Why the 2014 coup against Clegg was botched

liberator-2And 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.

‘We must destroy democracy in order to save it’

postdemocracyIt’s still only February, but we may have a winner in the Silliest Idea Proposed In A 2015 Political Column contest. Step forward Australian Herald-Sun columnist Tom Elliott with this:

There is a solution. Let’s agree on a set of truly important problems — mounting debt, population growth, lack of jobs, rising health care expenditure, inefficient welfare and an inadequate defence force — and appoint a committee of eminent and competent Australians to sort it out.

A benign dictatorship if you will.

This committee would consist of experts in their fields without political axes to grind. It’d need at least five years to complete its tasks during which time elected governments could administrate, but take no major decisions.

There is of course a giant paradox in the middle of this proposal in which he fails to actually consider by what sort of process people might come to agree what the ‘truly important problems’ are, or how they might go about appointing the ‘committee of eminent and competent Australians’ who’ll do something about these problems. One might suggest that this could be done by a process in which those who want the job of running the country set out their idea of what they think the problems are, how they’d solved them and then the public – perhaps through some kind of voting process – could choose between them.

(He also appears to believe that Britain suspended elections several years before WW2 began, but we’ll let that slide)

The thing of interest here isn’t that someone who imagines he wants a dictatorship can only express that in democratic forms, but rather the discontent with the notion of democracy itself. It’s the sort of thing that flares up occasionally, usually in late night talk and often couched in democratic terms like this. The thought is usually expressed not in needing a coup or anything as vulgar like that but as a desire for a strong leader who’ll cut through the crap and get things done (the same sort of arguments that are often used to advocate for elected Mayors in Britain). It’s the typical frustration at ‘the system’ that somehow blocks problems getting solved, coupled with a belief that all problems are easily solved by putting the right person in place to do it.

In short, and perhaps fitting more with the times, what’s proposed isn’t so much a coup as the installation of a new model of management. It’s perhaps a legacy of the cult of management that pervades so much of our modern experience, that the assumption isn’t regarded as completely laughable. We hear so much about how a change in management will supposedly rescue an organisation, that it’s not too much of a stretch to assume that the same rules must surely apply to how the country is run – bring in some ‘experts’, and they’ll magically find the answers that no one else has been able to. (I think I’m obliged by blogging law to link to Chris Dillow at this point)

However, while this is a silly column, it doesn’t mean that it’s not revealing something interesting about the state of political discourse. It shows that we’ve reached a point in the cycle where it’s acceptable to muse on whether there may be more efficient ways to run things than democracy, which is something that often follows big economic crises (see the 1970s and 1930s for more). Just as we’ve seen European governments replaced by technocrats and overseen by troikas, the notion is that the forms of democracy can stay, but the actual distribution of power will be changed completely – or, in some views, the true distribution of power will be revealed as the deep state rises and exercises its power overtly. Just as Colin Crouch argues with his idea of ‘post-democracy’, we’re not likely to see any sudden, dramatic or violent end to democracy, more a gradual whittling away as the technocrats and the managerialists take more responsibilities away from the democrats for safe keeping. We’ll still get to vote for whoever gets to tell us the bad news, but the real decisions will be made far away from us.

Does it have to be like that? No, but I’m getting the feeling that we’re going to need to begin to properly fight that vision of the future if we’re going to prevent it coming about.

Worth Reading 93: Unnatural occurrences only from now on

A very short post about Iraq – The Yorkshire Ranter with a succinct response to the ‘I was wrong, but’ brigade.
The less well-paid you are when you enter the labour market, the more your degree will now cost – From the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog. Under the new system of student finance “the greater your rewards from studying for a degree the less you pay for the opportunity.”
Why we need a Robin Hood tax to support councils and their communities – I suspect the potential proceeds of a Robin Hood tax have been spent many thousands of times over in op-eds and blog posts, but this is an interesting perspective from the leader of Corby council.
The HB Gary email that should concern us all – From two years ago, but a fascinating look at how fake consensuses are being generated online by mass use of sock-puppet accounts.
What If The Coup Against Prime Minister Harold Wilson Been Carried Out? – An in-depth look at some of the details around one of the murkier parts of modern British history.