this campaign but the rout and infighting that I had feared does not appear to have emerged. By contrast, what I’m seeing is a lot of people steeling themselves, learning from the experience, and determined to move onto the next fight (after perhaps a bit of a breather), as soon as possible.

If history tells us anything it is that the road to political reform is littered with failed campaigns which indirectly helped lead to reform within just a few years. This experience has galvanised a whole generation of campaigners. Because the No campaign felt they could only win by talking complete horseshit, there is little sense that the matter has been settled (even if it does look exceedingly unlikely that AV itself will ever be presented as a compromise option). If I were a reactionary supporter of the status quo, I wouldn’t underestimate the ability of people to bounce back and learn from this experience.

Should Clegg cuddle up with Gordon Brown?

Via Twitter, Tom Griffin alerts me to an article by Philip Stevens claiming that by ruling out supporting Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg has thrown away his negotiating position for forming a reforming coalition government with the Labour Party. There are only two problems with this article: Stevens clearly has no idea how the UK constitution (such as it is) works, and clearly has not listened to anything Nick Clegg has actually said on the subject.

Before I continue this article, a caveat. It is speculates what might happen if we find ourselves in a hung parliament situation on 7 May. I’m not predicting this will happen; I have no idea what will happen. What I am seeking to clarify are what the Lib Dems’ options actually are in such a situation.

In terms of the latter, Clegg has been quite clear: the party with the biggest mandate should have the first chance to form a government. Contrary to any cheese-induced dreams Stevens may have had recently, he has explicitly not stated that the Lib Dems would automatically support the party with the biggest mandate, nor has he defined “biggest mandate”. The latter is crucial because even now we have no idea if the party with the most seats in the Commons will have the largest share of the vote. Defining “mandate” will inevitably be a judgement call based on numerous factors.

Secondly, he appears to be under the impression that if Brown is ousted, then the Queen will automatically approach Cameron to form a government and that if Cameron is defeated then a General Election will automatically be called. Both these assertions are completely incorrect. Before writing his article, Stevens should have spent a few minutes studying the briefing note the Cabinet Office prepared back in February which explains exactly what will happen (pdf). It states that:

When a Government or Prime Minister resigns it is for the Monarch to invite the person whom it appears is most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House of Commons to serve as Prime Minister and to form a government. However it is the responsibility of those involved in the political process – and in particular the parties represented in Parliament – to seek to determine and communicate clearly who that person should be. These are the principles that underpin the appointment of a Prime Minister and formation of a government in all circumstances.

Where a range of different administrations could potentially be formed, the expectation is that discussions will take place between political parties on who should form the next Government.

What this means is that if Cameron cannot form a majority without the Lib Dems’ help, and is not prepared to make some pretty major concessions to the Lib Dems (if you aren’t aware already, those demands are the four key Lib Dem manifesto commitments for a fairer tax system, education, a fair and green economy and a fairer politics), then as long as Labour are prepared to make such concessions there is no reason at all for the Queen to even ask Cameron to form a government*. Furthermore, the Queen is obliged to listen to the Liberal Democrats (and others, for that matter) before making a decision, not merely talk to the main two parties. And even if Cameron does get as far as a Queens’ Speech, which falls, fresh elections will not be automatic:

A Prime Minister may request that the Monarch dissolves Parliament and hold a further election. The Monarch is not bound to accept such a request, especially when such a request is made soon after a previous dissolution. In those circumstances, the Monarch would normally wish the parties to ascertain that there was no potential government that could command the confidence of the House of Commons before granting a dissolution.

Tom raises the spectre of 1974 when the Queen ordered fresh elections despite the reassurances of Harold Wilson that he could form a government. But one of the few things we do know is that 2010 will not lead to a repeat of the ’74 parliament whereby a coalition government combining the Liberals and either the Conservatives or Labour was not really viable. The Liberals had 14 MPs and no negotiating position – they didn’t have enough people to even have a significant Cabinet presence. In 2010 by contract, the Lib Dems could have anything between 60 and 120 MPs and thus hold a very decisive balance of power. If the Queen were to call fresh elections despite Labour and the Lib Dems requesting to form a coalition government with a clear majority, the only thing she would achieve would be to make her own future an election issue.

The question boils down then, not to what Clegg would do but how the Labour Party will respond. How quickly will they be able to recover from the affront that Clegg won’t prop up Brown (a leader who, it has been clear from the last couple of years, most of them regret coronating in the first place) and start looking at alternatives? Or would they rather have a Tory administration just to spite the Lib Dems? That certainly appears to be Gordon Brown’s own current position (I was amused to read John Harris describe Brown adopting a scorched earth policy – that’s exactly how I had described it five minutes before reading his article). My prediction is that once the dust has settled, cooler Labour heads will prevail and they will start talking.

If they think they can still brass neck it and blackmail the Lib Dems into backing them, they need to remember three things. Firstly, any attempt to prop up Gordon Brown would be seen by the public as an utter betrayal of Clegg’s rallying call for real change – he would be finished. Secondly, assuming the Tories win the most seats (and Labour would have to move mountains to change this at this stage), the Lib Dems don’t need to actually vote for a Cameron administration but merely abstain (and such a Cameron government would still be hamstrung by having to negotiate everything with Parliament). And third, we’ve been waiting a lot longer for this moment than Labour has, and have a lot less to lose.

So spare us the threats and the “our way or the highway” posturing. That way lies oblivion. And Mr Stevens, perhaps you ought to do a bit more research in future?

* This is a fact that Cameron himself may like to appraise himself of, if the report in the Telegraph of Cameron ruling out talks with the Lib Dems are true. If that’s the case Dave, you can kiss the keys to Number 10 goodbye.

Clegg’s campaign: the view from afar

This is a very different election campaign for me. In 1997 and to an even greater extent in 2001 and 2005 I was up against the coalface campaigning in target seats (Oldham East and Saddleworth and Hazel Grove in 1997, agent for Leeds North West in 2001 and campaigns organiser for East Dunbartonshire in 2005). This year, my job has meant that I’ve spent most of the campaign thus far in front of a computer screen watching the campaign itself from afar.

The week started badly for me, with the news seemingly dominated by that most nauseating of phenomena, the leaders’ wags (actually, they’re all wives but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where the media, Labour and the Tories are taking their cues from. The Daily Mail going for Sarah Brown on the basis of her feet was probably a new low for journalism. Far from discouraging this kind of trivialisation, Labour and the Tories have been doing all they can to encourage it, with the Conservatives promoting “Sam Cam” to key spokesperson status.

Treatment of the public as face slapping morons continued throughout the week with Labour’s attempt to target their manifesto to that all important 5 year old demographic. Sadly, the Green Party have clearly decided that this is the way to go and so brought out their own 1970s children’s animation-inspired Election Broadcast. By the end of Tuesday it seemed like this whole election campaign was going to get drowned in trivial and patronising drivel.

And then on Wednesday things started to change… Actually, that’s not quite right because the first thing which excited me this week was Nick Clegg’s Jeremy Paxman interview on Monday. Paxo was his usual contemptuous, bullying self but what was astonishing was that he failed to land a single blow of Clegg. Throughout Clegg looked relaxed and calm and often rather quizzical, as if Jeremy had wondered in off the street from a different political era when the rules were different. Which, in a sense, he had. Watching this performance I was astonished to learn that not only had Brown and Cameron not confirmed to appear on a similar programme but that Cameron had ruled it out. Surely this clearly showed that Paxo was passed his best and that there was all to play for in securing a half-hour of prime time immediately following Eastenders? The fact that Cameron has turned this opporunity down suggests there are major jitters currently shaking CCHQ.

Anyway, back to Wednesday. I’ve been keeping a close eye on the Lib Dems’ manifesto development process so it contained few surprises for me. What was rather more surprising was the Election Broadcast. Lib Dem PEBs are something I endure, rather than look forward to. At best they are dreadful, generic vox pop affairs with “ordinary people” saying how much they like Lib Dem policies and the leader popping up at the end to say how it is really important that people vote for him. Utterly uninspired, completely dull. Remarkably similar, in fact, to this.

So I was pretty astounded when it turned out that the party had managed to come up with a broadcast that I thought was actually good:

In fact, I thought it was more than good. It works because it isn’t simply a litany of policy-bites but constitutes an argument. It puts the leader front and centre. It has striking, cinematic visuals. It avoids talking down to people or sinking into that chirpy, horrifically inauthentic tone that party films often resort to as their comfort blankets (see the Labour, Green and Tory examples above). It has a nice soundtrack (thank the gods they didn’t use that awful theme tune the party launched at conference), scored by someone who is very definitely a Lib Dem supporter. It even tickles my geek fancies. The Brian Eno track was also used in the film 28 Days Later from which the film clearly borrows some of the visuals from as well. What kind of inspired genius suggests that a major political party’s election broadcast should essay a funky, low budget horror film and actually sees it through?

Pleased as I was with that, Clegg’s performance on the ITV leader’s debate yesterday was just the icing on the cake. I thought he was doing well while I watched it but never imagined that he was getting through to the ordinary public. The ComRes poll today, showing a whopping 14% increase in the party’s share of the vote amongst people who watched the programme clearly demonstrates to what degree there is all to play for in this election and how it might yet end up surprising people.

The anti-Clegg spin today has been hilarious. In particular, I’ve been highly amused by all the Tory and Labour politicians stating that they always expected Clegg would walk it. If you put a tenner on Clegg winning (on Boylesports anyway), you would have made back £27.50. By contrast, Cameron’s odds were 4/5 and Brown was in second place at 15/8.

The other bit of spin is that Clegg can say what he likes because he won’t be in power. Yet the Lib Dems are the only party going into this election with a costed manifesto. Yet we have been staring a hung parliament scenario in the face for over a year now. If anything, Clegg had an even bigger credibility gap to negotiate than the other two precisely because he was the insurgent candidate. Yet he overcame that handicap and romped home. As a result, he could well hold the balance of power in three weeks time. Not exactly consequence free stuff, is it?

The received wisdom is that Clegg and the Lib Dems will now be under increased scrutiny and that there is no room for complacency. That is absolutely right but there are two reasons to be optimistic. Firstly, if we get attacked more, it means that more of the debate will be on our agenda which in many respects will be helpful. I’d love it if the debate focused around around our plans to raise personal allowance for example; bring it on. That combined with the fact that the audience didn’t seem to like it when Cameron and Brown went on the attack last night suggests that the best strategy of the other parties might still be to grin, bear it, and where possible ignore Clegg.

But the second thing is that it is clear from what we’ve seen throughout this week, starting with Nick’s assured performance on the BBC, followed by the much more astute messaging in the manifesto and election broadcast, that the leader’s debate was part of a wider strategy that he is getting right and not just a fluke. The messaging is clear and it links together seemlessly with Nick’s style and narrative.

Contrast Clegg’s consistency throughout the week with Cameron flailing around with a wide variety of different messages and themes. One minute he’s doing this “big society” thing, the next he’s talking about “broken Britain”, the next he’s talking about “all being in it together”. He’s got plenty of slogans but they don’t add up to a particularly clear message and he tends to use them interchangeably rather than focus on one. The result is a mess. Brown to his credit does have a much clearer message, although his narrative (stay the course) and his sloganeering (a future fair for all) are totally different. Once you get past the Mr Men stuff, their actual election broadcast with Sean Pertwee is actually quite effective – I don’t understand why they haven’t made it a more central part of their campaign. And even if they were to sort this out, their fundamental problem would still remain: Gordon Brown.

So there is everything to play for, but nothing is going to be easy. As I finish writing this, YouGov have just released their latest poll:

* Conservative: 33%
* Labour: 28%
* Liberal Democrat: 30%
* Others: 9%

Sounds great, but when you put those numbers into the BBC’s swing calculator, you get the following result:

* Conservative: 245 MPs
* Labour: 276 MPs
* Liberal Democrat: 100 MPs
* Others: 29 MPs

So even if Labour get bashed down into third place, they will still have the plurality. The next time an interviewer presses Clegg on whether he would work with the party with the most votes or the party with the most seats, let them chew on this.

Conference and canards

God know’s why I’m still up at 3am. Still a bit wired after conference I guess. I’m not staying up much longer but I wanted to write that I thought it was an excellent weekend both for the party generally, the Social Liberal Forum in particular and me personally. A few random thoughts:

1. I was pleased by the answer Danny Alexander gave me regarding the FPC playing a more pro-active role in formulating a response to government legislation in light of the Digital Economy Bill debacle. I have a few thoughts on this but will write about them later.

2. I was less pleased by Nick Clegg’s non-commital answer to my “friendly” question about if he rules out further tax rises, as he appeared to do in the Spectator this week. He neither confirmed nor denied the position he took. SLF Chair David Hall-Matthews also pressed him on this during the economy debate. The rumour going round was that he privately acknowledges “misspeaking” but it is concerning nonetheless.

3. Despite my constant grumblings, I really do think that Nick Clegg nailed it in his conference speech. “Change that works for you. Building a fairer Britain” is a lousy slogan but then, aren’t they all? As spelt out during the speech however, at its core is a brilliant narrative which encapsulates what distinguishes the Lib Dems from the other parties. The fact that we even have a narrative (or rather, a narrative of our choosing rather than one imposed on us) is a bit of an innovation for the Lib Dems going into an election. The four themes work well and, crucially, join together. The bad old days of the 2005 policy pledges seem long ago.

4. Standing room only at both SLF fringes, including the one about passing a constitution. FTW!

Finally, over on the SLF website, I’ve written a response to the Left Foot Forward/Fabian “research” which purports to prove that the Lib Dem tax policy is regressive – by its own admission it only applies if you cherry pick the tax cut while ignoring the tax rises being introduced to pay for it. Spectacularly bad.