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Commentary 335 – September 2009
04 October 2009 (18:38:51)

THE TROUBLE WITH CLEGGISM

What is Cleggism? It was difficult to discern when Nick Clegg first became Liberal Democrat leader. Two years on, a clear pattern has emerged and it is not a pretty sight.

During the 2007 leadership election, Liberator asked the two candidates, “Would you regard your election as a mandate to take party policy in a particular direction and, if so, which way?” (Liberator 322).

Clegg replied, “I want to take the party forward. The old politics of left and right simply doesn’t offer the answers to the challenges of the 21st century, so it would be a complete mistake for us to lurch in one direction or the other. Trying to split the party into ‘left’ and ‘right’, ‘economic’ or ‘social’ liberal, makes no sense to me.”

Despite this claim, Clegg subsequently showed a marked preference for the old politics of the right. This identifies the first element of Cleggism – a predilection for neoliberalism, the dominant ideology of the past thirty years, which has now been thoroughly discredited by the financial crisis.

The evidence is clear. Last year’s tax cutting proposals and this year’s ‘tough’ line on public spending fly in the face of Keynesian wisdom, by demanding a premature end to the fiscal and monetary stimulus. In August, Clegg wasted no time attacking Adair Turner’s call for a ‘Tobin tax’ but remained silent about Boris Johnson’s trip to Brussels to lobby for the City’s hedge funds.

Clegg seems wedded to the idea of ‘TINA’ (There Is No Alternative) – possibly a function of his age. He was only 12 when Margaret Thatcher came to power. Having spent his entire political life under the orthodoxy of classical economics, perhaps he cannot imagine anything else.

Hence Clegg is failing to make an imaginative leap and articulate an alternative model of capitalism – an economics based on morality rather than greed, which does not lead to social atomisation or environmental damage.

However, none of Clegg’s right-wing economic proposals has ever amounted to a rigorous policy. They exist only in the form of a sentence in a press release or a pre-manifesto, which is then spun to the media.

This brings us to the second element of Cleggism – a tendency to put the public relations cart before the political horse, based on a belief in the primacy of marketing over political substance and positioning over policy.

This is evident in the party’s two pre-manifestos, last year’s Make it Happen and this year’s A Fresh Start for Britain, both characterised by vacuous marketing slogans and a reluctance to say anything honest or bold for fear of causing offence. It is also evident in the knee-jerk populism of Clegg’s recent ‘Don’t Short Change Our Troops’ campaign.

Such proposals collapse under scrutiny because they have simply not been thought through. Instead of a serious process of policy development, initiatives are cobbled together by the marketing men in the leader’s bunker. Their overriding aim is to ‘position’ Clegg, based on a short-sighted obsession with how things will play in the next day’s press.

The third element of Cleggism is a preference for the faux democracy of superficial consultation over genuine empowerment or deliberation. This is evident in the fatuous ‘Million Doors’ campaign or the fight picked with the party’s councillors on the issue of elected health boards.

The fourth element of Cleggism is an antipathy towards party democracy and a preference for top-down party management. This is evident in the centralising proposals of the Bones Commission, the underhand tactics used to change tax policy last year, and the obvious setting-up of tuition fees policy for a ‘Clause 4 Moment’ at this month’s party conference.

Cleggism’s four key elements make an unappealing combination. From time to time, we get a glimmer of something better – the odd statement supporting civil liberties or opposing Trident. But with so many initiatives and ‘campaigns’ being launched, some are bound to hit the mark.

It could be argued that, however much one disagrees with Clegg, as elected leader he has a mandate. Yes, but a mandate for what? None of the four key elements of Cleggism figured in his leadership election platform. If a leader can’t persuade his own party, how does he expect to convince the electorate?

It is too early to claim that Clegg has ‘failed’ as party leader. It is right, however, to identify what needs doing to avoid failure, because the Liberal Democrats are haemorrhaging members and money and, as things stand, they face a net loss of seats at the next general election and are likely to produce another mediocre performance in next May’s local elections.

Whether you agree with Clegg or not, what is missing is a distinctive vision of the ‘good society’. This is a prerequisite for any successful political strategy. And it is imperative at an historic turning point such as now.

The empty slogans in A Fresh Start for Britain just don’t make the grade. Without a clear idea of the kind of society the Liberal Democrats wish to build, the party will continue to lack a coherent strategy or the means to inspire voters.

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