I was on BBC Radio 5 live on Friday and again this morning on Kevin Maguire’s LBC show. My theme was the monumental failure of Nick Clegg’s leadership of the Liberal Democrats in the coalition. But far more important than what I think, is the damning verdict of the electorate last Thursday, when our share of the vote plummeted For those of you reading this who are not natural Lib Dem supporters you might want to skip the next couple of paragraphs!
Squandered Opportunity for Electoral Change
I have a big stake in this. I have been a member since the Party was formed back in the 1980’s and I was in the Liberal Party before that. I have been a District and County Councillor and stood for Parliament twice, most recently last year in Surrey against Jeremy Hunt. I served as a Branch Chairman and on the Executive of my local Party. Like many committed Lib Dem members I believe Nick Clegg has failed us badly.
For committed Lib Dem supporters it is shocking that Clegg has squandered the golden opportunity to achieve electoral reform, perhaps for a generation. No other Lib Dem leader has had such an opportunity, but Clegg has comprehensively failed to deliver on this political reform which falls directly under his Ministerial remit. First he failed in the negotiation with Cameron last year, which left us with the rather uninspiring AV system as the proposed change. He then failed on his choice of timing, by fixing the referendum date at a point when (because of the ‘savage cuts’ agenda) the coalition was likely to be deeply unpopular with left-inclined voters whose support would be needed to secure reform. Due to Clegg cosying up to Cameron he undermined his credibility with those same voters and thus their support for a voting system that would benefit the Lib Dems. He left the Yes campaign too little time to mobilise and plan for the vote. He then failed to rein in the Tories and prevent the scandalous tactics of the No2AV campaign. The last of these points is symptomatic of his wider failure as Lib Dem leader in this coalition.
What are the Lib Dems for?
Nick Clegg’s cosy relationship with Cameron and his personal unwillingness to assert himself in the face of the ‘ruthless and calculating’ Tories (as Vince Cable describes them) is a huge factor in the loss of support for the Lib Dems. I have just watched the Lib Dem leader of Eastleigh Borough Council on TV describing Clegg as naive. That’s one perspective. Personally I wonder if Clegg isn’t actually a natural ally of Cameron, not simply because of their similar class backgrounds but because they share much in the way of political ideology. Whether Clegg likes it or not, for decades most of our support has come from left of centre voters. It is these voters who are saying to us that they feel betrayed by our broken promises and by our rightward shift (which I call the Toryfication of our Party). Clegg is seen as weak by many people who suspect that he is a Tory at heart anyway. Whether or not that is true, he has failed to provide a passionate left of centre leadership. His heart just does not seem to be in it.
People naturally ask “What are the Lib Dems for?” and “What’s the point in voting Lib Dem?” When we make an explicit promise to vote against any proposed increase in University tuition fees (and actually sign a pledge saying exactly that) it is no surprise if people turn against us when we do exactly the opposite. Simples! Why should the voters believe any promise Clegg makes to them? The tuition fees vote was a political disaster for us. By this foolish act alone, Clegg has fatally undermined his credibility with millions of people, especially the young who had thought we were ‘different’ from the usual manipulative, unprincipled, deceitful politicians who pitch for their support. The contempt that many young people now have for the Lib Dems will be hard to remedy.
Clegg should have made the tuition fees vote a red-line issue in the coalition agreement. It was a failure of his political judgement that he did not do so.
Loss of Identity
Few people would suggest that the Tories have lost their principles. Most people know what the Conservatives stand for. This can no longer be said of the Lib Dems. It has all got very fuzzy. On the BBC Andrew Marr programme this morning Clegg said that the lesson he has taken from last Thursday’s elections and the AV defeat was that the Lib Dems failed to communicate effectively. Well Mr Clegg – you are the leader, so that must be your personal failure to communicate. Your dalliance with Cameron and Co has eroded our Lib Dem distinctiveness and alienated millions of voters.
Clegg now wants to assert his position, flexing his political muscles over NHS reform. The problem is that he is not the one to re-establish our integrity and identity. The damage to his credibility has been too deep. The electorate now see him as weak and ineffectual. Many believe he is a Tory at heart. The disillusionment is too great for him to win back their support.
High Stakes Poker needs a ‘ruthless and calculating’ Lib Dem Player
There is much talk today of the risks of the coalition breaking up. Some Tories are saying that if the Lib Dems get too uppity then there will be an election and the Lib Dems will be wiped out.
My analysis is that Cameron would not risk an election now. He likes power and position too much. If there was an election this year then there is every possibility that Labour could end up as the biggest Party and, with the current electoral boundaries, it is very unlikely that the Tories would win outright (although not impossible).
This is a high stakes poker game. It needs a Lib Dem Player willing to call Cameron’s bluff. Clegg appears to like his position as Deputy PM too much to risk losing it and, in my view, he doesn’t have the courage or shrewdness for the game. My choice for such a role would be Chris Huhne. We need a tough operator like him at the top of our Party. The right wing press know he would change the dynamics of the coalition in our favour, hence their attacks on Huhne today.
A Different Agenda
People who are not particularly interested in politics will naturally ask what would change with a new Lib Dem leader. It will be vital to have a clear distinctive Liberal Democrat Agenda. There could be a very long list but as a start my preferred agenda would include:
1. Major investment in transport and green energy infrastructure;
2. No more wars of intervention (unless defending our citizens or direct interests);
3. A clear timetable to put up the tax threshold to £10k (by April 2012 at the latest);
4. A firm ‘No’ to the risky, messy, expensive NHS reorganisation;
5. A ‘Robin Hood’ financial services tax;
6. International action on tax avoidance by the Super Rich;
7. Carefully tapered benefits cuts for those moving into work;
8. Stopping the Trident replacement now before any more money is spent;
9. Instigating a wholesale review of University Tuition Fees with a view to implement reductions and a meaningful cap before 2015, with some targeted subjects being entirely freed from student fees to encourage young people to get qualifications in key areas of benefit to the economic future of our country;
10. Encouragement for foreign students to come here instead of pushing them away (Doh! they bring in money);
11. Splitting up the big banks to reduce future risks and consideration of a wide range of options including mutualisation or transferring ownership to all people on the UK electoral roll!