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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Other people's agendas

I have only really got around to catching up with by now infamous Independent newspaper interview with Nick Clegg in which, according to their headline he suggested that there is no future for the Liberal Democrats as left-wing rivals to Labour. Many commentators have taken this as moving the party to the right, but not only is this not the case but the journalist spin misrepresents what the Liberal Democrat leader actually said.

In fact Clegg's actual words were "There were some people, particularly around the height of the Iraq war, who gave up on the Labour Party and turned to the Liberal Democrats as a sort of left-wing conscience of the Labour Party.

"I totally understand that some of these people are not happy with what the Lib Dems are doing in coalition with the Conservatives. The Lib Dems never were and aren't a receptacle for left-wing dissatisfaction with the Labour Party. There is no future for that; there never was."

That is a fairly explicit assertion that we are a party in our own right with a distinctive philosophy and policies rather than just a receptacle of protest votes. Clegg tells the paper that "this [conference] is an incredibly important opportunity for those Liberal Democrats who are in government to show people in the party that they retain the same values, instincts and ambitions – that walking through the door of power does not mean you lose your soul."

Admitting the looming spending cuts were overshadowing the Government's other work, the Deputy Prime Minister said: "If anything, we are doing the most difficult things now, partly because everything is so obscured by the bad, worrying news about deficit reduction. Rather than it getting worse, maybe over time – after very, very difficult decisions on public spending – the wider purpose and vocation of the Government will become more obvious."

He pledged that one of the most radical programmes of any government for a "long, long time" would achieve more on political reform, civil liberties and protecting pensioners than Labour did in 13 years, combined with "an impeccably Liberal approach" to the NHS, education and welfare reform. "This is not some arbitrary menu of rushed proposals cobbled together. They reflect, right across the piece, big, long-standing Liberal aspirations."

The paper is right in surmising that for the time being we are resigned to the left wing refuseniks deserting us. I suppose that is inevitable. However, I am confident that in the long term the most reasonable amongst these voters will understand that we are doing what needs to be done to stabilise the economy and government and that we have moderated the worst excesses of the Tory right.

The whole Independent article is based on the premise that British politics is polarised between left and right and that the Liberal Democrats have carved out a niché for themselves from the dissatisfied centre of each wing. I do not accept that.

In my view the actual dividing line in British politics is between libertarian and authoritarian. Previous opinion polls have shown that if people believe that the Liberal Democrats can exercise real influence then nearly half of the electorate will vote for us. We have hopefully breached that credibility gap. What we need to do now is to convince voters that we are maintaining our liberal principles in government, that we have the best interests of the country at heart.

All of that is enshrined in the coalition agreement. The job of Liberal Democrat ministers now is to deliver on it and to sell our successes to the country.
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