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.

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.

Divided We Surely Fall

There are only two sides to the EU debate: those that believe that the EU is beyond saving and want out, and those that believe that the EU is worth saving and want in. For the sake of simplicity we’ll call these camps anti-EU and pro-EU. All three of the major parties in British politics are pro-EU in that they all agree that the EU needs reform, but is a good thing for Britain. Sure they bicker about individual items of legislation, and for political convenience it is in their favour to appear more or less in favour of the EU depending upon what slice of the electorate they’re canvassing, but in terms of the grand EU debate, they are all on the same side. Only Farage sits on the other.

So it seems strange that the political establishment can’t win this in a slam dunk. Surely the combined weight of the conservative party, the labour party, and the liberal democrats should be enough to explain to the electorate precisely why an imperfect EU is better than a non-existent one. The Nick Clegg v Nigel Farage debate was a perfect opportunity for the pro-Eu camp to unify, and yet the opposite happened. Today David Cameron appeared on television calling Nick Clegg an extremist, the Labour party have been distancing themselves as far as possible from the subject lest negative fallout stains their trousers, and even the Green party – a party whose objectives are solely dependent upon the EU and global cooperation – couldn’t resist the opportunity to resort to petty politics and opportunism. If our political parties cannot unite when presented with such a basic proposition, is it any wonder that demagogues like Farage triumph?

We see this time and again with the liberal left. The AV referendum was lost because rather than unite to improve an outdated electoral system, the Labour party used it as an opportunity to steal votes from the Lib Dems. I’ll say this for the conservatives, they know how to pull together for the bigger picture, the left simply cannot get past its own factional squabbling.

Take this party political broadcast by the Green party in response to the debate. The Greens have an almost identical outlook on Europe as the Lib Dems, but to gain political advantage they paint them as the very non-existent caricature dreamt up by the daily mail: a sycophantic slave to faceless EU bureaucrats. Pro-EU camps should be arguing that this stereotype doesn’t exist, that it is a paranoid fantasy, but the Greens have cynically promoted it, betraying their own cause. It is yet another sad sign of the continued decline of a once promising party.

Cooperating is a virtue in politics, but Britain is yet to break out of its juvenile mentality and realise this. If we don’t soon change, Farage, may well win by default.

Eastleigh by-election, 2013 Tactical Voting Crib Sheet

Long ago (2011), some concerned citizens got together and tried to change the way we elect our politicians here in the UK. We wanted to switch from the fatally flawed First Past The Post to a more healthy Alternative Vote system in which voters would be free to vote for the candidate that best represented their beliefs.

Alas, it was not to be. So rather than voting because of agreeing with candidates, the voters of Eastleigh will once again be voting based upon whom they hate the most. So, to aid in their bile, I have put together a simple voting crib sheet to help them work out how to really stick it to Miliband/Cameron/Clegg.

Hate: Liberal Democrats (Nick Clegg)
Vote: Labour (John O’Farrell)

Why: Eastleigh is a Lib Dem/Conservative marginal. This means that other parties are unlikely to win and thus the electorate should tactically vote depending upon who they dislike the most out of these two candidates. Voting for Labour would drain the Liberal Democrat vote, sending a message to Nick Clegg that his party has been rejected by the left. Don’t fear, the conservative vote will hold up and the liberal democrats will lose, hitting those pesky lib dems with a double whammy – they lose the seat, and face a resurgent labour party. Clegg will be crying in his soup before the day is out.

Hate: Labour (Ed Miliband)
Vote: Conservative (Maria Hutchings)

Why: If Labour can’t make inroads in the south (even with a charismatic candidate like John O’Farrell), then they have no hope of winning the general election. A victorious conservative party would prove that the electorate was supporting the austerity cuts and all of Ed Balls’ whining was pure poppycock. Osborne would be able to stand up in the commons and say, “Hey, turns out people LOVE cuts. Eat that, Miliband!” Ed will be crying in his porridge before the day is out.

Hate: Conservatives (David Cameron)
Vote: Liberal Democrat (Mike Thornton)

Why: The conservative party have managed to convince themselves that the reason for their poor poll ratings is that they are being watered down by those pesky liberals. When people say, “Boo! No to cuts!” What those Tory back-benchers hear is, “Boo! No to weak-and-restricted- not-going-far-enough cuts!” A victory to their coalition partner (and arch-nemesis) would shut them up good and proper. Why vote Lib Dem rather than Labour? A victory/swing to the Labour party will be dismissed as merely the natural process of a by-election. The Labour party is bound to harvest votes as it is in opposition. Voting Lib Dem sends a strong message it is Conservatives, not government, that is being rejected. Cameron will be sneezing on his eggs benedict before the day is done.

So there you have it, tactical voting in a nutshell. Cynical? That’s First Past The Post for you.

The Anti-Clegg Machine

Many politicians suffer a fall from grace. Tony Blair provides us with the most spectacular example, going from saviour in 1997 to reviled ‘war criminal’ just a decade later. Taking Downing Street he shook the hands of adoring crowds; now he needs ridiculous levels of security to keep those same crowds at bay. Gordon Brown suffered a similar fate. Taking office he was seen as a breath of fresh air, a remedy to New Labour’s spin; but after chickening out of calling an election, his fate was sealed. It seems laughable now, but back then he would have won a comfortable victory, securing a Labour government that would still be in place today, had it not been for a suddenly popular proposition for a tax-cut announced during the Conservative Party conference. Reeling from the sudden good press the Torys got, he bottled the one election he could have won.

This natural progression seems the same for most politicians. Even joke Prime Minister John Major was immensely popular when he took over from Margaret Thatcher. But no politician has gone from darling to demon in such a quick dive as Nick Clegg.

In many ways it’s to be expected; any politician taking part in a government dealing with such a huge budget deficit is bound to become unpopular, The doctor who severs the gangrene leg is necessary, but you won’t be inviting him round for breakfast (although you should). But why has it happened to acutely for Nick Clegg and not for David Cameron? The answers can be traced back to the last General Election.

Liberal Democrats have never had many allies in the media. As the campaigns kicked off, they were widely ignored and ridiculed. Polls suggested they were going to suffer a squeeze as supporters flocked to both the Labour Party and the Conservatives to tactically vote depending upon which side they feared the most.

And then the televised debates happened. Suddenly the public got political debate without looking through the prism of partisan media. The debate wasn’t filtered through the mind of a Times reporter, but direct from politician to viewer. This had a startling effect upon the polls. Suddenly the Lib Dems were in the game.

Following the first televised debate, the print media went into hysteria, suddenly realising that their influence was becoming undermined. Whereas before they knew they could print, “vote conservative” on election day and get the result they wanted, suddenly the public were thinking for themselves. A deluge of ridiculous anti-Clegg smears graced the front pages of the right-wing press in response. He had stolen their thunder and they would never forgive him.

When the results came in, Labour found it had pulled off an incredible victory: they had secured just few enough seats that they couldn’t form a coalition to stay in government. It was Christmas for the Labour party, they could now sit out the cuts in the safe knowledge that both their opposition parties would get the blame.

After taking over as leader of the party, Ed Miliband had two choices of how to deal with Liberal Democrats in government. He could either focus his attacks on the Tories to appear friendly to Lib Dems, smoothing the way for a Labour-Liberal coalition in the future, or he could target the Liberal Democrats in an attempt to destroy them as a party, giving those of the centre-left nowhere to go but back to Labour. In a move of pure Machiavellian cynicism he opted for the second.

And so the Labour attacks on the Liberal Democrats began, the flagship attack being the wilful ignorance of how coalitions work, painting compromises as ‘broken promises’. It didn’t seem to phase the Labour party that they had broken countless promises with a huge majority and nothing to stand in their way; the approach still became party policy.

While Labour began their offensive, Liberal Democrats were being targeted by the right wing press as a negative influence upon the coalition, and by the left wing press as traitors and oath breakers. But it wasn’t until the tuition fees debate that Nick Clegg’s role as scapegoat became properly defined.

Nick Clegg Shame On You by Chris Beckett

Nick Clegg Shame On You by Chris Beckett

Two figures are most responsible for putting the knife into Clegg’s back. The first was Ed Miliband, keen to keep up the pressure, he painted the education bill as being ‘unfair’ despite it being more progressive than Labour’s policy. The second was Aaron Porter, then leader of the NUS and member of the Labour party. He wanted a graduate tax, so all graduates would pay an extra income tax once they started earning, instead the government introduced a fixed amount fee that would only be paid once they started earning. The two policies were pretty much the same.

But this was Aaron Porter’s time to shine and secure himself a place of honour in his Labour party. He whipped the NUS up into a frenzy, denouncing the astonishingly similar policy with hypocrisy that would make his Labour peers proud. The result was a student population convinced their future was being robbed, and who was to blame? Funnily enough it was the same man the Labour party had decided to target: Nick Clegg.

Just as before the election, the Liberal Democrats had no group in the media to argue their corner, and no televised debates to get their message directly across. Support for them crumbled and all the while the smears from both the right and the left increased.

And then along came the AV referendum which stepped up the anti-Clegg propaganda to incredible new levels. Joining in with the Labour smear campaign, the conservatives used Clegg as their poster-boy, accusing him of breaking promises despite the fact he was compromising to keep the government (they were a part of!) running.

Throughout the AV campaign, Ed Miliband has been playing his cards with the cunning of a true opportunist. He knows the best result for him would be a ‘no’ vote to disillusion the liberal left. Already today he is blaming Nick Clegg pre-emptively for a defeat, painting himself a the pro-reform candidate that the liberals should be standing behind. But all this is simply posturing. If he really wanted to win the referendum, he would have put a stop to the scaremongering and fictitious attacks launched by his own party on behalf of the ‘no’ campaign. Instead he allowed it to continue whilst making a half-hearted attempt to secure a ‘yes’ vote, just so he could say he did.

So how does the future look for Nick Clegg? Not good. Both the left and the right want to break up the coalition so they can have an immediate election and feast upon the remains of a slain Liberal Democrat party. This will galvanise them to keep up the pressure on the one man holding it all together.

There are reasonable attacks that can be made against the man: he’s dull, not a particularly inspiring speaker and lacks passion; but he certainly isn’t a liar, cheat or a monster. The saddest aspect of this horrendous bout of hatred is not the life of an earnest man being ruined, but that we the public could be so easily manipulated by such an obviously political attempt at character assassination. It had all the sophistication of a playground bully, and we are still falling for it.

The Fight Begins

The political scrap over the AV referendum began today with the ‘no’ campaign being launched in London. The government is confident that the bill will be passed in time for the deadline, so it looks like in May we will vote on whether or not to switch to the tragically flawed ‘Alternative Vote’ system of elections or stick with the outright corrupt ‘First Past The Post’. Already the two campaigns are growling at each other, and it’s going to be a hell of a dirty fight.

I looks like the ‘no’ campaign is going to be driven by labeling a ‘yes’ vote as a vote for Nick Clegg. The Deputy Prime Minister is the most unpopular man in British politics (God knows why, did I miss a week in the news when he raped a puppy in Trafalgar Square?) and the enemies of reform are going to exploit this to their advantage. Expect hundreds of rabid students turning out to vote alongside Murdoch on this one. How utterly bizarre.

The big question seems to be what will Cameron do? This campaign is going to be one long smear against Clegg, so can Cameron afford to be seen endorsing it? Probably not, but if he doesn’t turn out to campaign against AV then his own back-benchers may well turn the cannons on him too.

The biggest problem the ‘Yes’ campaign faces is getting its supporters excited enough to turn out. Those who care enough to want the voting system changed generally want PR, recognising that while AV is better than FPTP, it is still unrepresentative. The campaign needs to convince these people that to fail on this hurdle out of some idealistic protest will not help them get PR. In fact, the opposite will happen – FPTP will be enshrined in our political system for another generation.

A lot of nonsense is going to be thrown around over the next few months. Expect more disinformation similar to tuition fees, selling of forests and NHS reform. Will the British public fuck themselves over one more? It would be funny if not so horribly tragic.