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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Some thoughts on the European Elections and Nick Clegg

I have promised a couple of times over the last few days that I will post on the European elections and the current controversy surrounding Nick Clegg.

What is set out below is not meant to be a coherent reaction to recent events, rather it is a series of random thoughts that will hopefully add something to the debate about how we could have done better and how we should go further.

I think I should add a further caveat that despite my criticisms of the way the European campaign was fought, they are retrospective ones. In the case of the challenge to Farage I thought at the time it was the correct thing to do. Equally, I think it is the case that even if we had fought the campaign differently the outcome would most probably have been the same.

The first issue I wanted to comment on is the debate with Nigel Farage. At the time it seemed to be a masterstroke, a game-changer that had the potential to re-launch the Liberal Democrats and allow us to portray ourselves as the anti-UKIP party (if it is possible to have an anti anti-politics party that is).

That the debates were a disaster in my view can be put down to two reasons. Firstly, Clegg was over-prepared and came across as wooden and uneasy. Considering that he is a commited and knowledgeable European that was an unexpected outcome.

In the second debate in particular, the hype was that Clegg was going to display passion. Instead he looked helpless in the face of a clever and passionate onslaught from his opponent.

Those who had prepared him for this debate had forgotten one golden rule: passion comes from spontaneity. That was lacking in Clegg's performance and as a result he looked less sincere and not in command of his brief. That is a lesson that needs to be learnt for the General Election.

The second miscalculation was in how the debates would play in the country. The idea was that the Liberal Democrats would be perceived as the only party standing up to bigotry and racism, defending jobs and taking on the UKIP threat.

However, most people formed their view of these debates not by watching them, but from the anti-European, anti-Liberal Democrats, pro-UKIP press who, seeing blood in the water rounded on Clegg over the period of a week or more, pronouncing him the clear loser.

After this the Liberal Democrats poll ratings started to deteriorate and we had no credibility on doorsteps as a party who were standing up for people's economic interests.

Clegg had taken on popularism with facts and cold logic. It was inevitable that this would fail, especially when the execution was so poor, and the party suffered as a result.

My next problem was with the campaign itself. The slogan that we are 'the party of in', was not just meaningless to most people, but it was weak and failed to appeal even to commited Europeans. Privately at the time I compared it to Monty Python's equally ineffectual 'knights who say ni' and having now seen how it played out I think I was right in that analysis.

In Liberal Democrats terms I am a Euro-sceptic, which makes me an enthusiast in any other party. But I consider my views as closer to many people's than for example, Nick Clegg's. The slogan and the campaign did not resonate because they came across as extreme.

We were the party in most people's mind who want closer European integration, unlimited immigration, and who were prepared to embrace all the faults and abuses prevalent in the EU to get it.

In reality of course that is not the case. The Liberal Democrats' view of Europe is not unconditional. We want reform, we want to see constructive and positive immigration and we want to see a more accountable and transparent European Union. None of that was evident in our campaign and people voted accordingly.

And then there is Nick Clegg himself. It is correct that on the doorsteps Nick Clegg is a major negative for the Liberal Democrats. People do not trust him. He is seen as somebody who broke major pledges, not least on tuition fees, notwithstanding other party's record on this issue, especially Labour's, who broke two successive promises on tuition fees despite having a majority.

Part of the reason for this lies in the way we conducted our 2010 General Election campaign. That campaign highlighted key pledges which we could not keep and in the case of senior members of the party, as was evident from the coalition negotiations, had no commitment to keeping. What is worse we ran a party election broadcast in which Nick Clegg critcised others for dishonesty. This is one negative I cannot see us overcoming whilst Nick remains party leader.

This does not mean that I agree with those calling on Nick Clegg to stand down. In many ways he is our most successful leader since Lloyd George. He took us into government and is delivering a Liberal Democrats agenda on fairness, economic competence, education, the environment and civil liberties. It is true that there have been hiccups, and I have not been slow to criticise these, especially on welfare reform, secret courts etc. But the process of government involves compromise especially when you do not have a majority, and were we to return to government in a different context then it is likely we would want to change some of these measures.

Many party members refer to the policies we delivered that were not in the coalition agreement. Anybody who has exercised power on a local council or in a devolved Parliament knows that this always happens and should be expected. Whatever our faults we remain the only credible liberal party and the only one capable of implementing liberal policies in government.

The project is to demonstrate that coalition government can work and that the Liberal Democrats are a party of government. On both counts we have succeeded and Nick needs to see out his term as Deputy Prime Minister to seal the deal on that narrative,

If Nick does stay though there needs to be changes, not least in the way the party campaigns and listens to its activists and voters. Our campaigns need to resonate better with voters and not rely on the endless repetition of meaningless slogans. Those around the DPM need to understand that on message, in volume is no substitute for getting out on doorsteps and talking to people about what we have achieved and hope to achieve.

We need to do better at explaining our record and rebutting attacks and we need to get Nick Clegg out around the country more, addressing public meetings and talking on local media, The next twelve months have to be a campaign to end all campaigns. Retrenchment is not an option. We need to fight as if the future of our party depends on it and I expect Nick Clegg to be leading that charge.
Very honest, fair play Peter.
Tony Blair is right when he says that it was always going to be difficult for a party standing on a manifesto which in many ways was to the left of Labour to then go into coalition with a relatively right-wing conservative party. Mr Blair actually thinks that Nick Clegg hasn't performed badly, while recognising that praise from him might be seen as a double-edged sword.

Personally, I fear that the problem is as much with the message as the messenger. In recent elections, LDs have attracted a lot of support from students, mainly because of tuition fees, although the party's stance on the Iraq war had some influence in 2005. Public sector workers has been an area where the party has historically drawn support. From a purely political standpoint, it was a mistake for the LDs to jettison their tuition fees policy so readily and the alienated student voters are unlikely to return. The Conservatives have an anti-public sector approach, which has barely been mitigated by the LDs in government and the cuts programme continues regardless of economic upturn. Meanwhile Mr Gove is considering placing vulnerable children in care in the hands of private companies like G4S without any audible LD objections. There are few new voters likely to be attracted to vote for the party to compensate for those who've been alienated by current policies. For that reason, the short-term future for LDs, Clegg or not, is bleak.

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