Saturday, September 24, 2011

At some point, Clegg will have to start thinking about the next election, not the last

If one sign of a good politician is the ability to learn from the greats that have gone before you, then Nick Clegg certainly hit the mark in at least one respect this week.

“You don't play politics at a time of national crisis, you don't play politics with the economy, and you never, ever, play politics with people's jobs," the Liberal Democrat leader told his party conference in Birmingham on Wednesday.

Westminster watchers of a certain age were instantly transported back more than a quarter of a century to Bournemouth, 1985, when Neil Kinnock tore into the grotesque chaos of Militant-run Liverpool.

“I’ll tell you – and you’ll listen!” he told the delegates as left-wing MP Eric Heffer stormed out of the conference hall. “You can’t play politics with people’s jobs, and with people’s homes, and with people’s services.”

But words aside, was there any parallel between Kinnock’s great oratorical tour-de-force and the Deputy Prime Minister’s rather more pedestrian
efforts of this week?

Well, up to a point. Kinnock’s words were of course solely directed at his own party, and so, to an extent, were Mr Clegg’s.

Coming as they did at the end of a lengthy defence of his party’s decision to join the Coalition, the words seemed primarily a rebuke to those Lib Dems who would rather they had sat on the sidelines.

That might have been better ‘politics,’ in that the Lib Dems would not now be languishing at 15pc in the opinion polls – but the whole thrust of Mr Clegg’s argument was that the national interest required him to set such considerations aside.

Currently, people views on whether the Lib Dems were right to join a Conservative-led Coalition will depend by and large on whether or not they agree with the Conservatives’ economic prescriptions.

In the North-East and other regions where the fragile recovery of 2010 appears to have been choked-off by the government’s public spending cuts, it is hardly surprising that many one-time Lib Dem voters think they were wrong.

But ultimately the question of whether Mr Clegg was right or wrong will be left to the judgement of history.

If Chancellor George Osborne’s great economic gamble ultimately succeeds and the economy returns to strong growth before 2015, it will look like a good call – but if not, he will be seen to have sold his birthright for no more than a mess of potage.

Thankfully, there are at some Liberal Democrats at least who already seem to be making plans for the latter eventuality.

In a widely-reported speech at the start of the conference, party president Tim Farron made it clear that the ‘marriage’ with the Conservatives, while currently good-natured, would inevitably have to end in divorce.

In one sense this was no more than a statement of the bleeding obvious from Mr Farron, who is widely expected to succeed Mr Clegg as Lib Dem leader.

Even if Mr Osborne manages to preside over an economic miracle, the Lib Dems cannot go into the next election hanging on to the Conservatives’ shirt-tails. Rather they will need, between now and then, to re-establish their identity as an independent party.

One of the fundamental rules of politics is that when you go into an election, you at least have to make a pretence of fighting to win.
People simply will not vote for a party that sees holding the balance of power within a hung Parliament as its explicit objective.

One thing you can be absolutely sure of is that the Conservatives won’t be going into the next election with the objective of another Coalition – explicitly or implicitly.

Many on the right of the party still blame David Cameron for failing to achieve an outright majority in May 2010 when faced by an exhausted, hapless Labour government. They will simply not permit him to aim for anything less next time.

How Mr Clegg ultimately handles this dynamic will, I suspect, determine whether it is he or Mr Farron who leads the Lib Dems into that election.

It is entirely possible that he may go down as one of those politicians – Ramsay Macdonald being another example – whose names become a byword for betrayal within their own parties.

This year’s conference was all about reassuring the doubters in his party that he did the right thing in May 2010.

The next one, however, will need to be much more about what he is going to do come May 2015..

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1 comment:

Robert said...

But of course Miliband is a mistake walking he has a Gordon Brown type smile he switches on and it looks so false especially when he gets annoyed.

Then he made this statement picked up by my friends.

The Breakfast show BBC.

"Welfare has to change due to the Banking crises"

So the sick the disabled are paying for the banking crises, at least we know now, but of course the welfare reforms started in 1997 ended with Brown when Purnell walked out before being kicked out, now wants back in.

Na Labour has nothing to offer me, I suspect it's aimed at the Middle England swing voters.