There is no future for us as a party on the left: As the Liberal Democrat conference begins, Nick Clegg gives his party an uncompromising message.
So reads the Independent front-page headline on political editor Andrew Grice's exclusive interview with the LibDem leader, in which Clegg says:
"There were some people, particularly around the height of the Iraq war, who gave up on the Labour Party and turned to the Liberal Democrats as a sort of left-wing conscience of the Labour Party.
I totally understand that some of these people are not happy with what the Lib Dems are doing in coalition with the Conservatives. The Lib Dems never were and aren't a receptacle for left-wing dissatisfaction with the Labour Party. There is no future for that; there never was".
That is not what one would describe as a love-bombing strategy towards his predecessor Charles Kennedy. For a party which won the votes of 2 million Labour switchers in 2005, and at a moment when only 61% of LibDems who voted for his party in May say they would do so now, Clegg seems to be telling a third of those who voted for him that he feels better off without their backing, sensing that a purge of leftist voters will have therapeutic effects. The Independent thinks this a "bold and risky" strategy, if he has not identified centrist voters to replace them.
The obvious first thought is that perhaps not everybody in his party will agree. I look forward to talking about that with both Nick Clegg's pps Norman Lamb and Richard Grayson, who remains a solid liberal-leftie, at our fringe meeting on Sunday lunchtime.
This would seem to be further evidence that Nick Clegg is a keen student of the Blairesque approach to party management. He was (and is) heading for a much warmer reception from his party than over-excited media predictions of party revolts would have it. (Polly Toynbee, once a leading SDP-er, predicts that the real battles will come next year). He is confident enough of that to want to shake things up a bit. But close Clegg-watchers will spot a pattern, since the LibDem leader seems to be somewhat addicted to poking his party activists with a sharp stick on the eve of party conferences, and has now consistently chosen the preceding weekend to make his most right-facing public statements of the year.
Last Autumn, he shocked his party by calling for "savage cuts" (he backed away after it was reported that "Members of his team were horrified that the comment, made in a newspaper interview on Saturday, aligned them closer to the Tory position of aggressive reductions in public spending"). On the weekend of his Spring Conference, Clegg gave a Thatcher-praising interview to The Spectator in which he sought to outflank Cameron and Osborne on preferring spendinf cuts to taxation. The pattern can surely not be an accident, particularly when the strategy is repeated at a moment when the Coalition has much higher approval ratings from Conservative than Liberal Democrat voters (as, rather uniquely, does the LibDem leader himself. (Spectator editor Fraser Nelson is again impressed by the new pitch, tweeting that Clegg's stance is "Brave - and correct", having found that Clegg's Times op-ed yesterday "shows political courage and sense of mission. More impressive by the week", so the LibDem leader may have found a 'base' were he to choose to pitch his tent further right).
Thirdly, it is striking that Clegg's interview suggests that the party leader has changed his mind about the fundamental political strategy of his party. A year is a very long time indeed in the New Politics. For it is exactly one year ago to the very day since Nick Clegg produced what remains his most detailed account of what his LibDem party is all about.
His significant Demos pamphlet The Liberal Moment, which argued that party's long-term strategic future lay in being a party of the left, and one which would come to lead the left too.
Clegg set out in much detail why philosophy, history, politics and policy all combined to place the LibDems very much of the left, a party who "share the progressive space with Labour", but not the Conservatives, and so which should now plan to take the leadership of the left and of Britain's anti-Conservative forces from Labour.
The Times ran an editorial Liberals and the Left noting that "Nick Clegg’s suggestion that his party can lead the Left seems presumptuous. Yet he is right to make it and has made it in the right way". Still, they might find his new 'not left' positioning even more appealing.
Here are some extracts of Clegg's vision, as it stood one year ago.
My argument is simple: if progressives are to avoid being marginalised by an ideologically barren Conservative party, bereft of any discernible convictions other than a sense of entitlement that it is now their turn to govern, then the progressive forces in British politics must regroup under a new banner. I believe that liberalism offers the rallying point for a resurgent progressive movement in Britain
No wonder David Cameron and George Osborne have sought to lay claim to the word progressive to describe their plans for Britain: it is the final frontier for them, the last step in the decontamination of the Conservative brand. But they will find, in the end, they are unable to square the circle of the idea of 'progressive conservatism': the words contradict each other.
Liberal Democrats, by contrast, lie on the progressive side of British politics, as did both of our predecessor parties, the Liberals, from 1859, and the SDP, from 1981. So, in large part, does the Labour party.
Clegg wrote in The Times exactly a year ago could hardly have been clearer about making a public offer that his party was best placed to represent the liberal-left conscience and was now the best home for those on the left dissatisfied with Labour.
Are you one of the millions who turned to new Labour in 1997? Were you excited by the progressive promise? Did you believe that the ideals of fairness, social mobility, sustainability, civil rights and internationalism would finally have their day?
(If he believes that there was "never" any future in seeking to make such an appeal to leftist dissatisfaction with Labour, Clegg seemed keen to hide that opinion prior to The Guardian's enthusiastic endorsement of his party).
He claimed that there was now a two party liberal left versus Tory right choice in politics:
"A choice between a liberal movement — led by the Liberal Democrats — that is attracting disaffected progressive voters from a Labour Party which will take years to recover, if at all; and a Conservative Party that parrots the language of change to maintain the status quo. In short, an opportunity for progressives to do something different, and finally change things for good".
Hmm. If one accepts that Clegg logic, the choice is a rather different one today.
However, this blog was sceptical about Clegg's strategic conclusion that sharing political space meant the two centre-left parties must compete and not cooperate; I argued that this was to "propose a death-match for supremacy on the centre-left ... somewhat in the tradition familiar to activists in both parties, of wishing the distraction of the 'other lot' would disappear".
For me, that goes for arguments that Labour could make the LibDems "extinct" too, even though a long-term decision of the party to reposition itself on the centre-right would shift the political landscape.
It would be very premature to suggest that this is where the Liberal Democrat party will end up. It will be interesting to find out over the next week whether there are Liberal Democrats who make a point of setting out why they believe that the party's future does remain firmly rooted in the centre-left traditions of both the Liberal Party and the SDP.