And the real winner of yesterday’s budget is…Nick Clegg

by Peter Watt

For many in the Labour party one of the few pleasures of opposition has been that they have been able to indulge in a much loved pastime – Lib Dem hating.  It is a visceral thing that stems from the scars of countless bloody local election battles.  “They don’t fight fair and once you’ve got them they’re bloody hard to get rid of,” as one hardened Labour activist from a marginal seat said to me a few weeks ago.  Their ranks are seen by many in Labour as a cynical but ragbag mix of the politically directionless, the anarchic and a sizeable chunk that are basically Labour or should be.  Oh, and of course the odd orange Tory!   Lib Dem politics is dismissed as opportunistic as opposed to Labour’s politics of principled idealism.

So the anger and betrayal was very real for many on the left when Clegg took the Tory shilling.  Indeed according to the polls, many formerly Lib Dem voters felt the same as they quickly switched to Labour.  Clegg went from hero-to-zero in weeks as he became Cameron’s Poodle and was widely ridiculed for having sold out his and his Parties principles for a stint in a Ministerial car.  My particular favourite Calamity Clegg joke is:

“Q. What does Nick Clegg stand for?

“A. When David Cameron walks in the room.”

It may be cruel but it sums up the view of Labour party activists across the country.  And to be fair, he did seem pretty determined to confirm this view as he was outmanoeuvred on the AV referendum and then clumsily supported the increasing of tuition fees allowing himself to be branded a hypocrite.

His party’s polling numbers went into free fall and Clegg’s personal ratings fell further still.  He and his party often looked a bit amateurish and they were blamed over and over by Labour politicians for propping up Cameron’s cuts.  The possibility of House of Lords reform came and went as once again the Tories scuppered a favourite Lib Dem policy.   And then UKIP started occasionally, and then consistently, pipping the Lib Dems for third place in the polls.  The consensus within the Labour Party has been that Nick Clegg lacks principle, is a busted flush, a bit of a joke and that his party should and will dump him before the next election.

But I think that this view is wrong and that Labour has let its own prejudice cloud its strategic judgement.  Nick Clegg entered government with two very clear aims.  Firstly to prove that the Lib Dems could be a responsible party of government prepared to take tough decisions.  And secondly to deliver as much of the Lib Dem manifesto as possible.

And on both he has succeeded.

Being in government always puts stresses and strains on parties as they navigate the inevitable compromises and disappointments.  But it is not Clegg’s Lib Dem MPs who are rebelling against their leader or calling for him to go in the face of difficult circumstances.  In fact journalists looking for Lib Dem split stories or whispers of Clegg plots struggle to find anyone apart from Lord Oakeshott (generally off the record) or Adrian Sanders MP’s occasional gripe about tactics.

Clegg has courted his party assiduously by meeting weekly with his MPs and ministers.  And out in the constituencies Lib Dem activists have been loyal despite the losses of council seats and a fractious reception from voters on the doorsteps.

What a contrast with the ungovernable Tories and Cameron’s approach with his MPs and minsters!  It is the Tories not the Lib Dems who seem to be struggling with government.

But Clegg’s real success has been on his influence on the governmental agenda.  Far from being the passive partner, simply rubber stamping Tory policy, the Lib Dems have quietly secured large swathes of their own manifesto.  It may not all be to Labour’s satisfaction but the pupil premium, retaining the governmental goal of ending child poverty, the banking levy, increasing capital gains tax for higher rate earners, restoring the link between pensions and earnings, delaying the replacement of Trident, pushing on with renewable energy, creating a green investment bank, stopping the closure of local post offices and increasing the numbers of apprenticeships were all Lib Dem manifesto commitments.

And the budget saw George Osborne announce that the key Lib Dem commitment of a £10,000 tax free allowance will be achieved in 2014.  But whilst the tax commitment is getting the headlines Osborne also announced that there will be no further savings in welfare spending in the 2015/16 spending round which is also a significant Lib Dem victory in the face of Tory calls for further cuts.

So calamity Clegg is in fact leading a united party that is quietly getting on with securing its manifesto while their partners in government rip themselves apart over Europe and stalking horse challengers to Cameron.  Certainly Tory backbenchers are pretty sure that the Lib Dems are punching well above their weight!  If you are in any doubt about it just mention the boundary review to a Tory in a marginal seat and then duck.

Meanwhile Labour is still struggling to find a credible and coherent approach to the politics of austerity.  Far from a consistent political approach the Labour front bench is involved in a push me-pull me over the cuts by appearing to accept the need for them in principle but opposing the specifics.

While Clegg seems prepared to make a virtue of taking difficult decisions and then explaining them to his party, Ed Miliband hasn’t yet found his “you’re not going to like this but…” voice when talking to his.

The recent Leveson discussions have been instructive in this.  It seems clear that Clegg made a decision to do what he saw as the right thing even if it upset the Prime Minister.  Harriet Harman and Jim Wallace did the negotiating and by all accounts Harman impressed the Lib Dems.

Those on Labour’s side found Clegg to be tough but intelligent.  But when it came to the business end of the process over pizza and kit-kats Ed Miliband underwhelmed by seeming to find taking and sticking to a decision difficult as he came under pressure from Hacked Off.

And finally Clegg himself clearly has a plan.  He is engaged in a Blair style masochism strategy that involves radio phone-ins and increasingly frequent engagement with the public.  He is re-developing a distinct voice.  It is not hard to see that at some point in late 2014 he can exit government head held high with a slowly re-enhanced reputation in advance of the poll.  He then asks for support on the basis of Lib Dem delivery and moderating the excesses of the Tories.

His party polls in the high teens and he retains a sizeable chunk of his MPs.  If there is a hung parliament then he is once again king maker.

So Labour need to re-appraise Clegg.  He is in fact turning out to be a pretty impressive deputy prime minister and is likely to be a formidable opponent at the next election.  It may be fun painting him as a lightweight and a fool.

But he is clearly neither.

In fact Nick Clegg has in many ways been the most impressive of the party leaders, and Labour may very well need his support in the weekend after the poll in May 2015.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party

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19 Responses to “And the real winner of yesterday’s budget is…Nick Clegg”

  1. Nick says:

    Just showing your spots. You’re true psyche has slipped.

    Lets face, you just hate other people and you want to extort money from them for your own ends.

    If people aren’t in your tribe and pay tribute to you, you will screw them over.

    One nation? Like heck.

  2. swatantra says:

    Peter makes some excellent points.
    You have to remember where the Lib Dems came from, ie from a Party with no experience in Govt at all, to well … a Party that knows the nuts and bolts about how a Govt works. All in the space of 2 years; and they’ve had to take a few brickbats along the way; so they’re smug as a rug at the moment.
    But the downfall for this Coalition lies in the hands of an impatient electorate who don’t want jam tomorrow; they want jam today, and they want it now, and to hell with the austerity/growth argument. The electorate are not politcal scientists but only governed by Maslows basic instincts. They don’t understand all this palaver about a long haul and sacrifice and a journey to a promised land etc.
    If Labour find themselves in Govt in 2015, the boot will be on the other foot and we may well be making the same arguments as the Tories. And the Lib Dems will be in our tent.

  3. steve says:

    I have some sympathy with this, but it concerns me, that while they’ve delivered some of their manifesto they’ve also delivered other reforms which destroy key parts of their value, so the tax allowance has risen but other taxes on the poorest nullify this. When you add in additional damage for example to the NHS it seems like a paper tiger delivery of their manifesto only.

  4. Charlie Mansell says:

    Agree with the analysis. Whilst people look at UKIP, the Lib Dems have:
    1. Delivered on much of the non-constitutional elements on their manifesto
    2. Stabilised their vote as a more Orange Book southern party at 11% (6% above their actual core vote figure) whilst losing a lot of their northern Councillors
    3. Have a good chance of polling up to 17% and 45 MP’s, with their vote share rising during the General election. Have a look at page 6 of the UK Parliament Report here: to see their 16% share in 2011 and their 15% share in 2012. Whilst they polled 7% in the PCC elections (only contesting half the seats) and are likely to be at 8% at the Euro elections, these elections do not play to their ‘local campaigning message’ in Parliament and local government elections where they do much better

    Those Labour Party members who want to see even more evidence of this should, before they comment, log on to Membersnet go to the party online phone bank and phone people in a Lib Dem southern seat Using this Voter ID terminology you will find a lot of uncertain DSYD voters as well as still a lot of not very angry SSYS voters I would expect most of these voters to stick with the Lib Dems

    A 45 seat parliamentary group along with 27 ‘Others’ elected does create enough MP’s to make another hung parliament likely, though Labour can clearly get to largest party with 20 gains off the Tories and up to 10 off the Lib Dems on a pretty likely minimum 4% increase in share of vote

  5. TOM says:

    Clegg is a hugely impressive character. People paint him to be cameron’s poodle and obssessed with being in power no matter what. But in truth, I can’t think of high level politician who isn’t more sure of himself and comfortable with his own politics. He really does seem to be aiming to ‘do the right thing’, rather than just going with whatever is popular.

    Cameron is a vacuum and Miliband hasn’t found his feet yet. Only Clegg has the strength of his own convictions to be able to do these phone in types each week. He knows what he thinks and knows where he stands on each and every issue. Cameron and Miliband don’t.

  6. paul barker says:

    An impressive article & some surprisingly thoughtful comments. If this was on Labour List it would get 200 comments & might start some real debate in Labour ranks.
    As it is not many people read “Uncut” & its often lazily dismissed as “Blairite”.

  7. Andrew Lye says:

    In fact, why bother voting for Labour?
    They have just come back to demand the 10p tax rate, whilst the Lib Dems have been removing 2 million from paying income tax, altogether and no one will pay income tax on the 1st £10,000 from 2014. And the Lib Dems have managed it a year early!
    Miliband still hasnt apologised for the wrongs of Labour and until it re-connects with the electorate, the Lib Dems can turn around and say “Hey..why vote Labour. They were yesterday’s men (and women). The Lib Dems are the only real party that in the last 5 years that truly looked after the interests of the ordinary working person.
    Labour are today’s dinosaur party – out of touch with most voters, whilst the Lib Dems have taken their place.

  8. Sid says:

    “Lib Dem politics is dismissed as opportunistic as opposed to Labour’s politics of principled idealism.” Oh dear – I laughed so much I wet my pants!

  9. Maria says:

    I’d say Nick Clegg set out with three very clear aims. You mention two but you don’t mention the third – to show that coalition government can work within the UK system. This is what history book will show is his outstanding achievement and it will change UK politics irreversibly.

    The present coalition is not perfect and in future it might be better to copy the arrangements that seemed to work better in the Scottish Parliament, but in a recent opinion poll when people were questioned on whether they’d want a Conservative majority, a Labour majority or a Con/Lib or Lab/Lib government I didn’t see a single press article mentioning how surprising this question would have been just 3 years ago. That a coalition is a possible – and even desirable to some – is testament to Clegg’s clear vision of what he wanted to achieve.

  10. Renie Anjeh says:

    @ Andrew Lye – What absolute rubbish. VAT rise to 20%. Trebling of tuition fees. The kind of austerity that we have today. Even betrayal on civil liberties. The Lib Dems are not on the side of the ordinary working person, the £10k personal tax allowance threshold is commendable but even Liberal Left have said that if you take in account the cuts to tax credits, bedroom tax, cap on 1% on some benefits, the ‘granny tax’ from last year, the council tax benefit changes and in deed the VAT broken promise – these all take away the benefits from the personal allowance rise. It is ‘conman’ politics, just like Brown scrapping the 10p tax rate to fund a 2p cut in the basic income tax rate – giving one thing on one hand, and taking much much more from the other.

    This article may make some fair points, but the thing is that Nick Clegg – as fellow Labour Uncut blogger, Dan Hodges – has said, is an idiot. This is the man who couldn’t decide whether he was for or against Jeremy Hunt staying in post, he is in favour of a mansion tax but against it in a mansion tax motion, he broke his pledges on deficit reduction, tuition fees and VAT and preached about a fairer tax system, whilst supporting a tax cut for the rich few and very damaging NHS reforms which were not in the Coalition Agreement. His raison d’etre for Coalition, which is electoral and constitutional reform, have all been broken. The idea that he is a formidable opponent to the Labour Party is completely risible and not even worth considering in the slightest. He is a liability to his party and until theuy ditch him (which they won’t), the most they will get at the next election is 15%.

  11. Terry Casey says:

    At the next election Nick has lost his mantra “A vote for Labour is a vote for the Tories” as it will surely be turned against him.
    He has followed through his manifesto promise by increased tax allowances, but VAT rises, rampant inflation and benefit cuts for people in and out of work have more than erased those gains, he has also allowed the 50% top rate of tax to be cut which incidentally was a long time Lib Dem policy. The biggest betrayal to the country is his abject failure to curb the carve up of the NHS, he is responsible for it, he could have stopped it in its tracks, he didn’t.
    Nick is a busted flush, he is holding a dead man’s hand and has absolutely no chance of being in coalition again.

  12. james says:

    @terry casey – usual rampant bigotry not displayed by a lot of the interested individuals responding.

    The vat rises only affect those more at the top as the majority of spend by the low and average paid is vat-free or vat-low. Balls would help those at the top more by lowering vat than a tax reduction. You make it sound like the tax issue is just an aside when it’s one of the most revolutionary things to happen for the working poor – a means to get out of the bureaucracy of filling out forms as well as keeping more of your own money in your pocket. A way of taking responsibility.

    Why people in Labour seem to be obsessed with keeping the NHS as it’s always been is beyond me. What are Labour’s plans and how would they deal with an ever rising demand on the NHS? They didn’t say they’d ring-fence it.

    This fighting talk of `no chance of being in coalition again` so many people said he’d never be in power before May 2010. You have yesterday’s brains on your shoulders.

  13. thomas says:

    My neighbour neatly summed up the current political debate: austerity may not be desirable, but it is preferable to collapse.

    Double-dip, triple-dip, quadruple-dip, cheese dip, whatever… it all underlines one fact, that a sustainable economy can’t be based on a credit boom.

  14. Robert says:

    My guess is that the Lib Dems will get 30-40 MPs at the next General Election, which might be enough for another coalition when both Labour and the Conservatives are unlikely to get a majority.

  15. Terry Casey says:

    James are you for real, VAT is stifling this economy, the poor cannot buy VATed items nor can the middle income earners for that matter, they are crippled with lower wages and high inflation, this government have given tax reductions granted but they have taken far more from the poor than they have given, I will guarantee you that there are no poor people keeping more of their own money, the economy will collapse because the government is short sighted and we will not come out of this problem until people can buy things that can get industry working and get the economy moving.

  16. Elisabetta says:

    Alan Johnson blithely admitted breaking a manifesto pledge when he introduced too-up fees in the first place. And as for civil liberties, Labour’s record has been poor, partly because of the new problems we face (to be fair). Clegg has been extremely brave in undertaking the Coalition and Maria hits the nail on the head: coalitions are now, and will increasingly be, seen as a normal way to do politics. In any case, the parliamentary Labour and Conservative parties, and Liberal Democrats, are internal coalitions. Electors can see this as we are not stupid. Unearned ‘jam today’ was the rationale for spending uncontrollably on schools, hospitals and public services without sufficient safeguards requiring compliance by sectional interests, simply because that was what was perceived to be what we the voters wanted. We know better now.

  17. swatantra says:

    Clegg knows he hasn’t a hope of hanging on to his Sheffield seat and is already thinking about his legacy. He has resigned himself to perhaps an international posting possibly at the EU or the UN; he speaks several languages and is an internationalist and would dislike going to the Lords, so possibly the Presidency after Rumpoy quits or Sec Gen of the UN would suit him.

  18. nick eden-green says:

    Lot’s of Lib Dems are proud of getting at least some of their policies adopted. Certainly a novelty after years of saying but not doing. Don’t forget, they had no choice on coalition. After the election Labour refused to talk turkey. If the Lib Dems had refused this thoroughly distasteful Tory coalition then a Tory minority government would have limped on until autumn 2010. With Labour in leadership limbo and the Lib Dems broken on tuition fees, Ashcroft money would have brought a Tory snap election victory and we would all be suffering from a wholly unconstrained Tory majority government.
    That would have been infinitely worse. Get real on this coalitionand take heed of a thoughtful honest article.
    Canterbury Nick

  19. mattD says:

    It is important to bear in mind two things, the Lib Dem voters are floating, they don’t have many party activists, and the floating voters voted for them because they saw more fresh ideas coming in constitutionally. Their main manifesto pledges or ‘4 key policies’ were as follows:

    1)Fair taxes that put money back in your pocket.
    Yes the threshold has been lowered, but before then, nothing has happened, and millionaire tax breaks almost level it out. Also, with lowering welfare and clueless distribution, it isn’t putting money back in the pocket of the working man.

    2) A fair chance for every child.
    Not much is needed saying here, student fees have been tripled. It is now cheaper to study in the EU, whilst we are still in it.

    3)A fair future, creating jobs by making Britain greener.
    They are creating jobs in the private sector, but public sector jobs are falling dramatically. Jobs are not likely to be made by making the UK greener, and the Conservatives had the strongest environmental policies (of which, they have fulfilled many)

    4) A fair deal for you from politicians.
    The Lib Dem campaign focused on attracting floating voters to vote for them, and they were hugely unsuccessful in the election, appearing not to gain much at all. He went against electoral boundary changes, and hasn’t done anything that makes politicians more accountable, even in the House of Lords.

    Most of your aforementioned manifesto pledges were in the Conservative manifesto anyway, and would have been passed anyway. To say the Lib Dems have delivered on their policies is an ridiculous statement, and this has been shown by bi-election results – Eastleigh aside. The floating voters will not vote for Clegg because he has shown that he is ‘just another politician’ that breaks promises and is untrustworthy. Cleggs actions have infuriated most Lib Dem MPs, especially in the North, where many will defect before the election, with Clegg likely not to stand in 2015. Labour need to stand up under Miliband and encourage this pool of floating voters to side with them or they will go with UKIP.

    Clegg is failing, and Labour need to grow and capitalise.

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