Ridiculously out-of-date book reviews: The Clegg Coup

gerardcleggMy Masters dissertation is on the role and strategy of the Liberal Democrats in the British party system, so as part of that I’ve been looking at various academic and non-academic texts for background information. Today I plunged into Jasper Gerard’s The Clegg Coup, which may well be one of the worst books ever written about British politics.

It fails on multiple levels: for a start, Gerard’s writing style is rambling and unfocused with chapters, paragraphs and even sentences ending up in miles away from where they started. The book doesn’t have any focus, jumping between biography of Clegg, discussion of the Coalition and attempts at political analysis willy-nilly, though one overriding theme is that Gerard clearly likes Nick Clegg and distrusts anyone who doesn’t. The ‘coup’ of the title appears to be one that Gerard is fully in support of, happily denigrating anyone who disapproved of the direction Clegg wanted to take the Liberal Democrats.

Beyond that, though, it’s shockingly badly researched and edited. At some points, Gerard appears determined to crowbar in every piece of trivia he’s learned about people, but on the big points, there’s a shocking lack of knowledge. I’m not talking about obscure points of political history here but simple facts that could be checked with thirty seconds on Wikipedia. A lengthy section talks about how Clegg was working for Leon Brittan at the European Commission while Miriam Gonzalez Durantez was working there for Chris Patten, completely failing to notice that Patten replaced Brittan on the Commission and was Governor of Hong Kong at the time Gerard asserts Gonzalez was advising him on Middle East policy. The book’s littered with errors like that, including mention of Labour’s first leader, Kier Hardy.

The brakes/breaks confusion there is one of several homophone errors in the book, and at points it feels like there’s been a decision to have an error of fact or editing on every page.

The only truly interesting part of it is what it unintentionally reveals. There’s some interesting bits about how Clegg chose not to run an aggressively ‘Orange Book’ campaign for the party leadership, and there’s an interesting omission of any detailed look at his selection for Sheffield Hallam. However, beyond all that, it’s clear that Gerard sees party politics as very much an elite activity. There’s lots of discussion of people within the Westminster bubble, wealthy donors and think tanks, but almost no mention of party members or even voters. It presents politics as a rather consequence-free activity with little connection to the real world, where an eager hagiographer like Gerard can go far through knowing the right people and writing positively about them.

If I hadn’t been reading the book for any useful nuggets of information, however inadvertently revealed, I’d likely have thrown it to one side once the error count reached the dozens, but if you’re a fellow connoisseur of bad political writing, you may well find something to enjoy in it.


One of these days I’m going to start believing exit polls. I thought the 2010 one was wrong as there was no way we’d lose seats, and when tonight’s came out I joined in the chorus of people who thought there was no way it could be the correct result. If anything, it now seems to have underestimated the number of Tory seats,

I’m doing an exam about public opinion and polling a week on Monday. Might be time to shred a whole bunch of my notes and just scrawl ‘nobody knows anything’ across the paper, as that seems to be the message. Something happened that the polls completely missed, but I have no idea what that factor might be.

At the moment, there are just six Liberal Democrat MPs, a number we last had after the 1970 election, but was pretty much our default number during most of the 50s and 60s. We’ve still got local election results to come tomorrow, and given the absolute slaughter of our general election vote, we’re likely to face another long day of terrible news from around the country. And as I write this, the Colchester result has come through, and Bob Russell’s lost by over 5,500 votes. This is a potential extinction level event for the party.

But we can’t let it be that. The country’s now going to get to see just what we spent five years holding back as the Tories have their bare majority, and David Cameron has to govern while keeping the right wing fringes of his party happy. Watch in awe as the Human Rights Act goes, as welfare budgets are slashed, as housing associations are plundered and most of all, as we spend the next two years obsessing over Europe and wondering just why no one wants to renegotiate our EU membership. The Tory campaign has whipped up fear and division across the country, and now they’re going reap what they’ve sown with more than 50 SNP MPs sitting in Westminster, just waiting for the opportunity to make Scotland independent.

The country needs a strong liberal voice, and we need to make sure that we are still that voice, no matter how small the platform we have to shout it from. However, we first need to gather ourselves, to talk and think for a while and not rush into any decisions about the future, and that includes a leadership election.

To be clear, the responsibility for this catastrophe does lie heavily with Clegg and all those in the leadership who decided we needed to be a party of centrist managerialism, offering the public little more than an offer to moderate the bad things the other parties would do. But if you break something, it’s your responsibility to stay around and help with the clean up. Clegg can’t stay on as leader, but the last thing we need right now is to be plunged straight into a leadership election. He needs to stay on as effectively an interim leader to give us the space to have the reviews, the analysis and the discussions we need. This was not a conventional defeat, and we can’t respond to it in a conventional way. We cannot turn in on ourselves and fight over what little remains, we need to get ourselves together before we can work out where we’re going.

This isn’t the end, but we need to work harder than ever to get out of this hole.


As in the rest of the country, our local Tories are never averse to screaming ‘dirty Lib Dem negative campaigning’ when anyone says something that’s less-than-positive about them (and those sort of comments are frequent in Colchester when they propose silly ideas like this). Of course, what’s sauce for the goose is never allowed to be sauce for the gander, and the Tories are always keen to point out that their own campaigns are as pure as the driven snow, never negative or personal. Which makes this hard to describe.

lockerclegg(The original Tweet is here, that’s a screengrab in case wiser Tory heads have it removed) Ben Locker (the person on the left in the picture) is the Tory candidate for Mile End Ward in the local elections and also a friend and regular campaigner for Will Quince, the local Tory candidate. Judging from the pictures here and here, it appears that Castle Ward Tory candidate Darius Laws, another close associate of Quince, is also involved in this little stunt, which in absolutely no way surprises me.

This is what our local Tory campaign has been reduced to – wandering around with a carboard cutout of Nick Clegg, encouraging people to believe it’s all his fault. Whatever ‘it’ is and how ‘it’ can all be Nick Clegg’s fault is a question that Ben Locker refuses to answer. It does seem an odd message to be spreading, given that the Conservatives have been the larger party in the coalition, but maybe he’s just following the logic of their attacks on the SNP to their logical conclusion? If he genuinely believes his party’s idiotic propaganda that a Labour government would have to do whatever the SNP says, maybe he thinks that’s how the last Government was run too? It’s quite clear from their local proposals that Colchester Tories have no idea how local government works, so perhaps it’s fair to assume that understanding national government is a project that’s way too complicated for them.

If the Tories want to spend their time on silly personalised negative campaign, that’s entirely up to them, but they shouldn’t expect other people to forget it, and they certainly shouldn’t start complaining when people criticise them.


BBC_Question_TimeThat’s the end of the set piece events for this election, so the politicians will be relaxing and not expecting to be facing any more tough questions until around this time next week. Of course then they’ll actually have to come up with an answer to the question Cameron and Miliband ducked last night: just how will you govern if you don’t get a majority? I know I bang on about this, but if you want a picture of what’s wrong with our political system, it’s two leaders who won’t get 40% of the vote, let alone 50% of it, insisting that they’d have a right to govern entirely alone without any compromises. (It’s also a media who collude in those delusions and talk about winners and losers in a system where we all lose)

As for last night, I thought Cameron did the best job in ignoring the question he’d been asked and delivering the pre-prepared responses in the same subject area. It felt like there were a bunch of interns back at CCHQ playing Buzzword Bingo, and he’d insisted that none of them could win unless he unleashed every single one of them. Miliband was a bit rough at the first, especially when the audience were at their most aggressive, but improved as time went on and stayed calm throughout, which contrasted with the tetchiness that always seems to linger just below the surface when Cameron interacts with anyone. Clegg did well, though he looked quite tired at having to explain the tuition fees issue for the umpteenth time, but dealt well with the audience and didn’t pander to them, being willing to point out to the ‘eight countries are leaving the EU’ questioner that he was just wrong. (Like any Question Time, this would have been improved by Dimbleby telling some questioners the premise of their question was wrong)

Will it have changed minds and been a decisive moment in the campaign? Like all the other events in the election, probably not, but perhaps it’s interesting because it’s not been decisive. A lot of the Tory campaign strategy did seem to revolve around the idea that Miliband would fall apart under the strain of the election, but that hasn’t happened and perhaps the improving public opinion of him has been what’s stopped the Labour vote falling away through the campaign as previous experience might have suggested it would.

Perhaps that lack of reaction is what we need to give us the space to discuss how debates and other set piece events are part of future election campaigns. Discussion of the 2010 ones was overshadowed by the effects of Cleggmania and the worry that they’d unbalance the campaign, but that hasn’t happened this time, even if discussions about them did take up far too much time in the run-up to the election. I suspect some form of debates will be part of future campaigns, but I think we’ve seen that a range of formats might be the way to go in the future. As well as debates, more Question Time-type events would be good, but also more interviews where they’re put on the spot. However, I also think we need to cover a wider range of issues and people than we’ve seen this year – did we really need more questions about immigration last night? I know there have been debates with other party representatives on different issues, but these have been buried away in the middle of the day, or stuck on BBC News and maybe deserve a higher prominence. We complain about the presidentialisation of politics, but this could be a way to weaken that, and also to ensure all issues get some coverage and give exposure to other politicians.

Right, can we have the election itself now, please?

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This morning, I had a feeling that the Telegraph’s story about Tory preparations for a Boris Johnson coup was going to be the big story of the day, hence why I dashed off a quick post about it. In my defence, how was I supposed to know that the Prime Minister would manage to forget what football team he supposedly supports?

Yes, I know it’s trivial to care about what football team a politician supports, but I think it also shows just how manufactured Cameron’s public image is that he felt the need to invent one, instead of just honestly saying that he was never that much into club football but enjoyed watching England. But that would be an honest answer and thinking outside the box, which isn’t the sort of thinking you hire a PR man for.

Even that failed to distract from the main story of this election: everyone except Nicola Sturgeon going slightly batshit about the rise of the SNP. Today we had Nick Clegg making comments about how he wouldn’t go into any deal with the SNP, which of course had various members of the party up in arms and pointing out that it wasn’t his decision. Not that the media ever actually pay attention to the ways political parties work, of course. Clegg responded by sending out an email to members that walked back his comments somewhat.

However, what concerns me in all this is that general message going out here is that the SNP are to be excluded from power (and especially UK-wide government) at all costs. There’s a concept in political science (and part of my dissertation) called the ‘structure of competition for government’. This is related to the overall party structure in a polity, but relates how parties interact in government formation. For instance, until 2010 Britain had a closed structure of competition – only two parties got to be in Government, and they alternated with each other. Other countries (Sweden, for instance)have more open structures, but the parties tend to be structured in blocs (usually of left and right) and while there’s movement between parties, there’s normally alternation between the two blocks and no crossover between them. There are also very open systems like the Netherlands, where a variety of coalitions come together in government with no real fixed pattern.

The interesting thing about Britain is that the structure of competition has blown wide open since 2010, with the old two-party structure seemingly gone. We’re in a position where a new – and possibly much more open – structure is being formed, and this election will be crucial in that process. However, while we may get an open structure, it will also be a very skewed one if one party remains locked out of power because all the potential partners for them won’t come to any agreement with them. That doesn’t have much effect when it’s a small fringe party with a handful of seats but when it’s a party with a significant number of seats it has a major effect on government formation. You can ignore them all you want, but they can still vote in Parliament.

As examples, consider what’s happened in Sweden and Germany recently. Both have relatively large parties that are excluded from being part of government formations (the Sweden Democrats on the right in Sweden, and Die Linke on the left in Germany), but taking them out of the equation makes it very hard for traditional groupings of parties to form a majority. In Sweden, neither left nor right could get a majority, and Germany had to have a CDU-SPD grand coalition because nothing else would form a workable majority.

Beyond the whole issue of telling the people of Scotland that their votes don’t count if they cast them for an unapproved party, excluding the SNP from any say in power runs the risk of leaving no workable coalitions except for a grand coalition between Labour and the Tories. I still think it would take us two inconclusive elections to get the point where one could be formed, but we’re going to get to a point where that’s the only logical solution left on the table. Well, we could go for electoral reform and an entirely new system that reflected the people’s views much better than the current one, but that would be really crazy talk.

After that long rant, and because it’s getting late we’ll combine today’s obscure party and dip into Election Leaflets with the Pirate Party. They’re standing six candidates in the election on the typical Pirate programme of internet activism and digital rights, but what I think is interesting is the look of their literature which manages to break out from the usual bright primary colours and smiling photos of the candidate style of usual election leaflets. It’s something different, and they’re raising important issues (even if I’m far from being convinced about their stance on copyright) that others aren’t, so maybe something of them – either design or policy – might be picked up by other parties in the future.

Twelve days to go. Hopefully the press won’t have completely exploded in incandescent fury at the SNP and demanded the tanks be stationed at Berwick by then.

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Another day, another debate. It didn’t turn into the seven-way shoutathon that I feared, but there were points when there were lots of people talking over each other – usually 2 or 3 of the men – though Julie Etchingham managed to keep them away from the worst of it.

The polling results seem to be coming up with a variety of results, and I think that’s because of two factors. First, there’s a partisanship factor, as people are inclined to think ‘their’ leader won, but secondly because it’s very hard for people to consistently judge who ‘won’ the debate. A lot of the variation between the polls could well be a result of question design – the criteria people are applying will vary a lot according to how they’re asked.

I think that to get a more useful response, you’d need to combine the result of various questions, but that would take a lot more time than the snap judgments required by the media. For a simple take, I think the ‘who did worst?’ questions may give a more honest response. Invert the scores from those and who’s ‘least worst’ may be more of an indication of the national mood than ‘who won?’

For me, there were no knockout blows or career-ending gaffes – though the fact-checking on Farage’s HIV claim could have some interesting results – and I think they’ll all come away from it thinking they did what they needed.

I think Nicola Sturgeon delivered the best performance of the night, and if she was leading a party that stood outside Scotland, things would get very interesting. Farage isn’t trying to broaden UKIP’s appeal, but is trying to work up their base and make sure it gets out to vote, but I also expect a lot of potential UKIP voters wouldn’t have been watching tonight.

Clegg, Miliband and Cameron all came out pretty evenly across the night, and while I can see Cameron’s reasons for not going to the debate on the 16th (even if I still think he should be empty chaired for doing so), I don’t know why Clegg isn’t going to be there. Is it too late for him to change his mind? Miliband wins by being equal to Cameron, so he’ll be relatively happy, but someone should tell him not to stare down the camera every time he talks.

For Bennett and Wood, just being on the stage was a boost for their parties, and like Farage they were aiming for a certain section of the audience. What might be the biggest boost for the Greens is Sturgeon criticising the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour. English voters enthused by her message might well go to the Greens as the nearest alternative.

And one final thought: I’d love to see a survey that looked at how much people thought the women talked compared to the men. They might be surprised by this finding:

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Nick-Clegg-004(First, a disclaimer: this is not a prediction of anything that might happen at the general election. I’ve got no idea what will happen in Sheffield Hallam or any other seat in May, and I’m not making any predictions about what might happen in the election, nationally or locally.)

As ever, when actually asked to explain how the systems of British politics works, and not just repeat some juicy gossip, Britain’s political columnists have come up short. They can read the constituency polls that say Nick Clegg might lost his seat at the election, but when asked to think what that might mean, they have no idea. Sometimes, it feels that having knowledge of how things work is rapidly disappearing from our media, because it’s all too complicated to have to remember facts.

What’s most frustrating about a lot of the ‘nobody knows what might happen’ is that the Liberal Democrats have twice found themselves unexpectedly leaderless in the past decade, though both of those were because of sudden resignations rather than the actions of the electorate. The procedure established by the party in these circumstances is quite clear, even if it’s not in the party’s Constitution: the Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Party becomes acting leader until such time as a new leader is elected by the party’s regular processes.

So, that’s perfectly clear, except for one small problem. The current deputy leader of the parliamentary party is Sir Malcolm Bruce, who’s not standing at the election, but appears to be holding on to his position until then, which means it will be vacant at the start of the next Parliament. It is important to note that while this role is often referred to as the party’s deputy leader, it is technically only deputy leader of the party in Parliament and as such is only elected by the party’s MPs.

So, if Clegg was to lose his seat in May, there’d be no one to replace him, and there’d clearly be chaos, right? Well, yes and no. Despite the party being full of many people who love nothing more than arguing over a constitutional clause for hours on end (and if you’re that sort of person, you too could become a member of English Council and do it to your heart’s content) I think all but the most stubborn would recognise that this is a case where force majeure applies.

It’s established that the Deputy Leader becomes acting leader when there’s an unexpected vacancy, and that the deputy leader is elected by the party’s MPs. While there may be an established procedure for electing a deputy leader, I can’t see anyone reasonably objecting to the remianing MPs following a very truncated process as soon as they’re able to meet, with their decision then further authorised by the party’s Federal Executive as soon as it meets. In that situation, I would expect the parliamentary party to meet as soon as possible on the Friday (the deciding factor on meeting time may be the timetable for flights from Orkney to London) and the FE to meet on Saturday morning. How urgent the process needs to be would likely be determined by the rest of the result – very rushed if it looks like the party will be taking part in coalition negotiations, somewhat more leisurely if a party has got an overall majority in the Commons.

Who might that interim leader be? I have no idea – I’m not making those sort of predictions, remember? All I know is that there is a simple way for the party to choose an interim leader if the current leader isn’t returned to Parliament, and it’d likely be a herald of some interesting political times if it had to be used.

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