This post first appeared on Lib Dem Voice
One thing about Nick Clegg, rather like those inflatable Humpty Dumpties some of us had as kids – thump him and he bounces right back. Monday seems to be one such occasion. An upbeat, earnest speech, designed, it seemed to most commentators, to speak to the party as much, if not more, than to the country.
For the Social Liberal Forum, the immediate reaction to his commitment on increased infrastructure spending was, while welcoming it, to wonder why on earth he and Danny had railed against it to the extent of picking a fight with the party about it until now? But, Damascene conversions, however belated, are to be welcomed. Let’s hope this is the first of many.
I was interested in Stephen Tall’s analysis that despite not saying it Nick was still firmly trying to “anchor us in the centre ground.” I am sure he is right, although of course I do not accept that this is a position we have always and must always, hold. It’s not often I find myself agreeing with Tony Blair, but his comment on the Today programme recently that one of our problems was having produced 3 manifestos to the left of Labour we now found ourselves to the right of them. So, while Nick and co have been relentlessly trying to position us in this mythical ‘colourless mush’ centrist position, it is certainly not one many of us would accept.
On the plus side, as well as the commitments on infrastructure spending and being prepared to look at tax rises rather than welfare cuts to balance the books, I welcomed Nick’s acknowledgement when questioned that we have left young people wondering if we are there for them or not. It is heartbreaking for those of us who until 2010 proudly asserted the truth that we were the most young people friendly party, to see so many young people turning away from us. With the caveat that of course we do still allegedly have a democratic process to approve our manifesto, I welcome his commitment to putting education at the heart of it.
On the minus side I find myself (again unusually) agreeing with some of Isabel Hardman’s analysis in the Spectator. She observes:
I’ve yet to hear a politician who says ‘actually, I don’t really believe in people’ or ‘wouldn’t it be great if we were honest that being unfair is fun?’ Yet Clegg is setting up a divide with the other parties that is essentially ‘as Lib Dems we care about people, and the rest of you don’t.
This highlights for me one of our key issues in restoring the party – our values, messaging and behaviour have to add up. Just as it is too simplistic to claim no other party cares about people, it is also a bit of a hostage to fortune when we have been seen to approve of apparently vindictive legislation like the bedroom tax and unfair welfare and legal aid cuts.
Isabel Hardman’s conclusion that his speech may not do much to reassure those in his party who fear he doesn’t have a strong definition of Liberalism, is fair. I for one would have liked to see more reference to those values expressed in our constitution and more about what we would actually do differently to demonstrate that we genuinely care about everyone. That kind of reminds me of the ubiquitous Anglican prayer for world peace – so broad as to be in danger of becoming meaningless.
Whether he has done enough to re-endear himself to his critics in the party, or more importantly, the public – remains to be seen.
Linda Jack is a member of the SLF Council.
* Linda Jack is Chair of Liberal Left