Wednesday 26 June 2013

A coup against Clegg?

On the Telegraph blog, Bernard Brogan reports that Nick Clegg is “safe”. The “leadership crisis” is over. There will no longer be “a coup at the Liberal Democrats’ autumn conference”.

A crisis? Excuse me, but did I miss something? A post here on 16 January explained why it was unlikely there would be a leadership election anytime soon. There has been no ‘crisis’ in the intervening months. The arguments in January’s post remain valid.

But despite the lack of a coup, Clegg is increasingly deserving of one. It isn’t because the Liberal Democrats joined the coalition – the party agreed to that overwhelmingly. And no matter how much you may think Clegg has subsequently made a poor fist of being in coalition, it is hard to see any of his potential rivals being able to make a significant difference at this late stage in the game.

The problem isn’t the coalition but the survival of the Liberal Democrats after 2015 as anything more than a fringe party. Clegg seems to have little idea of what makes the party tick or how its campaigning strength was built. The nature of this problem was revealed in a series of speeches and statements he has made over the past year.

In May, I posted here about Clegg’s statement after the local elections and his speech to last September’s party conference. On both occasions, he said that his way is the only way; anyone who disagrees is simply not interested in winning power. His way is the future; anyone who disagrees wants a return to the past.

He referred to the Liberal Democrats as having been a “party of protest” before he took charge. He travestied party members as people who want to “turn back” and create a “stop the world I want to get off” party. He warned them to “stop looking in the rear view mirror”.

In his speech at the ALDC conference in Manchester last Saturday, he repeated similar arguments. He scorned party members who want to “turn back the clock” and be “the third party forever”, who are calling for “an eternity in opposition” and “hankering for the comfort blanket of national opposition”.

These are straw men. We know this because in none of these attacks does Clegg ever name his critics or supply specific references to the speeches or writings where they have expressed such views. These imaginary enemies are conjured up because Clegg needs a ‘defining other’, a pantomime villain against whom he can contrast his virtues. He’d like his audience to shout out, “they’re behind you!” They won’t because they do not share his illusion.

Indeed, following Saturday’s speech, several have censured this smear campaign:
  • Jonathan Calder was depressed by the spin in advance of the speech, which promised Clegg would “take on his internal party critics”, and mocked his “very real fork in the road”. He pointed out that Clegg’s strongest critics are not the dilettantes Clegg would have you believe: “...the fellow Liberal Democrats who are most likely to be critical of Nick’s leadership are precisely those who have lost power under his leadership – councillors and group leaders in Northern cities who have seen the gains of years of hard work wiped out”.
  • Caron Lindsay, usually a loyalist, complained on Liberal Democrat Voice, “we’re not a bunch of unrealistic hippies, you know”. She warned: “Nick ought to realise that if he wants us to do something for him, then inferring that we need to grow up and get real is hardly the best motivational tool, especially when it’s not even accurate. Activists, who are already working hard, are going to think ‘Is that how little he thinks of us?’”
  • Gareth Epps asked on the Social Liberal Forum blog whether Clegg was resorting to “megaphone diplomacy”. He observed that it was perverse of Clegg to lecture members about power at an ALDC conference of all places:  “ audience of councillors is a strange one to lecture about being in power, especially those who did just that successfully for many years before national political trends voted good Liberal Democrats off councils we formerly ran. They are people who have long been a party of Government, who have suddenly found themselves in some cases relegated from first place to third thanks to taking the path Clegg seems to advocate.”
Only one notable commentator excused Clegg’s attacks. On Liberal Democrat Voice, Stephen Tall suggested, “That’s the way you get journalists’ attention, y’see”. If it really were the case that this is merely a PR tactic, it is a stupid one because it is extracting a disproportionately high price in terms of the alienation and demotivation of members. Y’see.

Meanwhile, writing on his blog on Sunday, David Boyle detected signs in the latest issue of Liberator magazine of a change of mood in favour of Clegg, which seems a charitable interpretation. If anything, the mood towards Clegg is continuing to deteriorate. The articles in the latest Liberator by Tony Greaves and Chris White indicate increasing exasperation with a leader who is effectively hollowing out his party.

In Saturday’s speech, Clegg warned that, unless members follow his “very real fork in the road”, “we condemn our party to the worst possible fate: Irrelevance; impotence; slow decline”. In fact, it is Clegg’s disregard for the long-term health of the party as a thriving campaigning organisation that is condemning the party to slow decline.

Clegg likes to lecture members about the ‘realities’ but the problem is that his narrative is remarkably unreal:
  1. Until Clegg became leader, the Liberal Democrats were merely a party of protest.
  2. Until Clegg became leader, the party had no experience of power and no interest in winning it.
  3. The power the party has won is entirely due to a transformation brought about by Clegg. The gains have been made despite the party rather than because of it.
  4. There is only one viable way forward, which is Clegg’s. Anyone who disagrees is backward looking and would rather be in permanent opposition.
This narrative is not just an insult to the party; it is bogus in every respect. Anyone who seriously believes in it is deluded. Anyone who promotes it while knowing it to be false is a liar. Either way, when a leader is promoting such an obviously dishonest prospectus, how can he expect his members to respect him or work for him?

Clegg is not the first leader to try and define his leadership qualities in terms of opposition to his own party. The tactic of making yourself look tough by attacking your own members is straight out of the David Steel playbook. With Steel, it reached the point where his closest allies (led by Richard Holme) worked for merger with the SDP as much as anything to achieve ‘Year Zero’ – to erase the Liberal Party and all those pesky radical activists and start with a clean sheet of paper, so that a centralised party could be run with no interference from the members.

Clegg seems to have reached a similar stage in his leadership, where he can no longer disguise his contempt for his own party. The problem is more acute with Clegg than his predecessors because he’s never assimilated. He joined the party only in 1997, became an MEP in 1999, an MP in 2005 and leader in 2007 – little wonder he’s never really understood the party’s culture. This problem is evident not only in the repeated slurs against activists but also the crass insensitivity on issues such as secret courts and immigration.

So will there be a coup? It is less a question of whether the party wants to get rid of Clegg than whether Clegg wants to get rid of his party.


  1. Minor correction: Nick became an MEP in 1999 not 2001.

  2. I find it hugely alarming that you think being a member for 'only' 16 years is not enough to internalise you into the party. Given that one of the former northern council leaders I know joined after Nick, I suspect this is an ill researched stock to beat him with. Further, the message this sends to younger activists who aspire to help this party in the long run seems clear to me; shut up and leaflet, and let us run the show. With youth engagement in politics already so low, this is a baffling stance to take.

    T. Oliver, Hull.

    1. Your comparison is false. Clegg was not and is not a “younger activist” setting out to be a councillor. He joined the party in his 30s and became a parliamentarian within two years of joining, not 16 years. He never served any sort of ‘apprenticeship’ in the party but was fast-tracked into the leadership. As a result, he has not developed enough sympathy for or understanding of the party.

      It isn’t me who believes that younger activists should “shut up and leaflet, and let us run the show”. My point is that it is Clegg and his inner circle who, by insulting the membership, are taking such a view.

  3. Incredibly well said Simon, both your blog and your later comment.

  4. I prefer people with fresh ideas to dullard footsoldiers.

    Graeme Cowie. Party member for 2 years 2 months. I will forward more structured and thorough thoughts some point after 2040 when you think I've become credible.

    1. Precisely what “fresh ideas”? What is fresh about ‘TINA’ economics and maligning party members?

      As long as you imagine that such a 1980s-vintage cocktail of prejudices is “fresh”, you will be no more credible in 2040 than you are now.


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