Over the past year, a repeated theme of Clegg’s speeches has been the baseless accusation that many of his party’s members do not want to win or hold power, accompanied by the bogus claim that, until he became leader, the Liberal Democrats were merely a party of protest. (These claims were dismantled in previous posts here, here and here). Clegg even made these accusations in a speech at this June’s ALDC conference, to an audience of councillors (or ex-councillors who had lost their seats mainly due to him), who received his patronising lecture about ‘power’ in stony silence.
There is no evidence whatever for Clegg’s depiction of his party as people uninterested in power, and he has failed to produce any evidence. Never once has he named any such party member to back up his accusations. Team Clegg has obviously decided not to let the truth to get in the way of a good story, but has made further attacks on its own party. This time, the conduit is Isabel Hardman, writing in both the Telegraph and the Spectator. The spin is wearily familiar; the Telegraph’s headline could not be more loaded if it tried:
Airy-fairy Lib Dems must face life outside the goldfish bowlBeneath this tendentious headline, we learn:
The Lib Dems currently have an official goldfish policy – one banning the sale of the creatures at fairs – which lingers as one of the clanking skeletons in the closet of a party still getting used to people paying it any attention at all. As the 2015 election approaches, though, Nick Clegg and his colleagues are trying their best to persuade activists to adopt a more grown-up approach to policymaking that is less about goldfish and more about government.
Mr Clegg knows there is still some work to do with party members before they can sign off a grown-up set of manifesto pledges. The Lib Dem leader recently warned his councillors that they must choose between “consigning ourselves to be 'the third party’ forever” and becoming a “firm party of government”. This week he reminded activists that there could be no promise to scrap or lower tuition fees in the 2015 manifesto. Backstage, strategists have used a series of meetings to tell MPs and their staff to cheer up and talk up the party’s achievements.
These regular warnings are part of a process of softening up the party rank and file, to get them onside ahead of this year’s autumn conference. When activists meet in Glasgow in September, they will discuss a “manifesto themes” document, as well as policy papers on tax, post-16 education, defence, Europe, “balanced working life” and zero carbon. The long-standing goldfish policy won’t get a look in.This whole narrative is dishonest from beginning to end. For a start, there never was a policy on goldfish. But look at the repeated spin about being “grown-up” and the implication that the membership (unlike Clegg and his chums) is immature and not interested in power. Excuse me, but isn’t this the same membership that gave Clegg a North Korean-style majority in favour of coalition at the special conference in 2010? The same membership that, in the latest Liberal Democrat Voice poll, chose power over opposition by 87% to 13%?
In the Spectator article, meanwhile, we are told:
The main conflict in the party at the moment, according to those pushing the grown-up line, is between pragmatists and idealists, rather than left and right.So there we have it. The debate is being reduced to a matter of maturity. Clegg is “grown-up”, while anyone who disagrees is some sort of child or hopeless idealist. No real argument, no facts, just personal insults. It seems that Clegg and his aides are continuing to ratchet up the war against their own party members, exploiting the media template that was fixed in the 1980s, which continues to frame all internal party politics in terms of Labour’s battles with the Militant Tendency.
The problem of a leader who dislikes his own party is not unique to the Liberal Democrats. David Cameron’s aides have been repeatedly spinning against the Tory grassroots as the ‘Turnip Taliban’, revealing what is essentially a cultural divide between a metropolitan and cosmopolitan leadership, and a rural and suburban backwoods. In the Labour Party, meanwhile, Ed Miliband recently tried to pick a fight with the unions over the selection contest in Falkirk, in what appears to be more a public relations exercise intended to boost Miliband’s ‘strong man’ credentials than a genuine disciplinary issue.
Clegg’s war on his own members seems to be all of a piece with this trend. But the fact that his Tory and Labour counterparts are playing similar games doesn’t make it right. Indeed, when your membership has slumped to 42,500, it is extremely foolish to insult and alienate those few members who remain, especially when your accusations against them are false.
Foolish, that is, unless you imagine you can pursue a purely elite-based political strategy with no further need for grassroots involvement. That is the only logical explanation for Clegg’s campaign against his own party over the past year. Presumably he hopes this campaign will culminate in the ceremonial humiliation of the membership at September’s conference. If he succeeds, he will probably win more praise from the likes of Isabel Hardman in the Telegraph, but it will be a Pyrrhic victory because its practical effect will be to weaken the party by demotivating members.
So here’s a question for Nick Clegg. Do you really want to remain party leader? You have made it abundantly clear over the past year that you dislike your own party, so much so that you are prepared to travesty your members repeatedly, culminating in what you hope will be their final humiliation at this September’s party conference. Have you thought through the practical consequences for the party? And if punishing your members on false grounds is what you really want, ask yourself whether you are in the right job. A major part of a party leader’s duties is to enthuse and motivate the members, and build the party’s strength in the process. But if you actually couldn’t give a toss about your party, shouldn’t you resign and let someone else do the job?
It’s time to piss or get off the pot. If you like your party, show some leadership (and real leadership consists of inspiring not insulting your members). If you don’t like your party, fuck off. Either way, make up your mind, and the sooner the better.
Postscript: Read Alex Marsh’s analysis of Clegg’s antics (‘The need for “grown up” policy’) on the Social Liberal Forum website. Thoroughly recommended.