One might have thought that a leader who has presided over a catastrophic slump in his party’s membership would have better things to do than insult those who remain.
Yet the media were being briefed assiduously over the summer that the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow is the event at which Nick Clegg would confront his party over whether it accepted ‘grown-up’ politics. Translated into English, that means, “will it do what I tell it to?”
Having evaded any real debate on the economy for the past two years – helped by the fiasco over two competing amendments last September – the party leadership has now gone to the other extreme and staged an economy debate that Clegg himself will sum up.
The motion he will commend to conference is a recitation of things the coalition has done, together with some rather uncontentious ideas for limited improvements. This, as the movers well know, faces the party with the choice of publicly repudiating its leader or endorsing the economic record of the coalition, which has seen three years of recession, followed by a tiny upturn in growth paraded as though it were a miracle.
In this situation, Clegg may well get his victory, but it won’t be worth having. Does anyone in his bunker seriously believe that the party will be enthused by, or voters impressed by, a policy that says, “You’ve just been through the longest recession on record; we were right and everyone who disagreed was wrong; now please vote for us and, if we have a coalition again, we’ll knock a few more rough edges off the Tories’ more lunatic ideas”?
When not discussing being ‘grown-up’, Clegg’s usual line is to accuse his Liberal Democrat critics of being uninterested in power and preferring opposition. Entire armies of straw men have been lined up by Clegg to be demolished like this. Who are these people, and why has no-one except Clegg ever met any of them?
The people that Clegg alleges are not ‘grown-up’ or ‘serious’ are the remnants of those who gave him a majority in favour of coalition in 2010 so large that even he described it as ‘North Korean’.
Those who disagree with Clegg do not, with rare exceptions, object to being in coalition at all. They object to the conduct of this one; to Clegg’s failure to use his influence well; to Clegg being too close to David Cameron; to Clegg permitting policy disasters like the Health Act and bedroom tax (which will return to haunt the party’s candidates); and to Clegg appearing altogether far too comfortable in working with the Conservatives.
Clegg would appear to wish to fight the next election on the platform of “didn’t we do well?” A few conversations with most of his MPs, and some pretty senior ones at that, ought to convince him that fighting the next election by offering more of the same is likely to prove inimical to his prospects of continuing as deputy prime minister, because there will be too few Liberal Democrat MPs to sustain a coalition. But then perhaps he thinks his own MPs are not serious.
There is also a hard message for those of Clegg’s critics who have given up and left the party in disgust at something or other the coalition has done. What did you expect? You joined a political party that seeks power and, unless you believed the Liberal Democrats were going to vault from third place to first, it was inevitable that a coalition would arise at some point were the party ever to exercise power.
Undoubtedly, most party members would have preferred Labour as a coalition partner, and things would have been less problematic on economic policy. But since suspicion of civil liberty is part of Labour’s DNA, such a coalition would likely have caused equal if different anguish. Probably a mirror image of those who have left because of this coalition would have left because of one with Labour.
Each social liberal who leaves the party makes life easier for Clegg and the clique of economic liberal extremists around him, and harder for those social liberals who remain. The least helpful of all are those who have left the Liberal Democrats but say they might be back “when it turns into a social liberal party”. By their own actions, they make such an outcome less likely. If the party is to be rescued for social liberalism, it needs social liberals in it. Each of those who leaves does Clegg’s work for him.
No coalition was ever going to be easy. Even a majority Liberal Democrat government would have created its share of anger and disappointments. But the only people with good reason to leave the party are those who have undergone a genuine intellectual conversion to a rival cause.
For lapsed members who remain social liberals, the choice is simple. The party is bigger than Nick Clegg and will be there when he has gone, and it is worth saving. Clegg wants you to leave, which should be reason enough to stay. Or rejoin.
This is the Commentary column from Liberator #361 (September 2013 edition), just sent to subscribers.