Sunday, 8 September 2013

Clegg: losing his party after he lost the country

There are too many obvious punning headlines around Sarah Teather's decision not to seek re-election as a Liberal Democrat MP.  Given that there was an uphill struggle for any MP with a slim majority over Labour in the context of post-coalition politics, a cynical perspective would be that she wanted to get out in order to corner the market in former Liberal members before there becomes a glut in 2015, but her decision begs the questions as to what exactly is Clegg's political end-game.

Persistent rumours have done the rounds that the Tories would love to turn him into a contemporary equivalent of Sir John Simon and the Liberal Nationals - ostensibly independent but reliant upon the Tories for continued representation in Parliament; this is the equivalent of chemical castration for politicians.  Clegg's main failing is that he has done absolutely nothing that makes this implausible, seeking solace in the coalition and the more congenial company of his Cabinet bed-fellows.  He is not the only Liberal leader to have felt that his party is an embarrassment - but he is rapidly becoming a paradigm for the ostrich who has failed to notice that such views are less-than-cordially reciprocated.

The real opportunity that he would have had in 2010 is to continue to force the agenda towards collaboration and co-operation in politics.  Instead of the equivalent of being human shields to a bunch of chinless and scheming Tories, the party could have worked to build consensus across party boundaries - eliminating the impetus to establish new forms of tribalism.  Going into the 2015 election with a strong message that coalition has delivered better government, rather than tempering the swivel-eyed on occasion, might have been a stronger rallying-cry to the party and its supporters.

For fair-weather voters, this might have been unpalatable.  The Labour defectors who wanted the Lib Dems to be the repository for their consciences over Iraq and Blair's incredible right-wing drift would never buy into that particular kind of narrative.  For the Liberal Democrats, this might have been a viable survival strategy - able to argue where policies were implemented and able to demonstrate changes that could only have been effected with Liberal policies.  Instead there has been a string of policy initiatives that have been under the name of the Coalition - driven by the Tories - and which have not been tested on either of the parties or the electorate.

Clegg has joined the ranks of the leaders dismissive of their own parties.  The SDP in the 1980s hated the activist control of the Liberal Party, so they invented structures designed to neuter it.  Clegg and his coterie are falling into the same trap.  Yet they depend upon the remaining members and the remaining support to see the loss of seats and vote in 2015 remain as tragedy rather than farce.

The Liberal Democrats meet for their conference in Glasgow next week - and it will be interesting to see how much embarrassment could be caused if the party is restive.  The more, the better, at least from the perspective of pluralism.  Clegg and Alexander endorse the Coalition as much as they endorse their own party, and the more that the party can be seen to have its own direction and values, the better it will be for their successors and those of us who continue to believe that the libertarian left position requires clear articulation.  And if Clegg gets a safe Tory seat, he can become a fellow-travelling footnote.

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