Some thoughts on Nick Clegg’s conference speech

I wasn’t at conference this year, for the first time since joining the Liberal Democrats.

Holding a conference in Brighton isn’t good for Scottish members, which is presumably why the party have decided to host the 2013 Spring Conference there too. 

Watching conference on television is actually quite a surreal experience.  It lacks the authenticity and the drama, even when the membership gives the leadership its customary defeat on a key issue.  I felt quite disconnected from events.  When it comes to the leader’s speech, this detachment can be useful.  Rather than being taken along with the mood in the hall, it was easier to consider what Clegg was actually saying and to consider the political implications.

My first impression of the speech was that it wasn’t one of Nick Clegg’s best.  In fact, I thought it quite poor.  That is not to say that it did not contain much of what was sensible, because it did.  But it was not inspiring and, more importantly, I fear it is almost certain to fail in its principal objectives.

He began by referring to the summer of sport Britain has enjoyed and in particular the achievements of British athletes in the Olympic Games.  He said that Britain “remembered how it feels to win again”.  I agree that the Games allowed the nation a chance to feel good about itself again, something that Clegg certainly wasn’t going to allow his speech to do.  I imagined that the purpose of this reference to sporting success was to introduce his audience to the theme of winning, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Clegg contrasted this summer with last; one of a country united in support of its sporting heroes with one of a nation divided, its cities ravaged by violent rioting.  Clegg made a great deal of the example of Maurice Reeves, the 81-year old whose furniture business was famously destroyed by rioters in Croydon.  That business is now reopened, something Clegg considered the product of “effort, perseverance [and] resilience”.  The political lesson was obvious, but I don’t accept the parallel.  Maurice Reeves commanded the goodwill and support of his community, without which he would in all likelihood have been unable to rebuild his business.  The same is true of the Liberal Democrats.  Effort and perseverance alone will simply make us look stubborn.  If we are to be revived, we must again command the respect and goodwill of the voters. 

After this, Clegg was keen to talk about “tough times”.  In fact it was all he wanted to talk about.  These tough times affect both the country and the party, whose respective journeys were inextricably linked.  He was keen to remind conference of the “gargantuan task of building a new economy from the rubble of the old” and the costs of not rising to this challenge.  “Our influence in the world, our standard of living, our ability to fund our public services and maintain our culture of openness and tolerance – all are in the balance. For power would move not only away from the liberal and democratic world, but within it too; from moderates to hard liners, from internationalists to isolationists, from those committed to the politics of cooperation to those hell-bent on confrontation. If history has taught us anything, it is that extremists thrive in tough times.”  He spoke of the human cost to society’s most vulnerable.

What was interesting is that Clegg places economic rescue as the means by which the poor can be helped.  Once the economy is saved, so the logic seems to suggest, then can we make a better and fairer society.   I for one do not buy into that logic.  Clearly living standards and the economy are undeniably interlinked, but there is so much more that can and should be done irrespective of slow economic growth.  Clegg did turn on critics of the government’s economic policy (and there were several of them in the hall), defending Osborne’s so-called Plan A: “Let’s not allow the caricature of what we are doing go unchallenged. If Plan A really was as rigid and dogmatic as our critics claim, I’d be demanding a Plan B, and getting Danny and Vince to design it. But it isn’t.”  Perhaps.  What Clegg perhaps doesn’t realise it’s not the rigidity and dogma of Osborne’s plans that its critics have trouble with.  It’s the fact that it was based on a flawed prediction of Eurozone growth and isn’t actually working.

Whether the economic plan actually works or not seemed irrelevant to Nick Clegg.  It doesn’t feature in his thinking at all.  “Arguments about economic theory are of no interest to the millions of people just struggling to get by right now” he insisted, which may be true.  But what those arguments mean in practice certainly are of interest. They affect virtually every facet of our lives. 

Clegg cannot be accused of lacking vision: “So let us take the lead in building a new economy for the new century. An open, outward looking economy in the world’s biggest single market. A strong, balanced economy built on productive investment, not debt-fuelled consumption. An innovative, inventive economy driven by advances in science and research. And yes, a clean, green economy too, powered by the new low-carbon technologies. Britain leading the world.”  He also spoke passionately about the emerging green economy and its possibilities.  How can all this be achieved, though?  I would argue it cannot be done by continuing with the current flawed economic plan.

He then got to his real message: that as a serious party of government we should resist the temptation of easy protest.  “If voters want a party of opposition – a ‘stop the world I want to get off’ party – they’ve got plenty of options, but we are not one of them” he declared, wisely avoiding the reference to Labour he had made to journalists in the morning.  He clearly has little time for what the party, in his ungenerous view, once was.  “The past is gone” he announced, before stating that he is bringing back Paddy Ashdown to spearhead the 2015 election campaign.  What I feel Clegg might not fully understand is that the Liberal Democrat vote, to a great extent even now, is dependent on the support of those simply dissatisfied with the two other principal parties.  Does he understand why people vote Liberal Democrat?  It seems not, and there was very little in this speech to appeal to voters. 

It is positive to think in terms of our being “not [a] third party, but as one of three parties of government”; however, it avoids a crucial and inconvenient truth.  Our being in government depends on the two larger parties not having a majority and for the electoral arithmetic to provide us with sufficient seats to make the difference.  That peculiar state of affairs cannot be designed.  Unless this outcome becomes a regular feature of British elections, the inescapable truth is that we will remain a third party for the foreseeable future (even if Nigel Farage has other ideas).

Clegg seems to think that the only option for the Liberal Democrats is to be either a party of government or a party of protest.  This is simplistic nonsense.  As Willie Rennie explained in his speech, it is perfectly feasible for minor parties to work constructively with those in government to achieve key objectives.  Clegg’s 2-dimensional logic is both unimaginative and somewhat disturbing. 

He also believes that staying the course as far as the economic policy is concerned is the only way for party recovery.  Over a year ago, I wrote a piece on the need for a liberal renaissance as a means of revitalising and rebuilding the party.  Central to that is a need to reconnect, to develop a philosophically liberal identity, to concentrate on grassroots and communities, to champion a liberalism that is attractive to the public.  What it does not necessarily involve is adherence to an economic strategy that is not only unpopular but not delivering.  In Clegg’s mind the success of the party is linked to the economy, just as the economy is linked to the success of the party.

The picture, as ever, is more complex than this.  The success of the party is actually linked to the public perception of us and our leaders.  It is dependent on public trust and respect.  While the leader may want to believe that ultimately we will be judged on whether we help forge an economic recovery, the voters in all likelihood have different criteria.  They will judge us on tuition fees, on the NHS, on public services.  They will judge us on whether they think we are honest.  While economic credibility is undoubtedly important, so is political credibility – and, in Clegg’s case, personal credibility. 

This strategy seems based on forecasts of modest and tentative growth in the coming two years. Clegg hopes to convince voters that, with slow but sure signs of improvement, it would be wrong to trust Labour with the economy in 2015.  This might actually work, but he needs to find more effective ways of putting across his message.  In his speech he asked “are you ready to trust Labour with your money again? And do you really think the Tories will make Britain fairer?”  which sounded like a suggestion that the Tories can be trusted on the economy and Labour with the delivery of a fair society.

No doubt Clegg wants to be judged on the economy, which is why he has now pinned everything on economic recovery.  He hopes that voters will reserve their collective judgment until 2015 and vote according to the state of the economy and the Liberal Democrat role in facilitating recovery.  It’s a flawed logic on so many levels, not least because it’s very unlikely that the electorate will be compliant with his request.  Why should it?  Judgments have already been made, judgments that will require more than an upturn in the economy to be overturned.

What is true is that our party’s fortunes are linked with the leader’s public standing.  Should the economy improve, it is not certain that Clegg himself, or the Liberal Democrats, would necessarily reap the political benefits.  I for one am very uncomfortable with our leader openly hedging all his bets with Chancellor Osborne’s economic plan. 

This was a policy-light speech, almost reminiscent of the speeches David Steel used to give: short on policy detail, strong on broad, sweeping descriptions of future possibilities. The main difference is that Steel could inject some positivity into his rhetoric.  Clegg’s gloomy economic message gave very little for either conference delegates or voters to be remotely positive about. 

There were only two policy details.  The first was a refusal to lower the top rate of income tax, which was not much of an announcement.  The second was the proposal for a “catch-up premium” which sounded interesting, although I have several questions about how it would work in practice and whether £500 is anything like sufficient to provide for the additional support necessary to make it a success. 

What Nick Clegg didn’t address directly is the important question: what are the Liberal Democrats for?  Even in coalition, our primary objective is not economic recovery but to provide good government.  It should be that by which we are judged.  If we are providing that good government then we should stay the course; if we find we are being undermined at every corner and being frustrated in the task to provide it then decisions previously made may be worth revisiting.  An improving economy is not our main aim, but a mere by-product of it.  It is that commitment to good government that Clegg should have tied the party’s fortunes to, not a hoped-for economic revival that may never arrive.

The best moment in the speech was Clegg's invoking the spirits of two former leaders: " I see generations of Liberals marching towards the sound of gunfire.  And yes, I see them going back to their constituencies to prepare for government."  As fellow Lib Dem Allan Heron observed, it's as well he didn't mix the two quotations.  "Go back to your constituencies and prepare for gunfire" may be more accurate, but doesn't quite have the same ring to it. 


Dan Falchikov said…
Great post. I argued similarly - but obviously not so eloquently...
Gerry said…
Views I can echo. Clegg like most of the leadership do not realise what it will take to regain belief in the party again.

I like how you write not just with your heart but your brain. Currently I can only write with my heart. Hope my brain returns one day.