Friday 26 July 2013

Change the leader? Something else has to change first...

“Nick Clegg’s ratings get a boost” is the headline in a report on Liberal Democrat Voice of its latest readership survey. It suggests that the fall in support for the leader amongst party members has been reversed, at least for now.

Since the previous survey of members in March, Clegg’s positive ratings are up 10% to 58%, while his negative ratings are down 8% to 40%. We also learn that 55% want Clegg to remain as leader and fight the 2015 general election, compared with 38% who think he should resign before then.

So, an increase in approval, but 40% against is still a substantial hostile minority of members, which ought to worry any leader. This is particularly so when you consider that many of those on the positive side may simply be making a calculation about the wisdom of holding a leadership election before 2015 rather than expressing any wild enthusiasm for the current leader.

The problem with such popularity ratings is that they focus attention on the personality rather than the strategy, so the more important issue is neglected. No matter how bad members may think Clegg’s leadership is, there is no point getting rid of him unless his successor has a better strategy. If there is a leadership contest without a serious strategic choice, all we are left with is a vacuous personality contest.

At this stage, you may be thinking it is wrong even to raise the issue of Clegg’s leadership. Since he is likely to remain leader until the next general election, there is nothing to gain by prolonging this discussion. Well, it doesn’t matter what you think, because Clegg has decided to raise the issue anyway.

On the Social Liberal Forum website, Gareth Epps reveals that, at this September’s Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow, Clegg is planning to stage a series of ‘binary choice’ votes, intended not only to shift the party decisively to the right but also to stage a symbolic defeat of the grassroots. Predictions of a conference bust-up also appear in an article by Richard Morris on the New Statesman’s blog.

Gareth Epps’s article is the more revealing, since it explains what the thrust of Clegg’s argument will be. Clegg will say that the Liberal Democrats must go into the 2015 general election fighting the coalition’s corner rather than the party’s. Is this is what he actually means by moving to the ‘centre ground’?

No one can say they weren’t warned about this conflict. Over the past year, Clegg has made a series of speeches attacking party members who he alleges want to “turn back the clock”, create a “stop the world I want to get off” party, who are “looking in the rear view mirror”, who want to be “the third party forever”, who are calling for “an eternity in opposition” and “hankering for the comfort blanket of national opposition”.

I analysed these attacks in a post here last month, pointing out that Clegg’s stereotype of party members simply doesn’t exist:
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.
In the same blog post, I also quoted various other party members who had become tired of Clegg’s repeated travestying of his own members. Others have since commented along similar lines.

The latest party blogger to grow weary of Clegg’s fantasy enemies is Mark Pack. In a blog post on 25 July, he produces conclusive poll evidence that Clegg’s straw man is 87% straw. Meanwhile, in a more detailed analysis in his latest monthly Newswire, he observes that Clegg has jettisoned community politics:
Community Politics, never a favourite subject of Nick Clegg’s (and all but totally absent from his public utterances from his first day in the party), does not feature in the party’s message, despite Tim Farron’s calls for Community Politics to be a priority for the party.
It not only does not feature, but it is repeatedly implicitly rubbished as a result of what else Nick Clegg does regularly say. He and the party officially keep on hammering on about the importance of being in government in order to implement policies, without even a passing caveat about how people outside of political office can also achieve things. The idea that political parties should be all about winning political office as being the only way to bring about change is in a completely different political world from that of Community Politics with its emphasis on enabling people to take power over their own communities, working both within and outside the political system.
Mark Pack also takes apart Clegg’s timid strategy of being only “one step ahead”:
The politics of being one step ahead of the centre ground on its own is not enough to recruit and motivate an enthusiastic group of party activists, especially if you wish (as the party should) to have a core of activists who have something more than their dislike of potholes and their love of pointing in common.
What to do about this? We know that Clegg’s strategy is to soften up opinion before conference by travestying the membership as “not serious about power”, in contrast to his hard-headed and practical leadership. His strategy relies on establishing a narrative: “I'm competent, anyone who disagrees is a dilettante”.

The focus of any counterattack should be to bust that bogus narrative. Clegg has no right to a monopoly of the language of competence and experience, so he must be deprived of it. There are plenty of parliamentarians and councillors in the party who were exercising power when Clegg was still in short trousers, and they should take no patronising lectures from him about ‘power’.

More than that, Clegg has no right to monopolise this language because of his own record of incompetence:
  • The number of Liberal Democrat MPs actually fell at the last general election. The people who Clegg put in charge of the election campaign had insufficient experience of political campaigning, as demonstrated by the campaign’s complete inability to exploit ‘Cleggmania’. The opportunity for a coalition came about more as a result of the accident of the parliamentary arithmetic than any carefully crafted strategy on Clegg’s part.
  • Liberal Democrat poll ratings have been stuck at about 10% since the autumn of 2010, and local election results have been abysmal. Clegg has no idea how to reverse this trend.
  • The party’s membership has fallen by over a third since 2010, and many of those members who’ve stayed have scaled back their activities. Clegg’s repeated attacks on his own members suggest that he thinks this doesn’t matter. He seems to have no idea how to, in Mark Pack’s words, “recruit and motivate an enthusiastic group of party activists”.
  • Clegg believes that most voters congregate in an imaginary ‘middle’, and that politics is therefore about competing with the other parties for these same voters. But talk of the ‘centre ground’ is psephological nonsense – in practice, it means competing with the Tories and Labour for the sort of voters who never vote Liberal Democrat anyway, while alienating the party’s natural constituency (explained in more detail in an earlier post). Clegg does not understand his party’s core vote or what makes it tick – indeed, he actually seems to hold this core vote in contempt, mistakenly dismissing it as a ‘protest vote’ that can be safely dispensed with.
  • As Mark Pack said in his Newswire quoted above, Clegg’s strategy effectively repudiates community politics. Clegg seems to think that success resides in becoming more conventional, when all the signs are that the patience of the public with conventional politics is coming to an end. Furthermore, Clegg’s approach makes his party more indistinguishable from the Tories and Labour, which deprives voters of any good reason to vote Liberal Democrat.
  • The economic orthodoxy of the 1980s continues to dominate Tory and Labour thinking, even though that ideology has been living on borrowed time since the great crash of 2008-9. Future success depends on moving beyond those redundant ideas. Clegg’s belief that his party must align more closely with the old orthodoxy is nothing short of disastrous.
Clegg’s strategy is failing and, long term, it will doom the party to irrelevance. He wants to convert the Liberal Democrats from a radical campaigning party to a right-of-centre, conventional party of government. But this strategy deprives the party of a USP and, with nothing distinctive to offer, it loses votes and members, and demotivates those members who remain.

If Clegg wants to monopolise the language of competence and experience, he must demonstrate his superiority as a strategist and manager. His practical failures and the absurdities of his arguments suggest he has no right to monopolise this language. The trick is therefore to deny him this monopoly and thus force him to stop talking in clichés.

But to return to the question originally raised at the beginning of this post, the strategy should not be to demand Clegg’s resignation. It’s not worth removing him unless there is a credible replacement with a coherent alternative strategy. Sadly, no such Liberal Democrat MP currently exists.

Meanwhile, in other news of attempted internal coups, Alex Marsh reports the latest wheeze of Mark Littlewood and his right-wing libertarian chums. A forthcoming summer school will include discussions about how they can take over the Liberal Democrats after the 2015 general election. I’m not saying these fruitcakes and their fantasies should be ignored entirely, but we should focus on winning this year’s battle before we fight the next.

Postscript: Oh dear. It seems that the final paragraph has offended some right-wing libertarians, who responded with comments that will not be published because they were anonymous (and if they’d bothered to read our comments policy, they would have realised that). However, the gist of their complaints is that their summer school is not “forthcoming” but has already happened, and that their debate about taking over the Liberal Democrats was merely “a joke”. Well, I’m glad that’s settled. As long as they’re preoccupied with obsessing about how many angels can dance on a pinhead, the rest of us can get on with the serious business of politics.

1 comment:

  1. Oddly, in my RSS reader, this post was right next to this one which includes the great description "(he) resembles a man plummeting to Earth strapped to an anvil, who’s getting angry with people for not appreciating the magnificent workmanship that went into fashioning the anvil." He's talking about Irish Labour leader Eamonn Gilmore, but it's a perfect description of Clegg's tactics towards the party too.


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