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Monday, 11 January 2010

Clegg shelves key policies

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has today confirmed that he will "shelve" some of his party's key policies in order to concentrate on "priorities".

Mr Clegg said it was unreasonable and unrealistic for parties to prepare "shopping lists" of policies, saying that times had changed and that the recession demanded realism.

Mr Clegg has come in for criticism in recent months for the executive way in which he has made decisions, for planning policy changes without consulting the party and for appearing prepared to abandon the Lib Dems' historical commitment to abolishing tuition fees.

On tuition fees, Mr Clegg stated that he could not scrap tuition fees in one Parliament but said he would do it over six years. He added that many of the policies he has previously advocated are no longer affordable - although questions remain about whether they were "affordable" in the first instance.

On free personal care, free childcare and a citizen's pension based on UK residency Mr Clegg has conceded that they are now "on hold" until they become affordable and that the Lib Dems' manifesto will contain no "firm commitments" to them.

He was critical of the Lib Dems' previous manifesto which he says contained too many spending commitments. Quite what "firm commitments" there will be in a Liberal Democrat manifesto that will say nothing concrete about their most distinctive policies of recent years remains to be seen.

Mr Clegg appears at pains to appear "sensible" and reasonable, but in my view he's gone further than he needs. He should be promoting liberal alternatives to the status quo; rather than surrendering his supposed vision to current economic realities, he should be advocating a more liberal economy. Instead of abandoning historical pledges, he would look more mature and responsible if he considered practical liberal methods of achieving the Lib Dems' stated goals.

Mr Clegg's weaknesses were exposed when he dodged questions about the possibility of a hung parliament. He said he was "not a soothsayer". No, he's a politician. But any politician worth his salt can see that the public will naturally be interested in what the Lib Dems will do in the quite possible event of a hung parliament. Any Lib Dem leader should - rather than ditching their policies - recognise that distinctive policies are a useful bargaining tool. Furthermore, like David Steel in 1987, Nick Clegg should be honest about the possibilities for a hung parliament and - while not committing himself to supporting either of the main parties - declare himself willing to co-operate with them in return for some concessions on policy.

It is hard to believe that Nick Clegg does not see the electoral possibilities in such an approach. Constantly evading questions about hung parliaments and co-operation is not only disingenuous but foolish given that this year's General Election could be the closest since 1974. There is an opportunity to put out unique, distinctive and progressive policies as an alternative to the main parties' unimaginative proposals. A strong, distinctive manifesto would give Mr Clegg something to bargain with in the event of the Lib Dems holding the balance of power.

That does not mean that some sober-mindedness is not welcome. It is. There is nothing wrong with stating that this a marathon and not a sprint; that some objectives can only be realised in the long-term. But people vote for vision as much as they do policy and I am concerned that at the moment it is very difficult for voters to see what Mr Clegg's vision is. It is true, especially in the event of a hung parliament, that the Lib Dems may have to be realistic and negotiate policy proposals in a responsible and practical way. They may have to make concessions, as they did in coalition in Scotland. But they must do so from a position of strength, not of weakness.

Mr Clegg should be leading the Lib Dems into the next election with the best possible cards in his hand.

Ditching his party's most distinctive policies is not responsible leadership, and is likely to anger many Lib Dem supporters and activists. Nick still comes across as honest and realistic, but he has miscalculated if he believes that reneging on key commitments amounts to being "driven by clear sense of conviction".
The country needs a Lib Dem leader with vision and clear strategy for the future. Come on, Nick . Be adventurous! Be liberal!

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