What Does Nick Do Now?

Resign? Even enthusiastic supporters of Nick Clegg such as Stephen Tall think the time is right for Nick Clegg to leave the Liberal Democrats. The position of Nick Clegg is a hindrance to the Liberal Democrats if they become king makers again after the 2015 general election.  The more gloomy Liberal Democrats, or the former ones in the case of Lord Oakeshott, believe that Nick Clegg is leading the party to oblivion at the next election.

But what would Nick Clegg’s resignation do to help the Liberal Democrats in their precarious position with the electorate? The evidence suggests very little. If Danny Alexander or Vince Cable were to lead the party, only modest gains would be seen.

Even though the message bearer may be hated by large numbers of the electorate, something much deeper lurks behind the amount of vitriol directed towards the Liberals.

Tony Blair has suggested that it may have something to do with the fact that before 2010 they were a progressive party. Now they are party supporting regressive policies instead.

Matthew Oakeshott believes similarly that the Liberal Democrats have betrayed their identity and values. Instead of being a radical progressive force in politics, Clegg has turned them into the bland centrists seeking to restrict the excesses of the left and right of the political spectrum. That is hardly a strategy that will appeal to the supporters of the party in the long term, let alone the rest of the electorate.

Both are right. The leader may be a problem but it is not the problem facing the Liberals. The problem is that they are associated with the Conservative coalition far too much. Many of those most angry with the Liberal Democrats are blaming this on the fact they were in a coalition with the Tories in the first place.

The Coalition , however, was a great opportunity to demonstrate that the Liberal Democrats had something positive to add to the governing of the country. The whole point of entering the coalition was to stick their middle finger at the label of being a protest party and to show that they are the radical alternative to both Labour and the Tories.

That has not worked out. A lot of this is down to the way Nick Clegg, and others at the top of the Liberal Democrats, have approached the coalition.

The Liberal Democrats have lost their way in the coalition. They forgot the original reason for being in the coalition. The Liberal Democrats had a wave of enthusiasm after the first election debate in 2010. That enthusiasm certainly wasn’t because they were deemed a moderating influence to either of the big two parties. Which is not the justification for the Liberal Democrats being in coalition in the first place.

In the early days of the coalition, Liberal Democrat and Tory cabinet ministers were almost like brothers. This was one of the first big mistakes the leadership undertook. It focussed its identity too much on the coalition, which would be inevitably dominated by the Conservative party, rather than on what it could contribute to British politics.

The next biggest error and the most fatal of all was to rise tuition fees. Whether the policy was right or wrong, it was absolutely abysmal politics. It alienated the student vote immediately. Why is this of concern? These students and graduates were potential long term voters of the Liberal Democrats which could act as base for them, just like the working classes for Labour and business leaders for the Tories.

Breaking an obligation in the way the Liberal Democrats certainly wasn’t a good advert for the new type of politics that they wanted to promote by being in government. It would have been much better to ensure the student pledge was in the coalition manifesto rather than having a referendum on a voting system no one in particular wanted.

Of coarse this is easy to say in hindsight. However, no one cares in politics. It is up to the leaders of the party to choose the right strategies from of the offset.

The Liberal Democrats have failed to achieve the change of culture in British politics. They have failed to accomplish the House of Lords reform. They have lead the way in being perceived as the most distrustful of all the political parties.

What have they accomplished?

The have reorganised the NHS which few of the general public wanted, which is a great way to gain support from the electorate I might add. They have supported the privatisation of the Royal Mail, another popular policy. They have managed to annoy the left and right, in a non-beneficial fashion.

They have though achieved one significant policy that actually is popular. Increasing the income tax threshold to £10,500 was a core Liberal Democrat policy that has been achieved in government. The trouble though is that the beneficiaries of this policy are the Conservatives.

All of this can be blamed upon Nick Clegg himself. He is the one who could have vetoed the unpopular, high-profile, radical policies that the coalition government have pursued. Instead he allowed them to pass through government.

The Liberal Democrats have encouraged a radical government, but not one that has been politically useful to them. It has been more useful for the Conservatives. Which is a major part of the problem. The Liberal Democrats are seen as propping up the Conservatives, not transforming the Conservatives.

Where they have tried implementing policies that could be considered liberal, they have been in general ones that could easily be attributed to the Tories. For example, free schools are enthusiastically supported by the likes of David Laws and Jeremy Browne but also by Michael Gove.

Ultimately, they are not really doing anything to say that you can be a centre-right, pro-market party and not be a bunch of bastards while being so. They are not making the government particularly caring to the poor. The Liberal Democrats are more enthusiastic for their support for the botched up welfare reform known as Universal Credit than the likes of David Cameron and George Osborne.

Being associated with dishonesty and incompetence is a brilliant way to advertise the new type of politics that the Liberal Democrats wanted to encourage when entering coalition.

Naturally, when in coalition you will try implement policies that your partner finds appealing. The trouble is that the policies that are distinguishable from the their partners have not been implemented or hijacked by the Tories.

The coalition has been abject failure for the Liberal Democrats quite simply because they have played their hand very poorly. This is because Nick Clegg has played his hand poorly.

Nick Clegg may have succeeded as a leader in the sense that he has been determined to keep the coalition going, that he has managed to keep discipline in the party for 4 years and that he has offered some counterbalance to the Tory right.

However, is overall strategy has failed magnificently. He got the coalition agreement wrong. He’s done the wrong things in coalition. He sent out the wrong message about the coalition. He has made the Lib Dems the party of compromise, not the party of principles. Which is a betrayal to what the Liberal Democrats stood for. In these senses he had been an appalling leader for the Liberal Democrats and these are what he is going to getting judged on.

This has meant that the message of the liberal Democrats is too moderating, too centrist. In 2010 they were the centre-left party. In 2012 they were the radical centre party. Now they are centre party. The change in the message is the sign of the failing of the Liberal Democrats in government.

So will Nick Clegg resigning do anything good for the party? Unless the Liberal Democrats want to change the message of the party between now and the election, then no benefit will be achieved. Changing the message isn’t even ideal. The coalition is now labouring away in its final year in government. Apart from giving the Tories the boundary reform they so need in exchange for House of Lords reform, there is nothing that a new leader could do.

The only other option is to leave the coalition now. Will this help in the grand scheme of things? No. To many Lib Dems MPs have voted for coalition policies, it would look opportunistic and hypocritical to change tune now. It also renders the question what were the last four years even about.

Also, the 2015 election results will mean that it will be difficult for the new leader to stamp any authority on the party in the long term. If you are going to have a temporary leader, why not just stick with Clegg?

In contrast, Nick Clegg would be put to the sword if he stayed and if the voting arithmetic is correct then the Lib Dems will have quite a few seat in which to build on. Allowing the new leader to stamp a long term vision for the party which is what the party needs to do.

As I have just argued, the message about the coalition is a reflection of how the Liberal Democrats have approached it. It is too late to change the approach now. Changing the message would be vacuous and the electorate would pick up on it.

There is also the danger that Clegg resigning could cause a rife on infighting in the party causing it to implode on itself. The party is already facing a trip to the executioners. The last thing they need to do is hang themselves before they face the executioners. For they will not fail to hang themselves, but the executioners may throw the stones at them and miss.

As there is no other personality in the party that could change the parties fortunes, it is better for Clegg to stay and resign either immediately before or after the General Election campaign in 2015.

Immediately before if the party feel they need someone else to lead the party if a possibility exists that the Liberal Democrats have a chance of being in another coalition. Though this would be far from ideal as it would be obvious that the change of leadership would be for that eventuality.

Resigning after the General Election is far more ideal. It is more probable that neither the Tories nor Labour would want to enter government with such an unpopular party in the first place, even if it meant governing as a minority government. Apart from Labour allying with the Lib Dems to stop a potential Tory-UKIP coalition, an unlikely scenario if Farage and Cameron are to be believed,  the Liberal Democrats should not place to much hope that they will remain a party of government after 2015.

After 2015 will be the reflecting period in which we will find out what in the long term the Liberal Democrats will identify themselves. Will the party split with social liberals joining Labour or the Greens and the economic liberals joining the Conservatives? Or, will a message drawing from the experiences and travails of government influence a more practical form of idealism? Clegg may play a part in the process but someone else will be needed to articulate and form this vision. Someone detached enough from the coalition to not be “corrupted” by it, but someone close enough to learn from it.

The question is, does such a person exist?

NOTE: It looks like either Nick Clegg or Vince Cable will have to resign to ensure that the party doesn’t implode on itself after the latest reports from the Guardian. Given that Vince Cable has not shown the ruthlessness to wield the knife, it pretty much means he will have to resign in my opinion. He will not have much credibility if he managed to become leader now. His presence would simply undermine Clegg from now on. Cable should have taken the opportunity while he had a chance. I would prefer Cable over Clegg.

The one thing that is guaranteed is that blood will be spilt. In the long term, I think we can say Tim Farron will be the next leader of the Liberal Democrats for definite.

Gareth Mawer
I consider myself a left libertarian committed to promoting the philosophy of liberty, even though I do not always support proposals that are normally considered libertarian. Georgism and mutualism have had profound influences over my beliefs, though I'm not afraid to digress from them were necessary. My mains interests are politics, economics and philosophy.