Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday 20 December 2015

The unaccountability of Nick Clegg

Something that has been bubbling under for a while with me is a niggling feeling that Nick Clegg hasn't really been held to account for the utter devastation that the Lib Dems suffered back in May. Sure he resigned and is now just a lowly backbench MP. And indeed he is now in the somewhat excruciating position of not being able to step down as any subsequent by-election under current circumstances would probably lose the Lib Dems another seat that they can ill afford to squander.

So perhaps that combination is enough. And yet I feel that somehow it is not.

I was a Lib Dem from 2008 to 2013 and I still very much consider myself a fellow traveller at least with the membership if not the leadership in the latter years of the coalition. I was excited by the vibrancy of the party in the run up to 2010 and after the coalition was formed I was genuinely optimistic about the possibility of real political reform and a strong liberal flavour to the government that would play out over the following 5 years.

Sadly it was not really to be. At least not in any meaningful and sustainable way. Despite the promises the only political reform we got were fixed term parliaments which were only really instituted to protect the Lib Dems from their larger coalition partner and they were set at 5 years rather than the more accountable and liberal 4 years that most campaigners for this change wanted to see. Apart from that, electoral reform at Westminster, Lords reform and other measures people like me wanted to see fell by the wayside.

In addition to that a number of measures that most liberals would never have wanted to see on the statute books were rammed through in the teeth of party opposition. Secret courts were a resignation issue for some, most notably Jo Shaw who made the best political speech I have ever seen in person from the podium at the 2013 Lib Dem conference. I nearly left myself at that point but stayed on in hope only to drift away disillusioned later that same year. There were other things as well, tuition fees, 45p tax rate etc. etc. etc. I don't need to go through the list. Most people reading this will know them all by rote.

But politics is tough and it certainly wouldn't be fair to blame Clegg for all of those, although he was complicit.

There are some things though for which the blame squarely falls on his shoulders. I'll highlight just three here although there are more.

Firstly the complete lack of any attempt to change the way PMQs was practised at all. Clegg stood in for Cameron at PMQs many, many times. And instead of using the opportunity to do it differently, perhaps taking a more emollient tone and not constantly bashing anyone who criticised the government he did the exact opposite. He used the bully pulpit to attack the opposition over and over again. In many respects he was worse than Cameron. It made him look like Just Another Tory. Indeed after he resigned as leader he cited "sitting next to the Prime Minister" at PMQs as one of his biggest mistakes because of the "optics". He is right about that but it is much much worse than he states because of the way he himself carried out the same duties.

I asked Clegg about this very subject when I interviewed him in September 2012 and he claimed that he would have liked to change PMQs but when he had made slight attempts to move in this direction he had been branded as "ineffective and weak" and hence he had had no choice but to stick to the bearpit style. But this just simply is not good enough. What was the point of having a Lib Dem Deputy PM taking PMQs if when he deputised for the PM he made no difference to how it was practised and more importantly gave no inkling of how a liberal PM could do it? He had a responsibility to show how liberals in general and Lib Dems in particular were not happy with the current system and would change things. On this particular point he completely and totally failed.

Secondly cleaving far too closely to the Conservatives in the early years of the coalition. The "Rose Garden" press conference was clearly a misstep but it was indicative of a wider problem about how the party presented themselves. On the media and in parliament they went on and on and on about how there was a strong Lib Dem flavour to the government. They pounced on research that suggested 75% of their manifesto had ended up in government trumpeting this from the highest rooftops. But all this just made the Lib Dems look like they were crypto-Tories; when the cuts started kicking in, the tuition fees were raised, the NHS reforms were announced and all the other policies that were anathema to 2/3rds of the voters who backed Clegg in 2010 they "owned" the entire lot. There was no serious attempt to distance the party from these policies in government from the top level. Indeed Clegg seemed to revel in what he was doing, at one point light heartedly quoting Blair saying "It's worse than you think, I actually believe in the policies.". By the time the "differentiation" strategy kicked in in the last year or so of the parliament it was far, far too late.

The final one I want to focus on is how totally misguided Clegg's long term political strategy was. He seemed totally convinced that there were a huge swathe of liberal leaning voters out there who had previously gone for the Tories but now the Lib Dems had demonstrated they could do government they would come flocking to the yellow banner. And that these voters would replace all the lefties who had previously backed the party. Time and again at conference we members were all assured that the leadership knew exactly what it was doing and it would all come good. After the wipeouts in local elections and in 2014 losing all but one MEP (a devastating result for "The Party of Europe) the members were urged to keep the faith.

It was all wishful thinking. In May this year the electorate delivered their verdict. The Lib Dems lost 83% of their seats. They are now down to 8 MPs. There are some projections (that I take seriously) that suggest that in 2020 after the boundary changes they could be down to 4 MPs. They are a shadow of their former selves and are likely to be a political irrelevance for a generation or more.

I'm not saying there were any easy answers after the 2010 general election. There weren't. As I have argued many many times Clegg took the only option for stable government for 5 years and his party have paid in my view a disproportionate price for effectively putting the country before party.

But Clegg and his aides were complicit in a large number of tactical and strategic mistakes that made the ultimate result 5 years later even worse than it needed to be. They didn't listen to the many many voices from both inside and outside the party urging them to change tack. Clegg refused to stand down in June 2014 after the Euro elections when it was obvious to almost all political observers that he was a busted electoral flush.

I have no specific recipe for what sort of "punishment" Clegg should now undergo. Indeed it is unrealistic and probably even churlish to think there is one. But the party, its current and future leaderships and its members should think very carefully before pursuing the line that Clegg was very brave to do what he did and that the party in any way owes him a debt of gratitude. They should also all do their best to try and make sure he does not ultimately become a well respected and loved grandee of the party (like say Paddy Ashdown) who is listened to and has great influence in the future direction of the party.

He made some major errors that have cost both the party and ultimately the country in terms of much reduced liberal influence in parliament for many years to come.

At the very least he should be held accountable for that.


Bob Whearcroft said...

I agree with much of your analysis but, if you really are still a fellow traveller then maybe you should think about rejoining the party - whatever faults it may have it is still the natural home for liberals

Danny said...

This thing about stable government....just why did we need it? The traditional response to national crisis has been coalition. The obvious coalition was labour-conservative if there truly was a crisis, but there was not one. Liberals would have been better advised to vote on an issue by issue basis as matters arose and distance themselves from the government. Both in terms of the national outcome, and also in terms of their own credibility.

Truth is, a likely outcome of such an approach would have been a new election. And every party was afraid of coming off worse. Nothing which happened was about national interest.