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Commentary 323 – January 2008
29 March 2008 (21:39:29)

A NOT QUITE BLANK CANVAS

The startlingly close result in the leadership contest between Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne, after campaigns marked by a lack of substantive disagreement on issues and a low turnout, suggests the Liberal Democrats think either would have made a good leader, but were not greatly enthused since neither candidate said much that might enthuse anyone.

Both sold themselves as communicators, though neither gave much idea about what they wished to communicate, and in consequence neither sought a mandate for any particular political direction.

Clegg will have received a deluge of unsolicited advice since his victory, and Liberator would not want to be left out of this.

He has already become the first leader in 20 years to make repeated and unabashed use of the word ‘liberal’, something most Liberator readers will welcome. Clegg will do a service if he can reclaim this word from both Tory privatisation headbangers and from Blairite ‘liberal interventionists’ in Iraq.

As we have argued, the Lib Dems’ prospects will never really improve by continuing to seek incremental growth through the exploitation of passing grievances, or by seeking to hold onto every last transient vote by never offending anyone.

Both Clegg’s family and political backgrounds ought to make him an instinctive ‘drawbridge down’ politician who does not see the world as a threat and who will not pander to those who do because there might be a few votes in it. It should also mean he is unapologetically pro-European, stops hedging the party’s position behind offers of fatuous referenda, and instead presents Europe as the country’s escape route from its subservient role to the USA.

The Lib Dems have lacked a clear constituency among voters and in most places must win every vote from scratch. It is only through a consistent message that the party can move substantially forward of where it is.

That in turns means clarity and stepping outside the consensus that now embraces the Conservative and Labour parties on almost every issue.

Vince Cable’s brief tenure gave a taste of how effective it can be to take clear stands, connect with voters’ emotions and communicate ideas simply. Can Clegg build on that?

With no great internal issue having been at stake in the leadership contest, Clegg should focus outwards, not on internal battles. He should remember that leaders can almost always get 90% of want they want. It is when they push for the other 10% that the trouble starts.

Most of the party will follow where Clegg goes, and he has nothing to gain by picking fights over fringe issues (as in Ming Campbell’s eccentric trial of strength over Post Office finance at his first conference) or indeed by picking unnecessary fights at all.

Proof abounds that the public dislike parties that are riven by acrimony. Those who advise Clegg that he needs a ‘clause 4 moment’ in which he ‘attacks’ his party and ‘wins’ are without exception mad and have neither his nor the party’s interests at heart.

The key to policy innovations is convincing argument. The point is simple – if a leader is going to convince voters of something, he or she must first convince their party. If those who are, presumably, best disposed towards them cannot be convinced, what chance is there that anyone else will be?

Thus if Clegg does want major policy changes – having said little in his campaign – he needs to win by the power of argument and not by forcing through changes accepted with, at best, sullen resignation by the party. There is, after all, a rather obvious person around whom dissidents could rally.

He should also jettison those who chose his campaign’s political strategy. They almost lost for him what started as a near-certainty. What more does he need to know?

Public services is one area where Clegg has indicated he wants changes. He should first get to know those Lib Dems who lead councils and find out what they do and why. They, after all, have more powers to affect people’s lives, and control over larger sums of public money, than he has ever had. His two predecessors were the poorer for having no interest in local government and, lacking any personal experience of it, Clegg should be willing to learn.

LESSONS FROM HISTORY

It’s now 20 years since the blood-soaked merger of the Liberal and Social Democratic parties.

Lib Dem members not then around may wonder what all the fuss was about; those who can remember it probably wish they could not.

The bitterness of that period concerned all sorts of things, some symbolic, some of substance, but above all was about what sort of party would emerge from the merger, and whether it would be democratic and decentralised or authoritarian and centralised.

It is now a long time since any debate within the Lib Dems divided on obviously liberal versus social democrat lines, and our four 20th anniversary contributors – some then at daggers drawn – now find a degree of common ground impossible to foresee at the time.

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