Saturday, September 25, 2010

Clegg cannot ignore his social democratic wing

Back in 1999, in his first keynote conference speech, Charles Kennedy insisted that the Liberal Democrats under his leadership would never become a "left-of-Labour party."

Nobody quite took the statement at face value, and neither, I suspect, did Mr Kennedy himself.

Sure enough, over the ensuing two elections, the man then known as 'Chatshow Charlie' succeeded in taking the Lib Dems to their highest-ever parliamentary representation by consistently taking left-of-Labour positions.

In 2001, it was the extra penny on income tax to pay for additional education spending that won over the voters, while in 2005, it was the party's opposition to the Iraq War.

Fast forward eleven years, and current Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg is making what at first hearing sound like similar noises about the party's positioning vis-à-vis Labour.

Interviewed before this week's conference in Liverpool, he said: "The vocation of Liberalism is not to be a leftwing ghetto for people who are disaffected by the Labour Party."

The difference between Messrs Kennedy and Clegg, though, is that Clegg means it.

Not only has he gone into coalition with the Tories. He is almost saying 'good riddance' to those left-of-centre voters who have helped keep the party afloat over the past decade as New Labour continued its rightward drift.

He said in his interview: "I'm not denying there is a chunk of people who turned to the Liberal Democrats at the height of Blair's authoritarianism and his fascination with Bush…that was always going to unwind at some point."

True up to a point….but unless he is genuinely relaxed about his party losing more than half its support at the next election, the logic of Mr Clegg's position – if you can call it logic – is very clear.

It is that, between now and 2015, he is going to have to find himself an entirely new set of voters - particularly in the North where the 'disaffected ex-Labour' vote makes up a fair slice of Lib Dem support.

Which in turn begs the question: where on earth are they going to come from?

Before delivering his two-fingered message to his left-of-centre supporters, Mr Clegg would perhaps have done well to consider his party's recent history.

The Liberal Democrats, it should be remembered, are a fairly recent amalgamation of two parties with very different philosophical strands – the Liberals, and the Social Democrats.

The party is therefore itself a coalition of economic liberals such as Mr Clegg who feel naturally comfortable as part of a Tory-led government, and social democrats like Mr Kennedy to whom it is anathema.

Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why one opinion poll this week showed that more than half of Lib Dem voters regard the coalition as a sell-out, while 40pc said they voted Lib Dem specifically to keep the Tories out.

In his speech on Monday, Mr Clegg made an impassioned plea to his party to "stick with" the coalition, promising it would "change Britain for good."

Well, they'll stick with it as far as the referendum on voting reform next May. But after that, all bets are off are far as I can see.

I'll make another prediction, too. Mr Clegg will not find an army of new Liberal Democrat supporters waiting around for someone to vote for, and he will therefore be forced in the end to try to hang on to his existing ones.

And he won't be able to do that unless he can somehow first find a way of getting his party out of this coalition alive.

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1 comment:

Oli Parker said...

Great piece, Paul, but nothing about wossisname Milliband winning the Labour leadership against the other wossisname Milliband?

If the LibDems aren't going to be left of Labour, the crowning of Ed will leave Mr Clegg (and friends) a lot of space to manouevre in, surely?