Nick Clegg’s speech to the ALDC Conference in Manchester this weekend was trailed – these things rarely happen by accident – as ‘taking on his internal party critics’.
In it, Clegg seems to set out a choice: ‘to become a firm party of Government… striving to govern at every level in order to make Britain a better place’ or ‘consigning ourselves to be “the third party” forever’. It repeats the old ‘party of protest’ trope, which as my Liberator colleagues Jonathan Calder and Simon Titley point out, was and remains nonsense.
Now, I have heard reports that the speech came across better in person than it does in writing. It would have undoubtedly been better-received had it supported the recently-launched national campaign about jobs. However, it is also fair to say that an audience of councillors is a strange one to lecture about being in power, especially those who did just that successfully for many years before national political trends voted good Liberal Democrats off councils we formerly ran. They are people who have long been a party of Government, who have suddenly found themselves in some cases relegated from first place to third thanks to taking the path Clegg seems to advocate.
It is also ironic to read the content of the speech regarding the content of the 2015 manifesto, as a member of the Federal Policy Committee which agrees the thing. Clegg – who has not attended an FPC meeting for two years – appears to have been engaging in megaphone diplomacy –hardly a way to win friends and influence people. Yes, of course manifesto policies have to be deliverable and understandable by the public. But as Jonathan says, Nick Clegg needs to ease off the conspiracy theories and realise that I and his Party colleagues want power just as much as he does. Indeed, we need rather more specific and detailed statements from the Party leadership in order for the electorate to know what the Liberal Democrats stand for. That must start with the coherent economic strategy, independent of George Osborne, that Liberal Democrats but not their leadership wanted to see debated in March. It must also involve evidence of Liberal Democrats in power governing in line with our values, notwithstanding the constraints of the economy and of Government.
Ditching the distinctively democratic way we make policy, as Nick Clegg seems to be arguing, isn’t how we govern from 2015 onwards. Rather, we need policy attuned to the challenges people face in everyday life, bringing prosperity we can all share in – and we have to campaign as community activists, delivering those policies where they matter. This is why local and devolved government matters so much to providing a platform for national power. In the same way, the Social Liberal Forum Conference being held in Manchester in three weekends’ time – see http://socialliberal.net/slf-conf-2013/ – will look precisely at where that power really lies in 2013; all Liberal Democrats seriously looking at the issues people are raising should be there.
It is unclear whether Clegg is trying to say that ‘becoming a firm party of Government’ will make the Liberal Democrats larger or smaller. Either way, it goes without saying that the party will be able to do more under any circumstances if it has more seats. It also appears Clegg has finally abandoned the pledge he made on becoming Leader of the party winning 100 seats within two General Elections. Certainly, speeches like this will do little to motivate activists who lost their council seats under his leadership, or build the campaign teams that will win seats in 2015.