What You Can Get Away With » nick clegg

One of the distinguishing traits of a senior politician is to be in possession of a circle of loquacious friends, always ready to talk to the press about things they don’t feel ready to talk about personally in public. Michael Gove’s friends have been talkative this weekend, telling the Daily Mail all about his views on the European Union.

It’s pretty much just Gove throwing a bone to the Tory Right, of course, saying he’d vote for the UK to leave to the EU, coupled with complaints about how those horrible human rights laws stop him from doing exactly what he wants. This helps us to show us how Gove suffers from two of the problems that befall many of the anti-EU brigade: first, the inability to understand the difference between the European Union, the Council of Europe, the European Convention on Human Rights and the European court; and second, the odd way in which conservatives who talk about limiting state power have an aversion to human rights conventions that protect the power of the citizen against an over-mighty state.

This is just Gove trying to shift the Overton window a few more inches to the right, rather than some major shift in Tory policy – after all, if he was serious about this he’d have said it himself at the Tory conference last week rather than leaving it to some anonymous friends to talk to the Daily Mail. However, the question we should ask if it’s all right for senior Tories to talk about ending our membership of the European Union, why is it so wrong for senior Liberal Democrats to talk about the possibility of ending the coalition?

As I talked about a few weeks ago, the party’s negotiating position in any internal Government discussions is weakened by the insistence that the Coalition must not be allowed to end early:

By saying – explicitly or implicitly – that nothing short of Cameron falling under the proverbial bus or it’s equivalent will make the Liberal Democrats walk away from the negotiating table, the party is drastically weakening its hand in any discussion. It emboldens the Tories to push further to the right, as there’s no counterforce to draw them to the centre if the Liberal Democrats have hidden their most powerful weapon in negotiations. Leaving aside my position that it should end now, I’m not saying that Clegg and Alexander should be threatening to walk out over everything, but if their counterparts don’t believe it’s possible that they will, then they’re dangerously weakened in negotiations.

In the same way that Gove doesn’t state his anti-EU views publicly, we don’t need Clegg giving regular speeches about bringing the coalition down. However, the response to something like Gove’s comments should be senior party figures (other than Lord Oakeshott) pointing out that the natural response to any Tory moves to quit the EU would be the Liberal Democrats quitting the coalition. Both domestically and internationally, the Tories are willing to do their negotiations in public, and Liberal Democrats need to be willing to do that.

If Clegg won’t do it himself, then others need to be given a licence to do so. It’s the role Vince Cable’s carried out at some times, and Chris Huhne did too, but too many other party figures seem to be too tightly wedded to the policy of not rocking the boat. As we’re seeing now over policies like rights for shares, that polite acquiescence is letting dangerous and illiberal policies head towards the statute book, and the party should be willing to fight fire with fire and match the Tory strategy. Otherwise, all the public associates us with is meekly rolling over for whatever the Tories want, unable to walk at any no matter what. The public need to know what the red lines are, and Liberal Democrat silence on them gives the impression they don’t exist.

There’s little else to learn from Michael Gove, but sometimes he’s a useful example.

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As Jonathan Calder thought earlier, when you get an email from someone with the subject ‘There’s no easy way to say this’ you normally expect the body of it to include some form of ‘it’s not you, it’s me’.

However, the video this email from Nick Clegg linked to didn’t include that, but it was on the same lines, even if it didn’t end with him leaving. The problem I have with it is that all he actually apologises for is the pledge on tuition fees, not the policy itself. A lot of people are putting out the ‘but Labour never apologised for bringing in top-up fees after saying they wouldn’t in their manifesto’, but under the Clegg formulation, all they have to apologise for is putting it in their manifesto, not for the vote itself.

The bigger problem I see is that for years we’ve been telling people that Liberal Democrats care about education at all levels and see it as a public good that the Government should be spending money on. Right back to Paddy Ashdown talking about 1p on income tax for education and beyond, the party has consistently stood up for education. The pledge candidates signed wasn’t just some random electoral gimmick, it was something that had a long history in the party and had remained a core policy – voted for by Conference – despite the leadership trying to water it down or abandon it. We stuck with it – as well as committing the party to other high-profile educational policies like the Pupil Premium – because access to education for all is an important liberal principle.

Politicians are known for saying one thing and doing another, but the issue here is that education – and particularly higher education – was seen as a key Liberal Democrat issue, so a sudden volte face on that hurt the Liberal Democrats a lot more than changes on other issues might. This wasn’t the usual trading of policies and compromise that’s an inevitable part of coalition, but abandoning what the public – if not Clegg himself – saw as a fundamental part of what the Liberal Democrats were about. Saying that the pledge was the problem and claiming it wasn’t affordable, despite the party’s manifesto clearly showing that it was, is to try to turn this into a story of political process, when it should be one of political principle.

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Libertarian Liberties – A quite hair-raising post by Anna Raccoon on some of the bizarre characters who run the Libertarian Party.
NUS Democracy? – Interesting news for us former Student Union hacks, as Free Radical reports on moves to abandon attempts to democratize the NUS from within and instead replace it with something completely different.
No to AV: A campaign of the Tories, by the Tories, for the Tories – Left Foot Forward on where the ‘cross-party’ campaign is getting its money from.
Cleggmania to punchbag – How Clegg inadvertently set this up himself – Interesting take from Matthew Gibson. Not sure he’s entirely right, though I do think there were some mistakes in the emphasis of the campaign after the debates last year. (via)
Raising Katie – Interesting American tale of a black family adopting a white daughter (via)

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You know, I tried not to comment on the whole ‘Alarm Clock Britain’ nonsense, I really did. But then, just when I thought I was out, Lib Dem Voice pulled me back in by printing some of the most vapid nonsense I’ve ever read. Indeed, I initially thought it was a new satirical column, but it turns out that Johnny LeVan-Gilroy is apparently a real person (or ‘a cross-media brand consuming human unit’ as he might refer to himself) and we are meant to take that article seriously. (Admittedly, there is still the possibility that it’s a new version of the Sokal hoax, but it feels unlikely)

OK, so ‘Alarm Clock Britain’ is just some nonsense branding phrase, perhaps a scene from The Thick Of It come to life and almost definitely heading to the same graveyard of forgotten political groupings as David Cameron’s ‘Great Ignored‘. But, what gods have we offended and what sins did we commit in a past life to have this drivel inflicted upon us?

Because of these possibilities, and the fact a national brand is now required, the Liberal Democrats are going to have to wise up to how those demographics consume content, what the media landscape will be like in 2015 and how the party has been about as redundant as an actor in Avatar at being able to communicate to these voters during the periods between elections when brand development is paramount. Becoming closer with News Corp should be key to this as they are the gatekeepers and have a direct phone line to ‘Alarm Clock Britain’.

The party also needs to look at reforming its national capabilities to be more responsive to branding, communicating to demographic groupings and adapting to the new dynamic and opportunities in government and new forms of content consumption. The latter remains the least important right now but it cannot be left to neutral civil services, as this domain has no arbitrators to be editorially objective or neutral.

Silly me, thinking politics is about values, principles, policies and ideology. No, it should be about a content-free world of ‘brand development’ and ‘content consumption’.

Remember when we used to mock Labour for their dependence on spin and soundbites, their lack of any ideology beyond what would drive the next news cycle? Yeah, I should have realised that was all being played out over a soundtrack of ‘you will be like us’.

Whatever marketing-bots like to say, the Lib Dem surge in the election did not come from the anything to do with a world where ‘branding plays as much a part as policy’. It came because people were fed up with micro-managed, content-free, focus grouped to death politics and saw, just for a moment, the prospect of something different. The reason we’re floundering now is not because we’ve failed to ‘be more responsive to branding’ but because we look like we’re becoming just like the other two and operating in a vacuum world of nonsense speak.

The last thing the Liberal Democrats need right now is an influx of drones telling us how to connect to ‘Alarm Clock Britain’ or whatever the next key demographic will turn out to be – my guess is either ‘takeaway temps’ or ‘couch share couples’, but a decent random word generator will help you generate your own – but I fear that’s exactly what we’re going to get.

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Life is composed of reality configurations so constituted. To abandon her would be to say, I can’t endure reality as such. I have to have uniquely special easier conditions.

Philip K Dick, ‘Now Wait For Last Year’

It’s been a rather eventful day, but I think the situation for the Liberal Democrats still hasn’t changed. Clegg is playing a difficult hand extremely well, but for me the situation still looks as though all he can hope for is to get out with what proves to be the least worst option for him and the party. However, as you might expect in this situation, which option that will turn out to be won’t be obvious for six months or so when the commentators get to write the ‘why didn’t Clegg do X instead?’ articles.

There’s been a lot of commotion this evening over the supposed ‘progressive alliance’ that might now be a possibility. Leaving aside my habitual concerns over the use of the word ‘progressive’, even with Brown out of the way, I’m still not sure this would make for a workable and stable government. Even if one assumes that the entire Parliamentary Labour Party could be brought into line to support the promises that are being made now, any Commons vote would be entirely dependent on keeping some combination of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the DUP in agreement, which is nothing more than a recipe for Alex Salmond or Peter Robinson to hold the Government to ransom every time they watch their opinion poll ratings start to fall.

But then, neither of the Tory options – either a full-fledged coalition, or a looser confidence and supply arrangement for a minority government – would have been high on the Liberal Democrat pre-election wishlist. The first offers the chance of a chunk of the party’s support and membership walking out on the grounds that they can’t suffer a deal with the Tories, while the latter leaves the Damoclean threat of David Cameron calling an election the moment he thinks he can get an outright majority and crush us into the dust while Labour’s new leader gathers up the rest of our disaffected support. If we’re lucky we go back to the position we were in during the 70s.

In that ideal world we’re not living in, I’d love us to be able to hold up our hands, take a step back, say ‘you know what, you can sort it out between yourselves’ and let them form some grand Labservative coalition. The other day I was thinking that was possible, remembering back to what happened in Germany in 2005, then realised they have fixed term Parliaments which would encourage a solution like that when a minority Chancellor can’t just cut and run when they want to. Besides, us saying we don’t want to deal with someone is hardly an advert for the new politics we like to advocate. While perhaps not what we were envisaging this time last week, this is the sort of situation we’ve wanted to be in, and if we don’t take this opportunity now it’s here, why should anyone take us seriously in the future?

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Some disorganised thoughts from me, that may or may not add up to a coherent whole. For those looking for a more thought-through opinion on all this, I suggest visiting the Lib Dem Blogs aggregator and working through the entries there. Or take a look at this Dutch perspective on the situation.

I can remember approaching the 2008 elections here in Colchester and we were looking at the prospects of what might happen afterwards. Out of all the possible results, it seemed that the one with the four groups at 27-23-7-3 would be the hardest to find a solution from. So obviously, that was the result we got. This seems like a similar position – the Conservatives where they can’t comfortably form a minority Government, and the combined Liberal Democrat-Labour position doesn’t result in a majority. While we did find a solution in Colchester, this does seem like a much more difficult position to resolve.

Mathematically, a Labour-Liberal Democrat combination, while it doesn’t lead to a majority, isn’t as weak as it might seem. Given that they could rely on the SDLP and Alliance MPs, they’d have 319 to the 307 Tories (assuming they hold Thirsk and Malton in three weeks) and it’s likely that they could get the support of enough from the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Green and independent Unionist MPs to counter the likely Tory-DUP alliance. However, while that might seem possible from a blank slate, given the history and politics involved, it’d be an incredibly difficult solution to sell to the people, especially if it involved Gordon Brown remaining in office, even before you get to the whole issue of Labour’s authoritarian tendencies on civil liberties.

Some have suggested Gordon Brown, or perhaps some other figure, as effectively a caretaker PM for twelve months while this rainbow coalition pushes through a wide-ranging political reform package before a new election. However, to get this through, the wafer-thin majority in the Commons would require Brown to deliver the entire Labour Party through the Aye lobby, and there’s enough of a draconian tendency there to scupper any part of the reform package in favour of keeping their safe seats. There’s also the question of whether a Government made up of so many parties and with a small majority could push through any tough economic decisions that were required.

The problem with a Liberal-Conservative coalition is… well, you can finish that sentence in a number of ways, from a number of different perspectives and almost all of them would be correct. While it seems that Cameron and Clegg might get on personally, the rest of their parties don’t and trying to get through those decades of distrust, contempt and outright hatred at times is not going to be easy, if it’s even possible at all. However, to even get to that point, there has to be a resolution on the issue of electoral reform first.

Whatever happens, I think the media will get their ‘angry Lib Dems quit party’ story – not just people disgruntled at teaming up with one party or another, but even if he finds a way to not choose either, someone will doubtless get themselves their fifteen minutes of fame by claiming we should have done a deal and walk off in a huff because we didn’t.

I know I couldn’t support any coalition deal with any party that doesn’t have a clear and timetabled commitment to a referendum on electoral reform. Not just a Blair-esque ‘we’ll have a referendum at some point in the future’ promise but a definite date by which said referendum will happen. Without that sort of commitment, I can’t see how Clegg and his negotiators could get the backing of the Parliamentary Party or the Federal Executive for a coalition, let alone survive a party conference. Electoral reform is a fundamental part of the Liberal Democrats’ raison d’etre and it’s not something we’d give up on for a few ministerial cars.

However, I do think there is a way for Cameron to get round it, if he can sell it to his party. Remember that our demand is not for the Government to force through electoral reform itself, just a referendum on it. If the Conservatives feel so strongly about it, and think they’re right, then why should they shy away from putting that argument to the people and asking them to decide? Sure, have a committee of inquiry to decide what should be put to the public, but that committee has to have a deadline by which it must report it’s recommendations to Parliament, which will then agree a referendum. I’ve already heard a comparison made to the 1975 referendum on the Common Market where members of the same party campaigned on different sides of the issue yet were able to come together again afterwards.

Of course, even if that can be agreed, then we’ll turn to the rest of the agreement and what sort of policy commitments it requires, but that won’t happen until after the electoral reform question is settled.

Finally, the other option that’s not been brought up much is the possibility of some form of grand coalition or government of national unity. If talks between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives do break down then that might become the only workable option remaining on the table, but that’s something I’ll write more about if we get to that position.

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For entirely ego-driven reasons, I feel the world needs to know how this morning’s Twitter meme began:

chickyog: Morning all. has Nick Robinson exploded yet?
nickjbarlow: @chickyog No, but when he does, the Telegraph and Mail will claim it’s Nick Clegg’s fault.
chickyog: @nickjbarlow Ha. I feel a meme coming on.
chickyog: Just stubbed my toe #nickcleggsfault

Oh, and my favourite thing to blame Nick Clegg for so far? This:

Chinese Democracy took 15 years because Nick Clegg was arguing with Axl about adopting proportional representation.

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Here’s a chance for the BBC to show true political impartiality – next Monday, from 8.30 to 9pm, they should show Jeremy Paxman sitting quietly in a chair with an empty chair opposite him. Occasionally, they could flash up the caption ‘You’re watching a Panorama special: Jeremy Paxman interviewing David Cameron. David Cameron has declined to appear. Next week, we’ll do the same with Gordon Brown if he doesn’t turn up.’

Of course, they could just reshow his interview with Nick Clegg. I’m sure there are many creative ways to fill the empty half hour of TV.

Talking of Nick Clegg:

Yes, today’s main election news story was the launch of the Liberal Democrat manifesto, which (with fingers crossed and wood touched) seems to have gone rather well, with a great reaction from the press and other commenters. My favourite? A tie between Ben Goldacre‘s ‘Lib Dems giant win on science‘ (echoed by the Times here) and Greenpeace’s executive director John Sauven describing it as “the most progressive environmental policies of all the major parties“.

In short, a rather good day for the Liberal Democrats, capped off by a great performance from Nick Clegg, which bodes well for the debates, particularly his grasp of the detail of the party’s policies. Tomorrow night’s debate could make for some very interesting viewing.

Meanwhile, campaigning goes on here in Colchester. Unfortunately, a couple of long meetings this afternoon meant I couldn’t get out on the doorstep today, but got out this morning to deliver 120 more leaflets, taking my total up to 120. And without being on the doorstep, I still managed to pick us up another vote – the first I’ve ever done through Twitter. After talking about how the Lib Dem broadcast embedded above features Brian Eno’s ‘An Ending (Ascent)’ (and you can hear the album Apollo that it comes from on Spotify), my friend Frank (author of the excellent TV blog Cathode Ray Tube) Tweeted how that was the final clincher for him to reject the Labservatives.

22 days to go, and less than 24 hours until the first debate begins and we wait to see just how it effects the election. But I’m sure the news channels will have journalists talking to other journalists within moments of it finishing to tell us exactly what we thought about it.

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Just a quick thought on reading this ePolitix article

That’s an important issue, and as a hung Parliament would by its very nature effect every party, not just the Liberal Democrats, I’m prepared to give you an answer once you’ve got one from Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Alex Salmond, Ieuan Wyn Jones, Peter Robinson, and the leader of every other party who might be represented in this hung parliament. Until then, I’m glad that you regard the Liberal Democrats as so important that no other party’s views on a hung Parliament are needed, but I’d rather answer questions on our actual policies.

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I’m trying to work out which of these stories I care about the least:

  • Gasp! Shock! Horror! Some Liberal Democrats may be talking to some people in the Labour Party!
  • Oh no! The Lib Dem leader has made his traditional Conference-time ‘I shall have the Party on its knees in front of me!‘ statement!
  • Can anyone give me any reason why I should care about either one?

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