Saturday, 14 September 2013

Nick Clegg's leadership

It's a pity that in this weekend's Any Questions? the question about Nick Clegg's leadership came last. Norman Lamb had no time other than to deliver the Great George Street prepared script and Maria Eagle was able to slip in the standard Labour line that the Liberal Democrats were Tory lickspittles who had no effect on government policy. Sitting on the panel was John Redwood who frequently, in parliament and on his blog, bemoans the fact that Liberal Democrats in the coalition have prevented the Conservatives implementing their 2010 manifesto in full and he did not have the opportunity to repeat that view.

I used to think like Matthew Oakeshott, that we Liberal Democrats needed a new figurehead going in to the next general election. In the aftermath of the Welsh local elections, swept by Labour, I envisaged Nick doing the decent thing and off his own bat taking up a commissionership with the United Nations or in Brussels, or a similar high-status international post, in time for us to put someone else in place who was not associated with failure.

Things have changed. Firstly, even after three years exposure in parliament, no obvious challenger has emerged. Menzies Campbell and Vince Cable would do an excellent job, but would be crucified in the media because of their age, as Ming has already discovered. None of the younger contenders has proved to be sure-footed enough or to possess sufficient gravitas. It is, of course, nonsense to depict Nick as a Michael Foot figure. Foot was seen as old and as a wild-eyed extremist. Nick's appeal, apart from his charm, is to the centre ground of British politics.

Secondly, the message that we are actually influencing government seems to have got through to the print media at least, judging by the extracts I have seen on Facebook this morning. What the press says today, BBC will say tomorrow. There have been failures to persuade our Conservative allies to take a more progressive line in certain areas, but mostly where Labour does not exactly have clean hands either.

Lastly, Labour has not made the surge I expected. They have been all over the place. Their big mistake was to lead on the economy, when anybody with any common sense could see that the economic situation in 2014/15 will be better than in 2009/10. This strategy may have been reasonable if they had kept on the front bench the chancellor who had started to address the deficit and even presided over a slight blip in GDP growth during his tenure. Instead, they reverted to Ed Balls, the éminence grasse of the Gordon Brown bubble years. When Labour attacked on the social welfare front they concentrated on such things as the benefits cap which mainly affects voters in London, and which were shown to be popular in opinion research in the country as a whole. Balls has conceded that a Labour government would repeal virtually none of the welfare measures introduced by the coalition with the exception of pensions. It does not help that the party as a whole has not formed a coherent set of policy proposals. Consequently, Miliband has had to react to events, making up policy on the hoof and more often than not having to retract. He has laid himself open to attack - which is sure to increase between now and the general election - because of the way he has handled Labour/trade union relations.

So we can leave it to the Conservatives and their friends in the press to keep Labour in their place (opposition), while we get on with forming and refining positive policies. There is nobody better than Nick Clegg at putting a case across. I hope that this week's conference will give him a substantial brief to work from.

His clear antipathy to Nick and an unreasonable faith in opinion polls marred an otherwise interesting Matthew Oakeshott  interview. For instance, I tend to agree with him when he warns against following the lead of the German Free Democrats, who he sees as "a business friendly party in the middle blowing one way or the other, normally with the right." (Perhaps "economically liberal" rather than "business friendly" would be a better description.) I also agree with him that we must keep big single donations out of UK elections while not starving parties of funds. His 5-5-5 plan is attractive:

to limit individual donations to £5,000, to impose a £5m spending cap on general election campaigns and to allow voters to mark on their ballot paper a £5 tax donation to a party of their choice. Clean politics does have to be paid for, that’s the right solution. Obviously we can’t just hand out taxpayer’s money without giving them control. That really meets all the objections because anyone who doesn’t want to give, doesn’t.

Now to settle down with a pot of tea to watch the conference on BBC-Parliament while keeping an eye on events in Cardiff.

No comments: