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Happy anniversary Nick Clegg?

1:16 pm - December 21st 2009

by Darrell Goodliffe    

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Nick Clegg celebrated his second anniversary as Liberal Democrat leader on the 18th of December. It was an occasion barely marked in the wider press which is probably a little strange given recent opinion polls have at least pointed to the possibility of a hung-parliament and thus increased Clegg’s potential relevance as a kingmaker.

So, what state does the third party find itself in?

In the polls the Liberal Democrats are hovering around the 20% mark but that barely tells the story of a year that has seen some problems most notably over our ‘narrative’ and policy wrangles like the one over tuition fees which brought Clegg into direct conflict with the leading policy making body; the Federal Policy Committee.

It was a conflict that Clegg lost eventually although he did win the concession that fees will be ‘phased-out’ over 6 years.

Clegg’s ambition is outlined in his pamphlet The Liberal Moment in which he argues the time is neigh for the Lib Dems to overtake Labour. However, in my experience there is no evidence that this collapse is anything more than cyclical disillusionment with a government that has been in power for a long time.

In The Liberal Moment, Clegg’s critique of Labour is clumsy and rings far from true. For example, he says its failure is due to its ‘statism’. However, Clegg in his own pamphlet outlines several things that the state should do, like financial regulation and breaking up the banks (things he criticises Labour for not doing) and things like the Green New Deal are predicated on precisely the ‘relentless states activism’ that Clegg criticises.

Liberalism thinks the state can make capitalism just a little ‘fairer’ which is pretty much what New Labour thought. However, Clegg observes;

It is clear to any impartial observer that across health, education, housing, taxes, benefits and crime, even after 12 years of Labour government, Britain remains marked by social division.

So, instead of critiquing New Labour’s approach (which was to ignore the question of structural inequalities) Clegg wants to do the same and some of his prescriptions are not bad; the Liberal Democrat emphasis on redistributive taxation including cutting the burden for those lower down the scale is a good one.

However, the implication of this is one Clegg urgently needs to realise; we are in spirit and policy much closer to Labour than we are the Conservatives. Even he is forced to include Labour in the bracket of the ‘progressive’ parties but descends into metaphysics saying variously it has lost ‘its soul’ and is a ‘husk’.

I have seen for myself in Leeds what happens when we drift closer to the Conservatives. ‘Fairness’ in the case of striking bin-men became a steadfast refusal to listen to their case; letters to the local paper insulting the strikers character, calling them ‘pathetic’ and finally, the exclusion of myself from an internal discussion list for daring to say that this wasn’t on.

If the party is to orientate itself correctly in Clegg’s third and possibly crucial year then it will need to drop allot of the verbiage and contradictory ideas present in The Liberal Moment and realise that its realisation will not come through trying to supplant Labour but will come in some kind of progressive partnership against a Conservative Party that is resurgent but ultimately has changed very little.

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About the author
Darrell Goodliffe is regular contributor and writes for several blogs including his own: Moments of Clarity.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Equality ,Libdems ,Westminster

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Reader comments

Whose Nick Clegg?

2. Alisdair Cameron

Even he is forced to include Labour in the bracket of the ‘progressive’ parties but descends into metaphysics saying variously it has lost ‘its soul’ and is a ‘husk’.

That isn’t metaphysics, but the plain truth: Labour as a party may lay claim to being ‘progressive’ (weasel-word, meaning whatever you choose it to mean…) but was eviscerated by the entryists of new Labour, who still hold the reins. Shame that the Orange Book-ers did much the same to the LibDems. Progress does not = free-market solutions applied everywhere…

Judging by the article it would be the Nick Clegg belonging to the Lib Dems.

5. gastro george

Clegg’s problem is that he is a low-tax liberal and that moment has past. His emphasis on “me-too” policies just fails to differentiate – why vote for yet another set of the same policies when the Tories or Labour would do the same. At a time ripe for differentiation (big investment in green industries, in fact any kind of investment in manufacturing …) he fails to make his mark.


Well I am not denying that; the thing is however, Clegg’s methodology leads him to talk in such a way because for him class and other such material unmentionables dont exist.


LOL!!! Seriously though it’s no wonder nobody knows who Clegg is; he gets mentioned in the media much less than the party…..

It was an occasion barely marked in the wider press…

A fitting tribute…

From the outside, it looks like the LibDems are such a melting pot of Social Liberals/Democrats/Libertarians that the Cleggmeister isn’t quite sure who or what to be.


Your right and Clegg partially recognises this when he says that the liberal view of the state did not fit the post-1914 situation of ‘total war’. What he airbrushed from history was the social democratic settlement which rendered it a historical curiosity.

We did have the ‘Green New Deal’ but that has since vanished in a puff of smoke; something that is typical of Clegg’s leadership…..

Ben Six,

To be honest your totally correct in that preception. Clegg tries to cover all the bases and this is why his world view is so inconsistent….

9. gastro george

Clegg’s “slash and burn public expenditure” headlines were tragic – sublime in their bad timing, and that policy, too, seems to have vanished in a puff of smoke.

With the banking crisis, given Cable’s good standing with the public, the Tories nonsensical policies and Labour being up to their ears in culpability, he’s had a prime opportunity to stake out some clear sensible policies. And what have we heard … anything?

I’m fascinated to see so many people on a website named LIBERAL Conspiracy giving the Lib Dems a kicking.

The Liberalism which enabled the birth of Industrial Revolution through the exertions of the non-conformist craftsmen, is relevant today. Whereas the monarch and the Tories used patronage such as granting titles and pensions; Labour now appoint their followers to quangos and other similar organsaitions.
The various livings granted to Tory minded clergy of the Church of England in he 17-19 centuries have been replaced by Labour voting white collar types being employed by the State. It used to be case that a clergyman could be appointed to several livings and receive a considerable income. Nowadays people may make a comfortable livings by either becoming a politician or by receiving
appointments to more than one quango.

Where previously the clergy lectured the working class on their morals from the comfort of a living, funded by tithes, we now have the working class lectured by politicians, teachers, academics and civil servants funded by taxes. Charles the II could probably have learnt much from Labour’s expert use of patronage to further it’s aims.

You’re easily fascinated Richard.

I’m fascinated to see so many people on a website named LIBERAL Conspiracy giving the Lib Dems a kicking.

Disingenuous bastards, indeed, but not alone in their squalor. Just the other day I went to the Conservative Future website, to find that – blow me down! – they were talking about the Conservative present.


Agreed but I think in this instance the vanishing act was definatly a positive one.

I think some good ideas have been forthcoming (like the redistribution of tax burden) however they have rather been hampered in their effectiveness by poor communication and the puff of smoke problem…..


And the problem with that is? I’m a Lib Dem myself… i not allowed to ‘kick the party’? Is anybody who calls themselves a liberal (incidentally, id avoid that classification myself) not allowed too? That’s not very ‘liberal’ of you at all 🙂


How is it?

The allegory between the 17th c state and the modern day doesnt really stand-up to scrutiny not least because the state (rightly and correctly) provides more…..

I think that Clegg’s inability thus far to assert his presence is consistent with earlier Liberal/LibDem leadership appointments. Past leaders have only attained popular recognition during their first general election in that role. A possible exception is Paddy Ashdown, who had the benefit of an interesting history, rather than just being a professional politician/researcher/ex-journalist.

I confess that I have never regarded opposition to university tuition fees as a distinctly liberal concern. There is an argument that education should be a right not a privilege, but somebody has to pay for that education. The focus on a single aspect of education distracts from the broader questions about access and funding, and has stifled debate about other forms of continuing education. Perhaps in a few years, the UK will be more willing to discuss whether the three/four year hot house of university from the age of 18 years is the most appropriate way to teach adults.

With regard to overtaking Labour, I agree that is an over optimistic scenario. And if it was achieved on the back of a statist manifesto (or statist local campaigns), it would not be a positive outcome. What is the point of replacing New Labour MPs by think-alike LibDems? I want the LibDems and Labour to elect small L liberal MPs. I’m told that there are even a few who might qualify for the liberal description in the Conservative party, but it doesn’t appear to be the time for them to hold up their heads.

Somewhere in Charlie2’s words, there is a point. 19th century Liberals did not deliver reform of the civil service, the armed forces and education by patronage. They attacked it, and likewise we should be despatching quangos, unrepresentative police authorities, development agencies etc. Government by elected representatives, not appointees.

The non-conformist (and I agree, patrician) industrialists are worth a re-evaluation too. They sought a better life for their workers and attempted to use some illiberal measures to deliver it (eg alcohol free districts). But they didn’t despise the working class, which is a common sentiment today. “Smelly people on buses”, is an expression that I have frequently heard.

The ban on school junk food advocated by Jamie Oliver is a modern patrician measure, well intended, but missing the points about poor parenthood, poverty and non-education. Remember that the non-conformists addressed at least some of those: they paid for schools and for social support organisations, they changed the laws about adulteration of food. They didn’t fly into an area for a fortnight with a set of lessons, then back to business.

But it is the current contempt for the working class that worries me most. The disconnectedness and lack of empathy.


I agree that part of the problem Clegg has to do is with his presence. I think there is also a specific problem that he is somewhat overshadowed by Vince.

I disagree there; to me its a question of access and obviously fees are going to be a barrier to those from less advantaged backgrounds. I accept there are other issues but I find it a bit nonsensical to deny this one.

Again we are going to have to disagree. The logic of wanting to replace Labour is embracing ‘statism’ to the point of recognising the social democratic settlement. As Clegg says the Liberal view of the state simply doesnt fit the reality of a Britain which was radically changed by the above and the tension within the Lib Dems is in some ways a reflection of its inability to move beyond the liberal view of the state….

On the point about the Libdems overtaking Labour, we will see soon enough, there was 13% between the 2 parties in 2005, what do you think it will be this time?
There is no contradiction between political competition & being open to co-operation. The Labour leadership must know perfectly the price of Liberal support : fair taxes, green jobs, rolling back the surveillance state & democratic reform. What Labour want, except to cling on to power, I have no idea.

@17 Darrell: “The logic of wanting to replace Labour is embracing ’statism’ to the point of recognising the social democratic settlement.”

Clarification about my argument. I don’t think that it is possible to overtake Labour at the next election; I merely wish that LibDems do not use statist arguments to win Labour seats. Just as I would not wish to use conservative arguments to win Conservative seats.

My preferences are biased; but not such that I would ignore a liberal Labour candidate who could win.

At another time, perhaps we might debate FE/HE and funding. I agree, not this thread.


They attacked elites in the name of replacing them with their own to be honest. I dont share your faith in historic Liberalism as a friend and ally of the working class. Yes they did dismantle some elites but they were inconsistent.

All of this sounds a bit like the ‘Big Society’ to me which sometimes sounds so nice in rhetoric sometimes but in practice means more inequality and more attacks on the working class.

One of the reasons for this is that all the things you talk about hark back to an age long gone and as such the solutions dont fit now; it’s a bit like trying to push a square peg through a round hole…..I agree that this contempt is worrying and wrong but we have to recognise that culturally this is a product of Thatcherism and New Labourism.


About the same. Labour are already climbing in the polls and will rise as the election campaign enters its more fierce phase; especially if they are able to stoke the flames of fear about the Tories which are obviously present and are evident even in ‘stunning’ by-election victories like the one in Norwich North.

There is…its pure and simple a fact, we will not cooperate while we think we can ‘supplant’ and Labour wont with a party whose stated aim is the same thing. I agree thats what they want and if that is at stake and the Labour left argue with us then they will probably pay that price to keep it. Well some of it at least.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives are ideologically opposed to every item on your shopping list….so what is the point of even considering them?


Thanks for the clarification :). I agree. That is fair enough but what do you want them to do then?

Even a ‘liberal Labour’ candidate would accept an element of statism so how would you define one?

Agreed, this thread isnt the place; I look forward to it 🙂

@20 Darrell, I don’t consider faith in historical Liberalism to be a fetishism, I’m just asking questions. However as we enter 2010, what have we got from them: state pensions, state education, an independent Irish Republic (eventually), the NHS, unemployment benefits (an aside), “equal opportunities” in 1880-ish in the civil services?

Nor do I wish to repeat liberal failures, or deny social democrat successes. For much of this journey, we are sharing the same ship.


Fair enough. I think we got alot of those things when liberals recognised the transformative power of the state within society and that the state was the only organ capable of dealivering these things on the scale necessary….it took social democrats to excute these changes or else realise there full potential precsiely because they already recognised this and they merged it into their vision for ‘socialism’……I think to be honest, the question of the role of the state is one of the defining problems of liberal politics. Its something that Clegg recognises but doesnt solve at all….

On that point I can agree with you; especially since social democracy has lost its will to radically reshape society and try and find a way to socialism….

Darrell, great write up!

I was discussing the Lib Dems with a LD activist the other day and he agreed with my impression of the Lib Dems as a coalition between social and economic liberals. When I suggested that the best thing the Lib Dems could do is finally choose between these two ideologies, he said in principle he agreed but that “it would tear the party apart”. We then spoke about the main strand of Lib Dem policy that actually unites the two wings of the party, civil liberties and human rights – and we both wondered why the Lib Dems didn’t highlight this more as it’s a real vote winner among the kind of people who will soon be going back to Labour.

If the Lib Dems do not decide between social and economic liberalism, two ideologies which take them down two different routes, then they will forever be seen as a party where people join/vote for not out of a massive desire for liberal democracy but because they cannot stomach the illiberal excesses of Labour or the Tories.

Simply put, Labour if it swung to the left a bit and dropped all the “anti-terror”/ID cards bollocks it could encompass everything the social liberals want, and if the Tories swung to the left a bit and dropped some of their weirdo issues they could encompass everything the economic liberals want.

I am concerned that the division of Labour and the Lib Dems is more a historical accident than any massive concern over values. The values are the same. I am not suggesting they become one party, although this would make more sense than the status quo. But you will have to start offering the people something really distinct from the core values of Labour social democracy, and really distinct from Tory neoliberal economics. It is this lack of distinct value identity & coherence that has got you into trouble in places like Leeds, I would wager.

A third party is only ever going to be a protest vote party with limited voter identification (how many people, when canvassing, have you spoken to who have described themselves as “a Labour voter” or “a Tory voter” as opposed to “a Lib Dem voter”?) if it cannot define itself as truly unique from the main two parties. Why would people vote for a third party which is a mixture of centre left and centre right, when you have the main centre left party already so close to the centre, and the main centre right party trying to look like it is close to the centre?

I think there are two options for the Lib Dems going into the next election cycle:

1) Have its social liberal wing produce a political pamphlet clearly demarcating social liberal politics from both the economic liberal wing and Labour social democracy, using policy examples; and then build support within the party through a left-wing Party President candidate and leadership candidate (whenever the latter happens…) for social liberal politics, with the stated aim of moving the party thoroughly to the left of where Labour is.

2) Have the social liberals join Labour, and the economic liberals join the Tories (or in some cases the barking Libertarian Party).

Staying on the soggy centre ground trying to please everyone is simply not going to work, either for Clegg within the party or for the party itself towards the country.

My concern with option 1 is that even if you move the party to the left of where Labour is at the moment, as was the case in 2005 although not because of ideology but out of protest against two policy issues, if Labour themselves move to the left in opposition then the social liberals will either have to define themselves as ideologically to the left of Labour rather than just in policy issues; or they will end up occupying the same ground. Which might lead to option 2. Or it could mean a coalition with Labour at the next general election to fight the Tories, which might be easier as Labour will not be so unpopular then.

Don’t get me wrong. I see the problems of two-party systems everyday when I read the shit the Democrats are in across the pond. However if we are to have a three-party system then the third party has to offer something genuinely positive and distinct that cannot be offered by the main two parties: it cannot simply be a protest vote when the other two aren’t liberal enough.


Thanks :).

I think your activist friend is right; it would tear the party apart and there would be some natural ‘shedding’ of either the left to Labour or right to the Conservatives. I think your right especially about civil liberties. Human rights is a bit more tricky because the leadership doesnt like pushing it too hard because it could potentially lead us into tricky areas like votes for prisoners (which I support but I accept this probably isnt very voter-friendly)

Again, agreed, this is especially true if a hung-parliament situation was to arise.
I think the greater liklihood is Labour swinging a little to the left following the next election; the Conservative right tends to feed off being in power and the Labour left being in opposition. I dont think this will be dramatic as some people expect but it definatly will happen I feel.

Again agreed, it does owe alot to a history that is now lacking in relevance for many reasons. It is because initially, I asked not even that the unions be given our unconditional support but calling for consideration of their position and this was enough to upset the frail group identity that exists in Leeds.

Agreed lol. With regard to option one we have a social liberal wing in the form of the Social Liberal Forum. However, it seems not to be doing anything and this is a shame.,…..It is also hampered by the fact it wants to be seen as nice and ‘supportive’ of the leadership and not at all factional in the way you suggest it be, in this its leagues behind the likes of Compass and the Fabians. However, the problem with the Labour left is there is too many organisations that occupy the same pieces of turf.

Option 2 may well be what results from a hung-parliament. Agreed, thanks for the comment 🙂

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