Political Promise

The Curious Case of Nick Clegg MP

In Alex Gabriel on September 23, 2010 at 10:05 am

The Deputy Prime Minister slammed Labour at conference, but which of its ex-leaders was he channelling last week, asks Alex Gabriel?

Last Saturday while Liberal Democrats gathered in Liverpool, protestors in London marched on Downing Street in anger at Pope Benedict’s state visit. Primarily as a secularist but also as a blogger, I attended the rally and bumped into a friend who sits with on committee at the Oxford Atheist Society. Like many secularists, including the bulk of that committee, he’s a zealous Lib Dem who still agrees with Nick; in hindsight though it seems fitting that the day he tried to amputate his party’s left, those kind of grassroots Lib Dems weren’t there listening to Clegg’s speech.

‘The Lib Dems’, he said in an interview last week, ‘never were and aren’t a receptacle for left-wing dissatisfaction with the Labour Party. There is no future for that.’ Given the U-turn on cuts he didn’t share till after the election and the rightward direction in which he’s shifted his party, comparisons with Tony Blair have dogged Nick Clegg for months, with some calling him a traitor and others eerily quiet. But when Clegg mocked Labourites who turned to him with ‘a sort of left-wing conscience’, he moved beyond Blairesque rebranding and entered Orwellian territory, giving a convenient makeover to his party’s history.

The Lib Dems, being mercilessly frank, have only ever been alternatives to Labour. As polls will indicate, that was their core vote over the past five years and the reason the earlier SDP formed when Labour looked unelectable; before the Gang of Four became the Lib Dem ascendency, David Owen, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and Bill Rodgers were Labour MPs popular enough to be considered a challenge. Except perhaps electoral reform, supported widely by small parties of all kinds, policies against Iraq and tuition fees were tenets of Britain’s liberal left and bought the Lib Dems considerable support in 2005. Clegg may be shifting his party’s direction, but he doesn’t get to tamper with the records – only that year, Charles Kennedy called them ‘the genuine alternative to Labour’.

Of course the Lib Dems have always drawn swing votes from both major parties, but Clegg is too intelligent to believe their history isn’t broadly centre-left. Why, then, did he go to conference with a speech denouncing the bulk of his pre-coalition support? With growing unease on his face at PMQs, it’s possible Clegg thinks he’ll only survive to 2015 if he redefines his party to suit the Conservatives – in which case, the speech is less Blair and more Neil Kinnock. Think of Labour in the late eighties when Kinnock drove Militant out of his party. With all his promises of long-term reward, is Clegg’s aim to reduce friction by pushing out his party left as well?

If so, it’s a tactic which could easily backfire. Already, Labour has monopolised the anti-government vote while Conservative supporters have what they asked for. If the Lib Dem leadership turns its back on the left, the left will return the gesture and flock en masse to Labour. Once again Clegg must realise this will happen, but his suggestion seems to be that after any initial condemnation, future generations will warm up to the reforms his party achieves: civil liberties, tax reform and perhaps Alternative Votes. These are breakthroughs the left might look back on fondly, perhaps seeing a coalition as better in the end than an outright Tory majority.

Even then they’re unlikely to reconnect with Clegg as the man who gave the Conservatives power, and I wonder if this is where Simon Hughes comes in. Just as with John Prescott under Tony Blair, Hughes’ comments since the election show him as markedly to the left of Clegg; the same is true more recently of Vince Cable. Clegg like Cameron is highly adept at PR, and allowing their comments the way he has runs against his casting off of left wing voters. Either of them could be credible future leaders, and it’s possible Clegg plans to crucify himself in coalition before a less rightist figure takes over post-2015. If the next election fails to produce a majority, it could even be that Clegg takes his leave so a coalition with Labour can be formed. For Brownites the irony of that would be quite blissful, but if Labour plays its cards right it won’t have to accept coalition.

In that scenario, recovering the left would be a long term plan; rather than deny the Lib Dems’ record with the left, Clegg’s successor could cast the party as a fresh alternative to Labour, reminding the public of their dissatisfaction under Brown – but this depends on the Clegg era coming to a definite end. Especially with Ed Miliband as leader, a groundswell of calculated, mass defection from the Lib Dems could allow Labour to break the coalition apart, in particular if the AV referendum fails and Britain’s economy takes a wrong turn. With that amount of pressure on Clegg, it’s possible he may buckle under strain and break from the Tories; David Cameron would call a general election, and Labour’s chances of a win would be impressive.

Whatever happens Nick Clegg is a dead man walking in political terms, whether it’s Blair, Brown or Kinnock he’s emulating. It may well be all three, though I doubt he knows it – and even if he did, he shouldn’t care. I don’t care either, frankly, because nothing short of a miracle will save him.

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