And as I complain about a lack of inspiration, the latest edition of Liberator comes out and gives me some. Specifically, Seth Thevoz’s article on the 2014 attempted coup to remove Nick Clegg as leader of the Liberal Democrats.
I’m usually in agreement with much of what Seth writes, and I do agree with most of what he writes in the article. However, I do think he’s wrong in attributing all the blame for it not succeeding to MPs not stepping up to the plate and calling for Clegg to go. That was definitely an important factor, but it misses out that part of the reason they weren’t willing to step forward was because of the way the grassroots call for Clegg to go had become a damp squib.
The key problem was the issue of timing. The 2014 election results had an odd electoral calendar because of the European elections. Voting took place on Thursday, but only local elections could be counted on the Thursday and Friday, with European votes not being counted and declared until Sunday, making political geeks glad that the Monday was a bank holiday. The problem was that for a lot of the country (especially areas with no local elections) this created an odd hiatus period over the weekend where votes had been cast in a national election, but results would have to wait for 72 hours. This, I believe, wasn’t a good time to begin the manoeuvres against Clegg. Yes, the local election results were bad, but people had expected that and were still hopeful that the European results for the ‘Party of In’ might be better.
So, when Lib Dems 4 Change was launched into that hiatus, people were reluctant to sign up to it, share it and discuss it because one crucial piece of information – how we’d do in the European elections – was missing. Now, it may have been meant to be a open letter and not a petition, but it was offering people the chance to add their names to it like a petition and people who might have been willing to sign it after the utter debacle of the European results weren’t going to do it before. (And once people make a political decision to do or not do something, it’s very hard to get them to change their minds in the short term)
What this meant was that not only was the grassroots pressure that would have backed the MPs looking a lot thinner than they might have hoped for, those who wanted to defend Clegg and keep in him position were given the opportunity to organise their fightback for the Sunday night and Monday morning. Yes, if the MPs had still come out and called for CLegg to go then, he might well have done, but they were expecting to be doing that on the back of strong grassroots support, which hadn’t been demonstrated over the weekend.
Things might have been different if the grassroots campaign had started after the European results, when people were genuinely angry with the leadership over a terrible result. Going off with it too early meant it never developed the momentum necessary to get potential rebel MPs onside, which led to the whole thing fizzling out. Yes, there was a failure of nerve, but it was also bad timing and poor planning that led to it failing.