Nick Clegg: when dreams turn to nightmares

A guest post by Chris Hurst

A year on from the 2010 General Election Nick Clegg must own up to one fact: the peculiar slump in Liberal Democrats’ support is Clegg’s responsibility alone – his Party may not be able to tolerate his market liberalism for much longer.

‘I must be the only politician in the space of a week to go from Churchill to a Nazi’, Nick Clegg joked during the General Election campaign as he attempted to shrug off right wing smears from the Tory press. Now the tables are turned and the vitriol is supplied by the left. To quote contestants of reality TV, for Nick Clegg it has been a ‘journey’.

So what accounts for Clegg voyage into notoriety? And why is it that the Liberal Democrats have singularly taken the hit of public anger over the direction of the Coalition Government?

Clearly Nick Clegg has not helped himself. A series of policy u-turns has diminished the Party’s credibility as the torch-bearers of new politics. In May, he stood as the candidate who would defy the political establishment and the ‘two old Parties’. Now he stands as the archetypal Westminster insider.

By forming an unlikely coalition with his Party’s great enemy, Clegg was always going to risk antagonizing the social liberal wing of the Liberal Democrats. For decades, polling has suggested Lib Dem Party members overwhelmingly describe themselves as left of centre. Despite these facts, some of Clegg’s supporters claim the membership is fully supportive of the government. They point to the unanimous endorsement given to the coalition agreement at a specially convened Party gathering on May 16th last year.

However, Party members were effectively coerced into supporting an arrangement which had already been formed five days previously. Top Liberal Democrats had already been sworn in as cabinet members and Clegg had been made Deputy Prime Minister. The so-called ‘triple-lock’, requiring the leader to seek agreement from the wider Party, had already been prised open.

The seeds of betrayal had been set in motion.

Still, back in May 2010, Clegg’s personal popularity remained high. Despite his Party’s seeming failure at the ballot box where they lost five seats – thanks in large part to a lethargic last week of campaigning – the Lib Dems actually increased their share of the vote by 1% and 800,000 voters. Clegg himself had enjoyed a comprehensive victory in his own constituency of Sheffield Hallam. He holds a majority of over 15,000. It is hard to believe, but in May Conservative commentator Nile Gardiner claimed Clegg was ‘beyond doubt the most left-wing major UK politician in a generation’.

But almost from the moment the Coalition was formed the Liberal Democrats began to lose support. Their leader could have been excused for his calm response to this development. People needed time to get used to the idea of Party’s cooperating in the national interest. A similar dip in the polls occurred after the 2005 election, shortly after Charles Kennedy had led the Party to its best results in over 80 years.

Labour’s accusations of Lib Dem betrayal rang hollow. After all, the Labour party had presided over a period which saw the 10p tax band scrapped and the war in Iraq. Labour was leaderless and directionless, wavering between the liberal Ed Miliband and his Blairite brother, David.

The warning signs for left liberals were there though. Starting with the Lib Dem volte-face over VAT, the Coalition agreement was about to undermine what it had meant to be a Liberal Democrats for over a decade and arguably for much of the twentieth century.

The only Party to remain opposed to nuclear power caved in when in August the Environment Cabinet minister, Chris Huhne, agreed to a new wave of nuclear stations, provided they were not financed by government. His claim that his position on nuclear power has ‘always been much misunderstood’ looked laughable when contrasted with his 2006 statement:Not only does nuclear cause a great threat to the environment through the large amounts of waste produced, but it is also economically unviable’.

Huhne’s new enthusiasm for nuclear power – now tested by the disaster at Fukushima – and his insistence that he had not changed his mind over the issue goes to the very heart of Lib Dem problems. Rather than accept that they are having to support Conservative policies they actually oppose, Clegg and his Lib Dem cabinet colleges adopted a policy of total unity with David Cameron’s Tory agenda. Clegg adamantly resisted ‘artificial rows’ with the Conservative leader.

It is this approach which has severely damaged Nick Clegg and led to the accusation he is a turncoat. The criticism of backbench tuition fee rebel Greg Mulholland – that Clegg ‘has done a very good job as Deputy Prime Minister but he also needs to show that he remains the right person to get out and communicate with our members’ – is gaining support among the grassroots. Certainly Mulhollnad underlines a growing concern within the Liberal Democrats at Clegg’s neglect of his party in pursuit of government goals.

The entire tuition fee debate is a vivid example of Clegg’s double standards. It was no secret that Clegg and fellow Orange Book liberals like David Laws had long sought to abolish the Party’s policy on fees – only for the Party members to force it upon them. Their compromise position to abolish fees over six years should have ended the conflict. The Party willingly trumpeted their opposition to University fees at the General Election; and the dreaded pledge committed candidates to a very public promise. It helped the Party hold on to their seats in University towns such as Cambridge, Cardiff, Bristol, Edinburgh, Manchester, Leeds, and fuelled Clegg’s massive win in Sheffield.

Clegg went back on his word. The unapologetic way he went about selling his u-turn – his insistence that the rise was fair and progressive – has greatly contributed to the public’s loss of trust in the man. Once a political identity is established, it becomes almost impossible to change it.

Left-wing Liberal Democrats should worry. Clegg has surrounded himself with a band of fellow travellers of the market liberal wing of his party who claim that much public anger is merely down to a failure of communication – but his problems as a politician go much deeper.

At the General Election Clegg promised, above all, a new brand of politics – one with ‘no more broken promises’. His performance during the Prime Ministerial TV debates, as he looked into the camera with puppy-dog eyes, had convinced viewers that there could be a new way of doing things if only the Liberal Democrats were in charge. The two old Parties have let you down. Yet in office Clegg has proven to be the epitome of old politics. The Coalition deal was extremely undemocratic: proposals on education, the NHS, the rise in VAT and the rate and savagery of spending cuts were never put to the electorate. No wonder there is a growing sense that this government has no mandate.

The feeling Clegg has betrayed his voters is understandable. Long-surviving and loyal Party members have resigned on principle and the Liberal Democrats have taken a huge hit in the opinion polls. Interestingly the Conservatives have not. But the issues on which the Conservative Party have had to compromise do not strike at the heart of what it is to be a Conservative voter. Yes, for the likes of the Daily Mail, there is disappointment they will not scrap the Human Rights Act, an inheritance tax cut will not be introduced and capital gains tax has risen. But these compromises do not threaten fundamental tax-and-spend policies which go to the core of Tory thinking. The Government is successfully going about dismantling the state throughout the public sector and freeing up private enterprise much as it promised.

For the Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, the story is very different. Its electoral success over the last decade has rested very much on its appearance as the conscience of the Labour Party. It was the Lib Dems who first fought the battle for increased investment in public service with its 1p in the pound tax policy under Paddy Ashdown. The Party’s drift leftwards was underscored by Charles Kennedy – whose leadership opposed the Blair government’s increasing attempts to privatize higher education; advocated raising the top rate of income tax to 50p; and bravely opposed the Iraq War.

Being asked to compromise on much-cherished policies on public services, tuition fees and nuclear power undermines the Party’s identity.

In the end, Clegg has always wanted to move the Party rightwards. He was a notable contributor to the Orange Book which stressed market oriented solutions for the public sector. He commented at the Hay festival in 2010, ‘I am not a man of the left, I am a liberal’ – as if the two were mutually exclusive. He is also one of few Party leaders to shun support from the left: ‘The Lib Dems never were and aren’t a receptacle for left-wing dissatisfaction with the Labour Party. There is no future for that; there never was.

Soon, he may find out there is no future for the Party to Labour’s right either.

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