Friday, 21 September 2012

I still don't know what to make of Nick Clegg's apology

And so, on Wednesday, Nick Clegg finally apologised for the tuition fees fiasco that so badly damaged our party in the eyes of the public.  

I've watched it several times.  And I still don't know what to make of it.

In fairness, it's probably done him, and the Liberal Democrats some good.  That probably has more to do with the hilarious spoof, and Nick's noble gesture to allow the song to be sold in aid of a local charity, than it does with his original apology.

For those of you who haven't yet seen Nick's original statement (and there can't be many of you) it's here:

Many Lib Dems have expressed their thoughts, and there has been a diverse range of opinion on the matter. Some feel Nick has nothing to apologise for. Others feel it's a sincere apology that demonstrates that Nick understands the damage done and is sufficiently human to demonstrate humility. Others ponder whether this is indicative of a change in strategy from the leadership.  

Nicola Prigg feels that Nick's apology is far from believable, and constitutes "everything the public hates about politics".  She thinks the apology actually entrenches public distrust in the leader, and suspects Nick's apology is too scripted to be either sincere or effective. She goes as far as to say it's "dishonest".  I won't speculate as to Nick's motivation because it's more than conceivable that his apology is more honest than it might at first appear.  But Nicola touches on the reality that it doesn't really matter how Liberal Democrat members respond - it's what the public thinks that ultimately matters.  

There have been some, in the aftermath of the hilarious apology song, that have suggested this represents a revival of Cleggmania.  That really is ridiculously optimistic.  Everyone having a laugh as Nick Clegg is not "mania".  It's great that everyone's talking about our party leader, and that we have a leader who apparently can laugh at himself a bit, but there's nothing to suggest that any of this will transform into electoral support for the Liberal Democrats.  No doubt Nicola is correct when she argues that all those sincerely disappointed in Nick's handling of the tuition fees debacle two years ago will not be appeased with an apology now.

Liberal Youth's Kavya Kaushik was not impressed, for different reasons.  "I wish Nick Clegg had an extra brain cell.  [Why] say this around Freshers? Completely screwed up a chance for decent recruitment as now everyone will only talk about fees. He better get his shirt off at conference to apologise for apologising."  And it's a reasonable question to ask: why now?  The timing could have been better (ideally two years ago).  Nick might want to "clear the decks" so that tuition fees won't "cast a shadow over everything else the Liberal Democrats [do] in government" but it's too late for that.  The damage is done, and no apology, however sincere, can put the genie back in the bottle.  The extremely poor way Nick personally handled matters at the time has contributed in no small way to his personal lack of credibility.  So, why make the apology now, ensuring that conference and students are talking about the very thing Nick claims he wants to move on from?

A former Lib Dem, Kelvin Holdsworth, said this: "I'm pleased to hear the Nick Clegg apology video, but the last bit seems to be missing - the bit where he says, 'It is clear that this mistake lost the trust not only of the British people but most particularly those who worked hardest to get me here. For that reason, I've decided that the only way to rebuild a powerful Liberal force in the UK is for someone else to lead the party into the next election. I'm proud of what we have achieved.'"  It's this kind of person that Nick Clegg really needs to communicate to, and it's certainly true that the key issue here is trust.  And so, while I'm pleased that Nick made the apology (albeit somewhat late in the day) there remain questions in the public mind about whether he can be trusted.  In my mind, the tuition fees issue has so successfully undermined Nick Clegg's standing with the public that it is virtually impossible for him to regain that trust, however much he wants to move on from a disaster which was in no small way of his own making.

I don't accept that we, as a party, should not have "committed to a policy that was so expensive when there was no money around".  Firstly, I don't think it's true, especially as the full reality of Labour's black hole was not known until the coalition inherited the reigns of government.  But there is a difference between committing to a policy (i.e. the party's ultimate objective) and making pledges on what we would do in the next parliament when coalition always seemed a potential outcome.  It was unwise to have made the pledge in the aftermath of the 2009 conference in which divisions within the party on the matter became painfully apparent.  It was also foolish to make a pledge when many of the MPs signing it didn't agree with it, when a place in government was a possibility and when the Browne Review was soon to report its findings.

We should have remained true to our party policy, but not through making pledges that would be virtually impossible to keep.  By doing that, we were storing up potential trouble for ourselves.  We could have maintained that while our ultimate objective is free tuition, we will support steps that improve upon Labour's discredited policy.  We could have worked towards a more progressive arrangement for HE tuition that we could openly acknowledge as far from perfect, and that inevitably would contain some Conservative proposals we could continue to be critical of.  We could have retained some credibility with such a strategy and could certainly have pointed to what we might like to do in future if the voters were kind enough to return a few more Lib Dem MPs.

Nick has apologised for making a pledge and not sticking to it.  He also stated that it's important to learn from mistakes and it's heartening that he stated that "I will never again make a pledge unless as a party we are absolutely clear about how we can keep it."  I like that.

Unfortunately, what Nick should also apologise for is not sacking the idiots that pass for PR consultants who thought that signing the pledge was a good idea.  He should also apologise for how insignificant the pledge was in the minds of the coalition negotiating team.  David Laws, in his book 22 Days in May, hardly mentions it other than to state his satisfaction that the new government should be able to implement something better than Labour's policy and the option for Lib Dem MPs to abstain in a vote on the matter.  He misses the point and spirit of the pledge entirely.  A pledge is a pledge is a pledge.  It's not like a party policy, which can be negotiated in certain circumstances.  It was a black and white promise to the electorate.  And that promise wasn't to abstain or to improve on Labour's policy.  It was to vote against any increase in tuition fees.  Perhaps if the negotiators had been aware of the degree to which we'd be held to our pledge, the outcome might have been very different.

So, while it was good to hear Nick apologise for not delivering on the pledge and even suggesting it was a mistake, I'd prefer an apology on the part of senior Lib Dems for treating the pledge with such contempt.  

I can't profess to understand Nick's reasons for making the apology, or how successful it will be in helping to turn around Nicks's (and our party's) fortunes. But I'm grateful he made the apology.  If only because that song is so hilarious.


Richard Thomas said...

I suppose in the Oscar Wilde sense, it is better being talked about than not being talked about and there's another two and a half years until the elections (unless the Tories decide to join in with a US/Israeli invasion of Iran) but like you I am uneasy with the content rather than the fact that an apology has been made. I rather suspect that it will enter folk myth over time and weaken him rather than the reverse. I hope I'm wrong.

Anonymous said...

an apology is an apology; so it's welcome. one eye (def; two ears) on the conference me thinks.

question, Andrew:

should -if situation arises- the liberal party enter another coalition come the 2015 result?

Chris B said...

The apology was a good thing; however, I couldn't vote for the Lib Dems whilst Nick remains leader. The apology doesn't change a thing - Nick should go or the party is going to get a kicking.