How Nick Clegg meets his own standards

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Okay, I admit it. If I hadn’t been hungover yesterday morning I probably would have resisted the temptation to use the word “meltdown” in my blog about Team Clegg yesterday. A wobble it certainly was however, and while I of course accept Richard Allan’s apology, he still has not explained where the email addresses they were using had come from. One suggestion has been that it was Ming Campbell’s supporter list (something which I was signed up to as I was certainly an ABH voter).

The fact that I claim to be undecided in this election despite the fact that I express warmth to Chris Huhne’s campaign and am rather more critical of Nick Clegg seems to cause some people a lot of confusion, so let me be more explicit: my default position is that unless Nick Clegg badly alienates me, or Chris Huhne does something bloody spectacular, my vote will be going to the former not the latter.

Chris Huhne was the right candidate in 2006 and everything that has happened since has vindicated that fact. We wouldn’t be where we are now if he had been elected. But Nick Clegg is not Ming Campbell. That Clegg is the better communicator is clear. One person who was at the South Central conference last Saturday put it to me yesterday thus: both candidates spoke with passion about social justice but while Huhne barraged the audience with statistics, Clegg talked about a woman on a housing estate in his constituency. The best part of Ming Campbell’s speech at party conference – the part that signified that he finally got it – was when he talked about the people he had met since becoming leader, and their experiences.

Chris Huhne ought to set himself a challenge: when he next does a keynote speech he should make it a statistics-free zone. Clegg’s speech this week certainly was.

Saying all that however doesn’t make me an uncritical flag-waver of Nick Clegg by default, a fact which appears to cause a number of readers of this blog great difficulty. Where did all this bullshit about undeclared bloggers having to be impartial come from? What’s wrong with being inclined to vote Clegg but having a sense of loyalty to Huhne? And what’s wrong with pointing out that the Golden Child has feet of clay?

For feet of clay he certainly has. His campaign launch last week didn’t merely not impress me, it pissed me off because I felt he was insulting the intelligence of a very significant section of the party. Extolling the party to move out of its ‘comfort zone’ does not ring true coming from a candidate who, two years ago, was telling us to do the opposite. It was simply not true to claim that the party has been locked up in “internal self-analysis.” And claiming to be anti-establishment whilst having the clear backing of most of both the party and media establishment was simply bizarre. He should hire Antony Hook as his personal BS-detector.

But let’s take the two key ideas that came out of his Sheffield speech – the need for the party to move out of its comfort zone and the need for us to extend our supporter base – and apply it to his speech this week at the National Liberal Club. The latter speech has five main themes – empowering individuals, extending opportunity, balancing security and liberty, protecting the environment, engaging with the world – and I’ll take each one in turn, giving each a rating out of five for comfort (5 – the Liberal Democrat equivalent of a plush sofa in front of a roaring fire), reaching out (5 – the political equivalent of Mr Tickle) and my personal opinion. Generally speaking, a low comfort rating and a high reaching out rating suggests that the substance broadly matches the rhetoric:

Empowering Individuals

First of all, “empowering individuals” is horrid language. Of course, Huhne has already bagged “people in charge” so maybe he was stuck with how to put it. And to be fair, he recovers well with this important distinction:

“Our objective isn’t simply to bring power closer to people. It is to give power to people.”

I’m also not sure about this stuff about favouring communities over bureaucracies. Of course the former is always preferable over the latter, but they are hardly opposites and communities can be pretty oppressive things. One of the key features of “proper” community politics as opposed to communitarianism is that the latter lionises community while the former critiques it. Indeed, at worst, communities can be pretty bureaucratic themselves: there is an order of things, and woe betide anyone who does not go along with that. My parents’ experience of joining a village community 7 years ago would confirm that.

Much of the rest of this section is firmly in the comfort zone: change the electoral system and localism. No great surprises there. The key paragraph in this section is here:

“We need to set some ground rules here: our universal public services must be free to use and accessible to all. But beyond that, I want us to think afresh about how they should be funded and delivered.”

It is a shame he does not expand on this. How does this differ from, say, the Huhne Commission on Public Services which the party adopted four years ago? Does he side with Steve Webb or David Laws (Chris Huhne’s own position on this is spelt out here)? This is a crucial area we need to hear much more detail from him on.

Comfort rating: most of it is pretty safe ground and even the rhetoric about public services is pretty similar to what Kennedy was saying five years ago. 4/5

Reaching out rating: talked about PR without mentioning PR, which is good politics. But mostly this is well trod territory for the Lib Dems. 2/5

Personal rating: nothing new, but little I object to. 4/5

Extending Opportunity

This section, to me, is particularly confused. First of all, it’s a red rag to a bull, I’m afraid, to call for the Lib Dems to work ceaselessly for a meritocratic society, for reasons that I’ve already outlined on this blog. Saying you believe in a society where everyone gets their just deserts is another way of saying that some people ‘deserve’ to be poor. You can comfort yourself that you strive for equality of opportunity, but ultimately it is social Darwinism by any other name.

Much of this section is taken up discussing the pupil premium policy, which is already party policy and wholly uncontroversial within it.

On benefits, Clegg seems to be, well, confused. In particular, I simply don’t understand this bit:

“Tony Blair famously promised ‘a hand up, not a hand out’, but Gordon Brown’s obsession with means tested benefits has had precisely the opposite effect.

“The Liberal Democrats will deliver where this government has failed. We must take people on higher earnings off means tested benefits and use the money to help the poorest pupils in our school system.”

What he’s actually calling for here is more means testing, not less, but he presents it as if he opposes means testing. Again, what it boils down to is a restating of party policy, shortening the taper of tax credits. But then our policy isn’t quite as simple as that as we are also in favour of raising child benefit, which higher earners would also be entitled to.

This bit is also confused:

A higher basic pension, linked to earnings, will get our pensioners out of poverty and off welfare for good.

Well, I suppose. If you don’t regard the basic state pension as welfare – a position which is pretty unsustainable since the link between NI and pensions became so eroded. And again, there’s nothing new here.

We have, to be fair here, a slightly confusing policy (not a criticism, just a statement of fact), but Clegg’s role here is to provide clarity not obfuscation.

But in a section on social mobility, it is striking what Clegg does not mention here: housing. How can you do a speech about social mobility and not reflect on housing? This is an issue that effects hundreds of thousands of people across the country and is shooting up the political agenda. We can’t afford to be silent on it. What is his position on the number of houses we need to build nationwide for instance? What does he have to say about council housing?

Linked to that is another of my pet issues: intergenerational equity. Linked inextricably with social mobility, what does Clegg have to say about the fact that wealth is increasingly being locked up within families, causing wider mobility problems and causing the burden of taxation to lie unfairly on incomes?

Neither housing nor intergenerational equity are obscure issues. Read any national newspaper and you’ll see these cropping up again and again. There are votes in these areas for a party leader looking to reach out beyond the Lib Dems’ normal supporter base.

Comfort rating: there doesn’t seem to be anything here that the party didn’t back overwhelmingly at conference last month. 5/5

Reaching out rating: education and pensions are hardly new territory for us. 2/5

Personal rating: no mention of housing or intergenerational equity is a major disappointment for me, and much of the rhetoric seems confused. 1/5

Balancing Security and Liberty

First of all, since when did Liberal Democrats talk about “balancing security and liberty”? Indeed, I challenge any liberal to demur with this statement from our recent governance policy paper (pdf):

“Security can only be genuinely realised if liberty, justice and human rights are upheld as the cornerstone of our democratic system, to be enjoyed by all on an equal basis. Liberal Democrats believe that ceding liberty to attain security jeopardises both.”

With that said, this lazy formula is not returned to in the body of the speech itself. Indeed, not surprisingly for our Shadow Home Secretary, this section is one of the strongest parts and I think he gets the balance right.

What I’m less convinced by however is that there is anything here that Simon Hughes or Mark Oaten weren’t saying before him. One of Clegg’s selling points is that he isn’t afraid to talk about crime but I’m simply not convinced that he’s bringing anything particularly new to the table.

What he is probably better at doing is articulating our policies. Credit to him is due for ditching Oaten’s stance about “tough liberalism”. But again, is this reaching out to people and knocking the party out of its comfort zone? Oaten at least could be credited with attempting to do that with his rhetoric; the problem was his rhetoric was utter balls.

Comfort rating: nothing new here, and a comfortingly liberal approach. 4/5

Reaching out rating: I know how the media works and that simply by saying that the Liberal Democrats must not be afraid to talk about crime makes it sound like he’s being much more radical than he is. 3/5

Personal rating: I can’t fault the rhetoric, but the slogan about balancing security and liberty has got to go the same way as Tony Blair who loved it so much. 4/5

Protecting the Environment

This is turf that Huhne has made his own, so it is interesting to see how Clegg’s position contrasts. What he does not do is make the case for climate change – that battle has already been won. What he does instead is discuss how we can win people over to make personal sacrifices for environmental gains. I have to give credit where it is due: this is an important topic to highlight and a good tactical stance to try and put some water between the two candidates.

Once again: notice the complete absence of statistics in this section, even in a section on climate change of all topics. His broad theme, that government must practice what it preaches, reminds me of the running battles that Donnachadh McCarthy used to have with the Ashdown and Kennedy regimes to persuade them of the same thing. How far we’ve come.

But for all that, once again, I’m also very conscious that there is almost nothing here that is new. It is also unclear where he ultimately stands on the party’s green tax switch policy – the line about people hearing only “tax” when you talk about green taxes is well made but almost suggests an antipathy to this approach. There is almost nothing in this section that David Cameron wouldn’t be comfortable about saying, with the obvious exception of the last two paragraphs of course.

Comfort rating: a gentle critique of the current party stance. 3/5

Reaching out rating: the emphasis on practicing what we preach and international efforts don’t hurt. But ultimately, talking about the environment at all will switch a lot of people off. 3/5

Personal rating: I don’t disagree with his line of argument, but wonder where it leads us. 3/5

Engaging with the world

Another strong section which I struggle to find fault with. Indeed the final three paragraphs are quite stirring stuff for any internationalist:

“But the great external threats that we face – from climate change to terrorism to cross border crime – are all linked by one fact: that power has been globalised, but our methods for controlling it have not.

“The challenge before us then is to construct a system of global governance capable of controlling global power.

“Only Liberalism, with its easy accommodation both with the market economics that drive globalisation and the internationalist politics needed to regulate it, is capable of guiding us in this process.”

But once again I return to my two tests: in what way is this breaking free of the party’s comfort zone or reaching out to new supporters? This is traditional Lib Dem policy in traditional Lib Dem territory.

Comfort rating: stirring internationalist stuff which conveniently avoids any talk of referendums. 5/5

Reaching out rating: even the populist globalisation stuff such as international development (I thought it was required by law that all senior politicians must pay homage to Make Poverty History in any speech on globalisation these days?) is barely touched on here. And what about that referendum? 1/5

Personal rating: Great stuff, but then I’m weird. 5/5


Conclusions: the rhetoric does not match the detail. There is very little that I could find in this speech that was new or challenging. This was a well articulated speech that will do little to persuade members of anything other than of Nick Clegg’s presentation skills and accord with core party values. Some of his rhetoric – about balancing security and liberty, a rose-tinted view about community and a mild scepticism about green taxes – sound conservative, but there is more than enough evidence here to suggest that Clegg is firmly liberal.

If he wants a rightwards shift in our policies on crime and public services (for example) now is the time to start talking about them and to seek a mandate for change. But he hasn’t. There is little I object to here and much that I strongly applaud. But if Clegg is going to continue to make speeches like this, he should drop the hyperbole about shaking up the party.

15 thoughts on “How Nick Clegg meets his own standards

  1. I mostly agree with you. On the surface it’s nothing like as daring as I’d hoped but this may well be that Clegg is more afraid of being tagged as ‘the right wing’ candidate than we realise.

    Still, I take issue with:

    “First of all, it’s a red rag to a bull, I’m afraid, to call for the Lib Dems to work ceaselessly for a meritocratic society, for reasons that I’ve already outlined on this blog. Saying you believe in a society where everyone gets their just deserts is another way of saying that some people ‘deserve’ to be poor. You can comfort yourself that you strive for equality of opportunity, but ultimately it is social Darwinism by any other name.”

    Okay. Nick did not say, “everyone gets their just deserts” – you’re putting words in his mouth.

    Wanting everyone to be able to maximise their potential, to be all they can be if that’s what they want is not Social Darwinism. In fact, the problem with our current society is that it is *not* Meritocratic, not by a long shot.

    There will always be a need for people to be cleaners, street sweepers, taxi drivers and so on. There will always be people who find these jobs rewarding, too. IN fact, suggesting that people who have these kinds of jobs are a problem that need to be fixed is just insulting to those people.

    But these can be crappy jobs and it’s important that people who want to have a genuine and real chance of moving out of them.

    At the moment they can’t. In fact, as time goes on it’s becoming less and less likely that people will ever be able to.

    For people to be able to climb the ladder it needs to go down to the bottom, and there needs to be rungs that people can actually reach.

    For starters that means absolutely everyone not classed as “special needs” needs to be able to read and write to an adult level. We cannot tolerate 100,000 kids a year leaving school at 16 being unable to do so. The ladder does NOT reach down to these kids and much of what I see around me where I live is a direct consequence of this absolute failure.

    So Nick’s decision to give private level funding to the kids from the most deprived areas is saying the exact opposite – that they’re going to end up poor and it’s not their fault – we must do something about it.

    We also need to remove the institutional barriers that prevent people being held back based on race, gender, sexuality or anything else. These still exist despite the legal protections. People are still, by and large, reluctant and afraid to be seen to ‘causing trouble’ when they fear they’re being discriminated against.

    Some people, most people, will go for “the easy life” rather than push themselves. There are always going to be people who have crappy, low paid jobs and it’s beholden on society and politicians to ensure that all jobs are properly paid and that everyone has dignity at work. Again this is just not the case in our current society.

    See, the Right wing do blame the poor for their own problems. I have no doubt about that whatsoever. But, we’re talking about liberals here. Liberals that are not socialists and so have no desire to introduce a terrifying and dystopian “absolute equality” between individuals. Isn’t it right that we have our own unique take on this?

    Real equality of opportunity – not just in name but in practice – is a genuinely liberal cause and making sure that ladder goes all the way down, with rungs people can reach is something I feel very passionately about, and frankly to have this belief just slapped aside as “you think poor people deserve to be poor” and then be labelled as a Conservative Social Darwinist is just…. well totally, totally unnecessary for starters and makes me thing, hey, if that’s what the Lib Dems think then I’m in the wrong party.

    There’s too much dogma in politics. Too much received wisdom from a lifetime of socialist and tory propaganda that people can’t see there’s a real opportunity to reform society for the better here – and in a way that absolutely everyone benefits from.

    Rant Over.

  2. It is not putting words into Clegg’s mouth to say that his exhortation of meritocracy is an exhortation of a society where everyone gets his or her just deserts – it is a literal definition. Your reaction against this statement makes my point about the problem with meritocracy as a concept.

    Is IS putting words in his mouth to interpret “meritocracy” as “equality of opportunity”. The former puts emphasis on people earning what they get, the latter puts emphasis on levelling the playing field. They are two not dissimilar, but ultimately different concepts.

    I would recommend you read Michael Young’s 2001 article on the subject. By emphasising the importance of “merit” in society you create a culture where the underclass gets compounded. Far from being a socialist dogmatist in the way you suggest, Young was a true social pioneer, founding the Open University and the National Consumer Council. He was never a capital el Liberal, but he is someone worthy of our respect (let’s put his son to one side for a second).

    By contrast, it is the Fabian Society that refused to publish the Rise of the Meritocracy and it is a word loved by Blairites.

    I’m not saying that Clegg is a true head-banging meritocrat in the Blairite sense of the word. I’m saying his rhetoric doesn’t match his detail. And I think the reason for that – and the reason he merely parrots our recent policy paper on social justice – is because this is not a topic he has particularly thought about.

  3. Ah, yes, the actual word “meritocracy” is not a good one. It implies that those at the bottom are without merit.

    The context in which he puts it makes it clear that Equality of Opportunity is what he means, so perhaps a lobby of ‘stop saying meritocracy’ lib dems would be an idea should Clegg win (something I’m increasingly unsure will actually happen, by the way)

  4. And having read that article I’m entirely in agreement that a Meritocracy as described there is not what I want.

    Fixing those problems and making it work for all is pretty much my number one political passion. What to do… what to do…

  5. Your comments on Clegg’s speeches say it all. Since the leadership campaign started I’ve gone from someone who didn’t care much for either candidate to somone who’s enthusiastic for Huhne just because Clegg’s speeches are so much vacuous rubbish – and I’m just pushed more and more to Huhne by all those smug people coming out for Clegg whose only reason for supporting him seem to be just as vacuous as his speeches. The more they are so enthusiastic for someone even they seem to think is good mainly because he has a pretty face and a good speaking voice, the more I go against because I want to see a lot more than that in a leader.

  6. A good post James, and I apologise for flying off the handle yesterday! I re-read what I wrote and came to the conclusion that your headline was the only bit of your post that I really objected to… after the marathon comments thread that ensued I felt pretty guilty for wading in like that!

    I think I understand where you are coming from a bit better now. I may have interpreted critiquing the campaign as critiquing the man – I’m afraid I may have even done you the disservice of assuming that doing the former was a veiled way of doing the latter. But if your intention is merely to keep our candidates and their campaigns honest, then you are doing a bang up job and please do continue!

    Delving into the detail, I think that many of the areas where the party is “too comfortable” are actually related to its self-image and the image it presents to the public, rather than actual policy.

    A good example is the most recent revamp of our tax policy, and particularly the 16p standard rate on income tax. I felt at the time (and still feel) that our language was too timid; we should have come crashing through people’s TV screens shouting “TAX CUT! WE WANT A TAX CUT!”

    (For those who would say that it’s not a real tax cut – the Tories’ inheritance tax cut wasn’t really a tax cut either, but it worked because it *was* a tax cut for the people who matter to the Tories…)

    The policy is an excellent one and would genuinely help a lot of people who should really be voting for us. But the result of our presentation is that hardly anyone knows we want the lowest income tax burden of any of the three main parties – a real shame.

  7. Charlotte – my only objection to Clegg using meritocracy is that it is lazy terminology. I accept – and thought I suggested so in the main post – that meritocracy as I interpret it to mean is not what he meant. I do of course agree with your answer: stop using the word.

    Joe: I admit that I was being a little provocative yesterday. I blame it on the large quantities of Hoegaarten that people were buying me the night before. The people buying me these were split evenly between Clegg and Huhne. 🙂

  8. Matthew, you’ve been conducting a fairly nasty campaign against Nick in pretty much all the comments I’ve seen you make. So I don’t buy this idea that you have been convinced of anything by recent developments .

    And I do wonder whether you are really doing Chris any favours with this substance-free vitriol.

  9. James, if you don’t think anybody deserves to be poor, why do you interpret “everybody should get their just deserts” as “some people deserve to be poor”. Or am I missing a nuance here?

  10. James,

    (ignoring all the other comments)

    I find it pretty awful that we live in a society that demands statistics-free speech. Stats are the only way of measuring things on such a grand scale as a nation, and to not use them at all shows one to be either possessed by an ideology so greatly one doesn’t care about its consequences, or, that one doesn’t understand them. Neither bode well for the leader of a major political party, surely?

  11. James, if you don’t think anybody deserves to be poor, why do you interpret “everybody should get their just deserts” as “some people deserve to be poor”. Or am I missing a nuance here?

    Erm, because I don’t believe in a society where everyone gets their “just deserts” either. Have I really not made it clear how much I dislike the concept of meritocracy yet?

  12. Hire me? He could have my pedantry for free any time if he wanted.

    Notwithstanding that certain people (Alison Goldsworthy for one) think I’m Chair of In-The-Closet-For-Chris. I’m still undecided (much less than I was though). I’m more like Chair of Lib Dems for Indecision.

  13. I really don’t have much time to read or participate in blogs, and I’ve only started reading LibDem blogs closely and putting a few messages in since the leadership campaign started. But I’m not coming into this as someone who’s a gung-ho supporter of Huhne and just wants to knock Clegg because of that. Mainly I’m someone who just can’t understand why there’s so many people – nearly all the media as well as many party members who are saying “It’s got to be Clegg”. I am genuinely frustrated because I still haven’t grasped why, if I’m getting angry about it it’s because of this, even if he’s not someone I’m likely to support, I’d at least like to understand what it is that people find so impressive about him that ever since he became an MP he’s had this label “the next leader” attached to him.

    James’s post actually does cover a lot of the problems I have with Clegg – too much rhetoric which actually if you look at it closely doesn’t go anywhere. What I want to see is someone who shows a real confidence with ALL the main policy issues, and shows that he isn’t afraid to look beyond the obvious, and I don’t see that with Clegg. A lot of what I’m seeing from him seems to be stuff which is shallow feel-good rhetoric for us, with a nod to the right-wing press which has helped get him some support there, but I don’t feel it’s going to win us much support outside people who are already committed to us. In some ways it’s a lot like David Cameron in reverse – good presentation hiding a rather shallow grasp, feel-good stuff for his party, and in his case, a nod to the liberal media to get the support there.

    What I actually want to see is someone who’s a good deal less the conventional politician than Clegg. I would like to see someone who really goes outside the comfort zone, and utters a few shocking truths about the real problems our society and our world are facing, and about how there aren’t any easy solutions to them, but how closing our minds and saying “politics is bad and boring” isn’t an option if we want to see those problems solved. I want to see someone who can say something to the people who slam the door in my face when I’m canvassing with a shout of “no thanks, we’re not interested”. I just don’t see that in Clegg, and ok I don’t see enough of it in Huhne either.

  14. Re: people’s confusion about your position-

    I find your position far more interesting than the slavish supporters… perhaps because I’m in a similar situation (I lean towards Clegg, but am still critical of him and there’s some things about Chris I like as well).

    I’d fully expect you to state what you like and don’t like about the candidates, even if you were supporting one of them, and that, especially at this stage is vital. Whoever is elected I want to know their flaws as well as their attributes.

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