The Case for Keeping Clegg (Even in Opposition)

Unless something dramatic happens between now and election day it appears as if we are in for a hung parliament. Unlike the previous one, there will be no obvious match between the parties; a right-of-centre coalition of the type we have enjoyed/endured (delete as applicable) will be difficult to achieve given the culling of Lib Dem seats. What is more likely is either a grand coalition of the left, or a minority Labour government lurching from vote to vote on the goodwill of SNP, Plaid, Green and Lib Dem votes.

Whichever way the election goes, leaders that are not deemed winners are for the chop. The Tories are sharpening their knives ready to take out Cameron, a dethroning they have been dreaming of for years. They held back from realising this desire due to the delusion that he could easily defeat Miliband and Cameron’s failure to do so has made Miliband’s position stronger than it was a month or so ago. However, a last minute swing to the Conservatives could set back the recent good-will Miliband’s garnered within his party, and if the Tories managed to form a government he too would be finished. Even the smaller party leaders such as Farage and Bennett face potential peril. Both have enjoyed an almost perfect scenario for minor parties to have any hope of breaking through in the First-Past-The-Post system. If they fail to capitalise, questions will be asked as to how they were allowed to blow it.

But the most likely to fall is the most hated man in British politics Nick Clegg. Since going into coalition with their arch-enemy, the party’s ratings have plummeted. Estimates range between the Lib-Dems returning 20 and 30 seats (down from 56) though Lib Dems usually face an election day slump as voters flee back to the safety of the two main parties, in which case they may sink lower than that. With as few as 25 MPs the party won’t have enough to negotiate a coalition with the Conservatives, nor an exclusive one with Labour. Instead they will be merely one of many small parties doing vote by vote deals.

With a reduced presence, a hammering in the polls, and a left leaning parliament, it makes sense for Clegg to go, right? Consistently he’s shown to be a drag on the Lib Dem ticket, with candidates leaving him off their election material. It would only be right for him to step down and leave the party in the hands of someone like Vince Cable or Tim Farron, both hailing from the Social-Democratic wing of the party and better placed to negotiate with Labour.

I put the alternative to you, however: this approach would be a mistake. Whilst ditching Clegg would give the Lib Dems quick east boost in the opinion polls, a long term strategy might be worth considering:

If Miliband makes it into Number 10, Cameron is bound to resign his party’s leadership. Similarly, other familiar faces of the current campaign may also vanish; if Farage fails to win his seat, he may well resign leadership and hand over the reins to Douglas Carswell; if the Greens fail to take anything other than Brighton Pavilion they might turn back to the eminently more media-savvy Caroline Lucas.

These fresh faces (in terms of leadership – not actual freshness) would be in for a bumpy parliament. Whether successful or not, a grand informal coalition of the left would soon turn bitter as each side struggles for influence. The public are unlikely to support it for long.

Which brings us back to the question of Nick Clegg’s fate. In such a tumultuous parliament a party leader well-known to the public and experienced in government will be of the upmost importance. With Cameron gone, Clegg would represent and speak up for the previous government. Right now this suggestion would be the last thing the party membership would like, but after a year or so of failed votes and indecisive leadership the memory of the Liberal-Conservative coalition might well be a vote winner. Clegg reminding the public of economic growth and stability might well work, whereas Tim Farron, known only to political junkies, won’t even get the air-time.

Eventually Clegg will need to go, but to dump him unceremoniously in the wake of a bad election result would be for the party to run to the left and turn its back on what it has managed to achieve in government. Like it or not, the Lib Dems have become a centrist party, not a party of the hard-left. It can keep Clegg and remain the sensible voice of the centre or they can go into a full-blown rout. I fear to do the latter would mean that when the public grow tired of Labour’s minority they wouldn’t have the Lib Dems to turn to for stable pragmatic government; instead they will identify them with haphazard left-wing bartering, or worse, something not worth considering at all.

Soft on Crime, Drugs and Thugs

You can tell when one of the main two political parties are in full electioneering mode, for the very worst instincts come to the fore. In the Conservatives this is all too obvious; warnings of chaos and imminent apocalypse dominate the airwaves. It is all rather reminiscent of their “Hung Parliament Party” election broadcast of 2010, an advert that warned voters that should they back Nick Clegg the result would wreck the economy and paralyse government. The message now is much the same, though the success of the lib-con coalition (in terms of delivering a stable working government) means that they can’t simply air the same ad twice, forcing them instead to play up the threat of the various coalitions that might form around Labour.

But these tactics are generally what you’d expect from the Conservative Party. Labour, on the other hand, is rather more split upon its darker impulses. Under Tony Blair’s leadership, with braying support from the likes of David Blunkett, the party embraced an authoritarian approach to law and order. In many ways this was successful; it kept the Tories at bay by heading off any attempts to flank them from the right, and was a quick and easy way to drum up an easy vote or two. However, in the long run it deeply worried those in the party who were concerned about civil rights, driving many out of the arms of Labour for good.

It has been many years since Tony Blair left the scene, but this authoritarian streak has yet to leave the Labour Party. In recent leaflets Labour has been resorting to the old tactic of painting the Liberal Democrats as a party soft on crime for their policy on treating drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal one. Never mind just how backward and out-of-step with current thinking their criticisms are, it seems that this stance is a default one; a well of authoritarian scare-mongering that the Labour party cannot help but sup.

As shared by @MSmithsonPB

But whereas this tactic might have worked back in 1997, today it is likely to have the opposite effect. Liberalisation of drug laws used to be a policy only embraced by the hard-core of the Liberal Democrat party. Now it is conventional wisdom. Those soft lib dem voters are more likely to be sent back into the arms of the liberals by such scare-mongering than any other outcome Labour is hoping for.

It all reminds me of when I was living in the Windsor constituency in 2005. As you’d imagine, it’s a safe seat for the Conservatives, but still Adam Afriyie came knocking on my door, seeking my vote. Rather glad for the opportunity, I presented him with a Conservative leaflet that slammed the Lib Dems (their likely opponent) for their aim to legalise drugs. As it happened I’d been researching for a documentary about drug prohibition at the time and knew Lib Dem policy well; in fact I had written to them complaining that their policy didn’t go as far as legalisation.

“This is simply not true,” I told him, pointing to the outlandish claims. “Here you say that the Lib Dems would legalise Cannabis. That is not their policy.”

“But it is,” Afriyie persisted, “And if I can prove to you that the Liberal Democrats would legalise drugs, would that secure your vote for the Conservatives?”

Adam Afriyie, so caught up in his… well… conservative mentality, never once thought that his claims might backfire on him. It is this same lack of imagination undermining the Labour Party as it struggles to define itself. It seems to hark for the old days when it could safely rely on its liberal-left roots whilst presenting itself as authoritarian-right to grab swing voters.

Those days are long gone, the internet has put a stop to such tactics. The question is, will the Labour Party wake up to this fact in time to save itself?

Where Have All The Moderates Gone?

Being moderate isn’t sexy. When you join an old friend for a drink, your heart doesn’t leap at the suggestion that you do so in moderation, no matter how sensible the notion may be for your knackered old liver. Films about moderates barely exist; we’d rather watch a man crying “freedom” whilst having his guts sliced out, than a diplomat negotiating a mutually beneficial treaty. Moderation has never been popular, and approaching the UK General Election 2015 we are about to see it wiped clean from the face of our political scene. It is ironic that the common perception of politics is as a homogenised battle for the centre ground. Quite the opposite, the centre has been abandoned, a no-mans land for none but those crazed and doomed liberals, shell-shocked and wandering the scorched earth wondering what the hell just happened.

Given the hopelessly outdated first-past-the-post system, the results of the oncoming election are difficult to predict. The distribution of the electorate weighs the system heavily in favour of the two main parties, but their failure to generate any good-will beyond their base, combined with growing disaffection, means that the Labour and Conservative parties have drawn in the wagons and are waging a defensive campaign. This is no longer an election either side can win; they can only lose. Factor in the rise of nationalist parties such as UKIP and the SNP and you’ve got the makings of yet another hung parliament.

Which might make you think that we’re in for another coalition, another fudge in the centre – a backroom deal cooked up by those rotters in Westminster. But as we approach the general election and the parties begin to position themselves for such an eventuality, the likelihood of a coalition becomes increasingly unlikely. The Labour party has ruled out a coalition with the SNP. The SNP has ruled out a coalition with the Conservatives. The Greens have ruled out a coalition with anyone. Ironically, the only party to talk openly about the benefits of joining a coalition are the Lib Dems, the one party for whom a formal union will be utterly untenable. Nick Clegg could only enter into another pact retaining the same degree of influence as before – a deal that neither the Tories nor Labour are likely to accept given the reduced Lib Dem numbers from the upcoming slaughter.

Most of the smaller parties, having spent five years condemning the concept of compromise, now face the prospect of governance, but to do so they must first reconcile this with their previous rhetoric. The result is lots of talk about “confidence and supply”, an utterly unsustainable position that would fall apart at the very first unpopular but necessary vote (of which the next five years is certain to be packed).

Which begs the question, what right do any of them have to rule out a coalition in the first place? An election campaign is effectively an extended job interview, and you don’t conduct yourself in an interview by listing off everyone you’d out-right refuse to work with. If you can’t grow up and find a way of working with those you oppose, then you have no right to claim you’re a supporter of democracy. Democracy, by its very nature, is about finding a way of getting all the peoples of a nation to work together rather than grind each other into dust.

But as I said, being a moderate isn’t sexy. It’s a lot easier to grab votes by saying “we will never work with those scumbags,” than “there is always a compromise to be found.” Perhaps that is why the Lib Dems continue to plummet in the polls. In a recent interview, Nick Clegg described himself as being anti-establishment and anti-populist, which is a pretty accurate description of where the Lib Dems are at this present time. They exist in an uncomfortable netherworld between the entitled comfort of governance and the demagoguery of opposition. If we are tested by another hung-parliament, it’s possible that we may look back on 2010-2015 as a golden era, a time before the storm when a party was willing to work with another despite facing electoral oblivion. Can you think of another party that would have put up with such hostility for the benefit of a stable economy? If the fortunes were reversed, and it were the Conservatives whose poll rating had dropped to single digits early on and showed no sign of recovery, would they have stuck out the full five years? Would Labour? The SNP? Right now Nick Clegg is the most hated man in British politics, but once we’ve seen the chaos that politicians are lining up to promise, we might well wish for his return (not that he’ll be in a position to do so – the moment the Lib Dems are out of government, the left leaning grass-roots will have his head).

However much you despise your opponents, you can’t erase them. This is why revolutions end in bloodshed, whilst it is compromise that produces real reform. We can spend the next five years bickering like children afraid to go near each other lest we catch the lurgey, or we can reach out like grown-ups and find a way of moving forward. But to do so we need to shake off the petulant mentality of Braveheart fantasy. It belongs in the movies, not in the ballot. And perhaps it’s best to vote for the person who suggests taking it a bit easy. The liver can only handle so much.

Election Pain and Tactics

As the AV Referendum nears, both sides of the Coalition are beginning to gnash their teeth and growl across the wide pit that is government. So simpler would it have been if this was a Coalition between the Lib Dems and Labour. In such an instance, the Labour rebels would have been hushed up, turning the divide into a simple government vs opposition debate. Instead the Coalition is split along party lines, with a rather confused Labour party joining both groups, like teenagers trying to start a scuffle in the playground. It is a cluster-fuck of epic proportions.

It is perhaps the unpredictable nature of this referendum that has everyone on edge. The polls seem to fluctuate quite dramatically depending upon who you ask. One minute the ‘Yes’ group are flagging, the next they’re pulling into the lead. On the day it’s all going to come down to who can get their vote out, and with so many Lib Dem voters disaffected, this could dramatically hamper the ‘yes’ campaign.

Rather more predictable is the local elections. Expect a slaughter of the Liberal Democrats, big gains for Labour, and a Conservative Party holding firm, mainly because the Tory voters have nowhere else to go. The week following the inevitable disaster for the Lib Dems is going to be followed with countless interviews with disgruntled ex-liberal councillors blaming Nick Clegg for it all. I have no doubt that there will be many calls for his head and the end to the coalition, but this would be a dire mistake.

Nick Clegg will not survive another general election. This is true, yet it would be so even if he wasn’t unfairly carrying the blame for every unpopular decision the government’s taken. Being the smaller party, the Lib Dems were ultimately the ones who had to make a choice to join the coalition or not. The Conservatives pulled over in their white fiesta and said, “I’ve got sweets in here if you’d like to get in?” and the Lib Dems were the ones who had to decide whether or not to climb on-board.

This pact makes any electoral campaign difficult. Do you hammer the coalition partner, or side with them? The idea of Nick Clegg and David Cameron taking bites out of each other in a televised debate is preposterous. The only sensible option for a smaller party facing such circumstances is to formally end the Coalition in the run up to the general election, elect a new leader and campaign as an individual entity. Sleepwalking into an election as the junior in a Coalition could easily see them getting dumped by the Tories, the moment they secure a majority.

Would this mean that the Lib Dems would be distancing themselves from the Coalition? Certainly not. Such a process is all part of the reality of Coalitions, and the Lib Dems should be proud of what they’ve gained from such a weak hand. At the moment the public and the Labour party don’t understand how coalitions work and it is the duty of the Liberals to show them.

The only other option available would be to merge the parties, and that would be very messy indeed….

Five Days That Wasted A Lot Of Broadcast Time

Did anyone see “Five Days That Changed Britain” on BBC1 last night? If not you can catch it on iplayer. This documentary, produced by BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson, gave us a comprehensive account of the peculiar events that led to our coalition government. Whilst there was nothing new for those of us who followed those events live, like a junkie watching a hot spoon, it was nice to see clips and interviews all gathered together. Made me feel quite nostalgic for what seems like a million years ago already.

What became clear was that the current arrangement was only possible in this exact electoral result. Any shift in another direction would have led to a different result. Its a lot like the unlikely chance of our own existence due to the lucky placement of our planet in the solar system. Perhaps Christians will seize upon this, “it is not conceivable that Conservatives and Liberal Democrats could form a government without some sort of divine intervention; it is simply too remote a possibility.” Convincing stuff. If someone actually said that without a sarcastic tone I might be swayed.

My main highlight was Cameron talking so positively about the situation as if he’d never aired a political broadcast claiming a hung parliament would end life as we know it. Hilarious.

Also Ed Balls has now successfully made it to “most loathsome MP” thanks to his sneering and generally slimy demeanor last night. He’s been working at it for some time, but finally got there, kicking Liam Fox out of poll-position. Well done Ed. Here’s hoping you win the leadership race.

So click on the link and give it a watch. Unless you’ve got a life, in which case there’s probably a whole host of things more productive for you to do.

James Hooker has pointed out that we’ve got midterm elections in the states to look forward to. I’ve long since stopped rooting for the Democrats. Not sure why, perhaps because they’re bloody useless. I think they must have an inferiority complex because they can never live up to “The West Wing”. A solution could be to elect Martin Sheen and be done with it.