Nick Clegg has changed British politics and Labour would do well to understand that

by David Talbot

Moments after the close of the first debate of the 2010 general election, Lib Dem officials were breathlessly rushing around the Granada studios in Manchester. They were hailing their leader’s performance as a potential “game-changer” in an election that had seemingly been thrown wide open. Nick Clegg, the political messiah, had arrived.

It was his best, and worst, moment.

Lauded to the skies as a return to Churchill, as another Obama, as the new kingmaker, he surely knew it must be as good as it gets. And how it turned out so. Burning effigies scarred the land, his party sunk to historic lows, lost deposits and pitiful results abounded. The great irony, however, is that come 2015 he will once again take centre stage.

Any fool can kick Nick Clegg. The Labour party, so often by far the most sanctimonious of the main political parties, has reduced this to a sorry art-form. When Clegg entered the coalition government with the Conservatives, the Labour party, always quick to feel betrayed, duly howled blue murder. It was treason of a high order. If there is one thing the Labour party does well it is hatred, and hate we did.

A more nuanced view would rightly ask what else was the leader of the Liberal Democrats meant to do? The only other option open to Clegg was to stand aloof, tolerating a minority Tory government and most likely precipitating another early election. The country, having just gone through the toils of a general election, would not have taken kindly to such short-sightedness. An alliance with Labour, who had just been decimated in the polls, would have been simply incredible. And were another election called, Labour, leader-less, penny-less, would have been destroyed. But for some in the party this is the utopia that could and should have happened until that bastard Clegg came along.

For Labour, Clegg has served the purpose of a lightening-rod of discontent; witness the recent talk of “decapitating” the Liberal Democrat leader from his Sheffield Hallam constituency. It is an odd strategy to pursue when, as reported on Uncut, the party cannot even target its rather overly-optimistic 106 seats for 2015 and is fully nineteen thousand votes behind Clegg in the constituency. But it is part of a wider strategy in that it is far more comforting for party to believe that it was Clegg’s personal desire, rather than cold parliamentary arithmetic, which killed off the “progressive majority” and blame him for all ills.

Amidst all this the man has conducted himself with the utmost dignity. He has held his ramshackle party together against the odds. The scale of his achievement in managing the Liberal Democrats, a fundamentally divided and rootless movement, during four years of brutal coalition government is of the highest order. He has shown party management above and beyond those offered by his adversaries. He has taken the most appalling abuse and since engaged in a masochism strategy to drain the swamp.

Far from being out of power for a generation, Clegg could have found the path to office for a generation. His greatest triumph was to prove that coalition, the only form of governance in which the Liberal Democrats can legitimately partake, is a workable form of British government. That prize is worth all the abuse alone, for it gives his party a reason for existing – and governing – in the long term.

Just as the coalition may be judged more thoughtfully by history than by the present, so history may see in Clegg’s conduct a degree of cunning. He rightly judged that in the immediate moments post the general election Cameron needed him more than he needed them, and as a result deftly extracted key cabinet positions and policy concessions. For sure, it has been rough for his party. The people are the ultimate arbiters and the polls do not do a disservice. But then any other strategy would have been far worse.

In 2010, many in the Granada studios thought Clegg was merely a kingmaker for day. But he has the opportunity to be a permanent fixture of this country’s government, the perennial kingmaker, forever determining who wears the crown. He may now longer be hailed as the “game-changer” but he has surely changed British politics.

David Talbot is a political consultant

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17 Responses to “Nick Clegg has changed British politics and Labour would do well to understand that”

  1. Robert says:

    I agree. The big question for me is does the Labour Party want to be part of the “progressive majority”?

  2. steve says:

    An excellent article. Well done, David.

    I for one am at a loss to understand why Labour doesn’t enter into a permanent coalition with the LibDems. There is very little to choose between the two policy-wise.

    I understand this may not go down too well with some blowhard activists but Labour’s activists are hardly representative of the population as a whole. It would be best if the activists could be quietly sidelined.

    As David suggests, Clegg has demonstrated supreme political skill – this makes him an ideal partner for Ed Miliband who will doubtless need as much support as is available if he is to successfully confront future challenges.

  3. uglyfatbloke says:

    Rather depends on how many glib-dumb MPs there are after the next GE does n’t it? There may not be enough of them to have a real impact. Nationwide polling may suggest that their overall vote share may hold up reasonably well, but our electoral system does not really work that way. Even relatively minor Polarisation to Labour and the tories will get some of them out in England and Wales and they are looking at a very bad result in Scotland.

  4. Ralph Baldwin says:

    Labour doesn’t “share” lol.

  5. swatantra says:

    Clegg has played it brilliantly. He’s brought in the Lib Dems in from the cold. he’s given a small Party much more power than it actually deserves; he’s given every one of his MPs Ministerial responsibilty of some sort to prepare them for any future role in any future Govts, so that they know the inside workings of Govt. And he’s made ‘Coalition’ a subject not to be feared or rejected out of hand, but seriously acceptable. He’s even managed to get to be DPM, when most coalitions would have probably stuck him in the FO or HO. OK, the Lib Dems will probably get hammered in 2015, because the British electorate isn’t all that sophisticated, but if there is a hung Parliament in 2015, he knows the Lib Dems will be kingmakers even with 25 MPs.

  6. Stuart Ingham says:

    What key policy concessions and cabinet posts did he extract from negotiations?

    He blew all of his political capital on electoral reform that hasn’t happened and failed to secure any major cabinet posts necessary for the lib dems to claim ownership over an aspect of government policy. All of this whilst throwing out his parties economic policy and losing one of its core constituents in students. Cameron did need him more than Clegg needed Cameron, but Cameron played a blinder and Clegg a shocker.

    I do, however, agree that it is too much for Labour to be demanding his head in any coalition negotiations. It isn’t any of our business.

  7. @Gazsez says:

    I’d agree that the modern Labour Party needs to court the Lib Dems and the next election could be even more important to do that if it wants to come back to government.

    What I’d really like though is for Labour to come back to its roots and support the poor of the country and promote and invest in public systems. In my heart I know that’s not going to happen and Labour has courted the rich and famous in order to reframe itself as Tory Party MkII. I’m afraid that none of the major parties measure their success around the status of the UK’s poor, when we do that we would have a political system that could have general respect.

    I thought Labour was that party, even under Blair but now I see it’s not and even if it were, it couldn’t compete with Tories or LibDems. So, it’s with regret that my vote next time around will be going to the Green Party. The Greens have much more in common with my opinions on privatisation, equality, health, economy and currently fracking.

    New Labour and I have moved out of step with each other and I want the real solidarity back that we used to have. I don’t want politically skilled PR specialists using NLP and every trick in the book the get people on side, I want Dennis Skinner’s Labour and as that’s not coming back I’ll have Natalie Bennett’s Green Party.

  8. John McGowan says:

    You are joking right? Clegg has supported the most right wing Government in history, with policies that would make Thatcher blush. He has destroyed his party gor the sake of his own advancement. He for me is worse than any Tory, God forbid that Labour enter into any coalition with this man bereft of any morals.

  9. Adam says:

    All true. Though it would be hard for Labour to viciously attack and blame the people actually responsible for putting the Tories into power: the voting public…

    In saying that, even if Clegg had no option but to go for Coalition, he’s made many choices since then that have been the wrong ones.

  10. steve says:

    Stuart Ingham: “What key policy concessions and cabinet posts did he extract from negotiations?”

    That’s of little consequence. The LibDems are a junior partner and cannot be the tail that wags the dog.

    But as a consolation the LibDems have taken possession of a few ministerial limousines. And, more importantly, they are now in a position where they are able to benefit from the lobbying industry – contacts in high places count for a lot in the corporate world.

    So the advantages won by the LibDem elite may not be immediately obvious or even politically beneficial as far as most of us are concerned, but you can be sure they are, as Ernie the milkman proclaimed with regard to the needs of Sue of 22 Linley Lane: manyfold.

    I’m sure they’ll be very happy to continue riding the the gravy with Miliband at the controls.

  11. John reid says:

    without sounding cynical ,if the Lib Dems did this it would make a Tory ,a Ukip coalition more likely, at the same time,as the remianing Lbdem voters at the moment .rate the Tories as the second choice. And are Pro the EU. If the Tories had apart with Ukip, then those liberals who have the Tories as their second choice would have no where else to go.

  12. Renie Anjeh says:

    @Robert – the ‘progressive majority’ doesn’t exist. AV proved that.

  13. Janet Green says:

    O, for goodness sake. Clegg is the ultimate charlatan.He lies about his own history. He lies about his own policies. He is part of the problem and not part of the solution.

  14. Veronica Hardstaff says:

    Nick Clegg has let down Sheffield, a city part of which (the most affluent part) he is supposed to represent. He has supported all the savage cuts to local government grants – £200 million plus for Sheffield, which is still suffering some of the loss of job opportunities caused by the last Tory government, over the lifetime of this parliament. He then has the gall to attack the Labour run Council for making cuts in services, when as Deputy Prime Minister, he is in a position to ensure that the cuts are not inflicted disproportionally on poorer parts of the country.
    He goes on and on about the pupil premium, when schools always did get extra money for children on free school meals. If he really cared about the educational chances of poor children he would not have supported every move by his coalition partners to make a lot more poor families even poorer, and in many cases losing their homes because a child actually had a bedroom to do homework in undisturbed!

  15. Robert says:

    Renie, I agree that the progressive majority is a myth and you do not pretend to believe in it unlike many in the Labour Party. As you say, the fools that ran the AV campaign believed in the myth and did not attempt to get support from the right of the political spectrum.

  16. Helen M-B says:

    Choosing to be part of the government and thereby elevate the position of his party could indeed be viewed as ‘strategic’ and an obvious choice for a leader of what is usually the third party. Hiowever he has failed to influence policy significantly and no where more so than in his own back yard of Sheffield Hallam Constituency.

  17. swatantra says:

    Lets not be too hard on Clegg; he’s only got 56 seats out of 650 to play with, ie less than the total number of women in Parliament altogether.

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