Saturday 18 September 2010

How Nick Clegg changed his mind on where the LibDems stand. (Or, How a year is a very long time in the New Politics)

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.


MatGB said...

Sunder, aren't you reading far too much into what some frenzied sub editor has interpreted, rather than what Clegg actually says?

He does not say, at all, that the LDs no longer have a future as a party of the left. He's saying that there's no future for the party in relying on disaffected Labour voters to prop it up, no future in bing the Labour conscience.

That's not saying "we're not left wing" that's saying "we're not NiceLabour". Which is true.

The subeditor has got carried away with the headline writing, but it's clearly not what he actually said. I'm not interviewing him at conference this year, friends did so earlier today (I'm only going for bits of the weekend, joys of a school based job), but last time I did, we discussed the left wing thing very heavily, he's deeply committed to left wing, liberal values.

That's not the same thing as left wing Labour values, and he's not as left wing as, for example, me. But the quotes from him you cite for this entire article don't actually back up your interpretation of his supposed volte face.

Guido Fawkes said...

The project to end Labour as a governing party is going well:

1. Modernised, refreshed Tories at ease with 21st century. Check.

2. Shift of centre-party right-wards. Check.

Enjoy permanent opposition.

Sunder Katwala said...

Guido, does this encourage you to follow through on your earlier thinking about perhaps joining the libdems. There could be a crucial role for a cleggite libertarian right flank?

MatGB said...

Heh, I never did find out what the reason was for rejecting his application last time he tried to join, but that was over 4 years ago now, I wasn't a member at the time. The party does have some standards y'know (not many, having met a fair few members, but some).

Guido, if (2) was correct, which I don't think it is, then that would help, not hinder, Labour getting back in, because the 'left wing' voters would have nowhere else to go to except Labour.

Which is one of the reasons why I don't think it's what Clegg's saying, as I know he isn't that stupid.

Sunder Katwala said...


Only up to a point.

Yes, indy headline not a direct quote.

But let us see how Clegg responds. Party leaders know the media well. The actual quote 'it never was' can only be read as a dig at Charles Kennedy. This does reflect Clegg's Blairesque preference to establish public leadership by challenging his own party.

On the substance, is there any serious case that Clegg is pursuing the political strategy set out in the Demos pamphlet. (I didn't at the time think it a strong strategy, nor a particularly pluralist one, but I take it we should do Nick Clegg and Richard Reeves the courtesy of taking it to have been sincere.

Sunder Katwala said...

That was reply to your opener.

It is pretty easy to see what shortterm case Clegg makes to his party this week.

I think he does have a clear sense of what his liberalism is and isn't about. He isn't much influenced by social democracy though I would hope egalitarian social liberals can get a hearing

But the current public vacuum is whether he has a medium or longterm political strategy for the party, and what it is, though perhaps a lot depends on whether the tory-ld coalition is still solid in 2013 and 2014

MatGB said...

I think the problem at the moment is that Clegg genuinely believes in coalition/consensus politics. Thus he, like I, need to ensure the Coalition works in order to prove the case that coalitions, generally, work.

If the likes of yourself can reclaim Labour, you know I want little more than a coalition involving both our parties. But it's Labour that abandoned us and political liberalism, as we've discussed before.

Thus, right now, Clegg is positioning to ensure the Coalition can survive for the fixed term, which is in itself strategic positioning for the party.

I also dislike the "dig at CK" thing, as CK himself is rewriting history. It was under his leadership the party went back to equidistance, it was him that set up the Tax Comission with a specific remit of finding ways to raise the personal allowance, it was he who withdrew from the Cabinet committees Blair had managed to get us on.

If we want a liberal, pluralist realignment of the left, which is CKs stated ambition, that means having competing parties, and it sometimes means those parties will disagree so much about fundamentali issues that a coalition with elements of the Right is necessary. I genuinely believe that to be the current case.

And definitely give Reeves the courtesy of sincerity, he's genuinely committed to the sort of mutualist socialism Mill argued for, his fanboying of Mill can at times be impressively scary. It's why I was really happy to see him take a SPAD job, confirmed that, behind the scenes, we were on the right track (he can persuade died in the wool Tories of a socialist position by using the language they like to hear, it's a vvery impressive trick).

But yes, he's not a social democrat, and has always made it very clear he's a committed liberal. Which makes those who put their social democrat principles above their liberal principles uncomfortable at times.

I've long held the position that freedom (ie liberalism) has to come first, so it doesn't bother me half as much as it does some friends.

T.N.T. said...

I'm very pleased to see Clegg leading the Lib Dems ever-further rightwards as it leaves the left and centre completely vacant for Labour to mop up the votes. While making the chances of a formal split in the Lib Dems ever greater. Simon Jenkins in the Guardian was absolutely right - Clegg has booked a one-way trip to electoral oblivion. I doubt Labour will get anything less than 45% of the vote at the next election.

I feel sorry for Lib Dem activists - they deserved better than this.

Daan said...

@MatGB- While the headline is indeed a standard piece of media hyperbole, the actual quote that the Liberal Democrats "never were and aren't a receptacle for left-wing dissatisfaction with the Labour Party" nevertheless remains in stark contrast to Clegg's article from September 2009 in the Times quoted in Sunder's article.

So while it is not quite as dramatic as our overly keen sub editor would have us believe, this certainly reflects a shift in rhetoric from the Lib Dem leader.

To be honest, I'd interpret this as more of an exercise in damage control. A lot of those in the Lib Dem voter base who were disaffected Labour voters are likely to desert the Liberal Democrats anyway, Clegg's article is simply an attempt to make it look like this is what he intended all along.

The political equivalent of more common face-savers such as "You didn't dump me, I dumped you" or "You can't fire me; I quit."