Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Nick Clegg needs to be in better touch with Lib Dem opinion

Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg knew that the legislation, which until Monday was widely expected to appear in next month's Queen's Speech, would be highly controversial with members of both parties who campaigned on civil liberties in Opposition. The potential for Liberal Democrat activists to revolt over such an issue should not be underestimated.
writes Sam Coates in today's Times. No doubt you can find it behind the paywall somewhere.

Trouble is, I am no longer convinced that Mr Clegg did know that. What struck me about the conference call some of us Lib Dem bloggers had with some of the party's special advisers yesterday evening - it is well described by Richard Morris, who also took part - was that the advisers were astounded that we were angry about the proposals.

If these are the people Nick gets his advice from, I fear he is bound to be out of touch with opinion in the party.

Being the leader of a smaller party while serving as deputy prime minister must be a horribly difficult job. And, as a party, we had not thought hard enough about what being in a coalition would be like when we entered into one..

But Nick needs to take steps to ensure he is in better touch with his own party as a matter of urgency.


Adam said...

I almost shudder to suggest this, but might focus groups be the lesser evil here? Having advisers regularly meet people and gauge opinions would at least be better than being the sort of out-of-touch that we saw yesterday.

Gareth Epps said...

Funny, on my conversation I felt that others were saying things I might otherwise have felt the need to say...

Paul Walter said...

He could do worse than reading the comments on LibDem Voice. It doesn't take long.

Charlieman said...

"And, as a party, we had not thought hard enough about what being in a coalition would be like when we entered into one."

I think the suggestion above is a good starting point for debate. It is a better starting point than simple condemnation of the database proposal (we have lots of time to do that and the arguments against are well rehearsed). For LibDems, it is probably more beneficial to understand why Nick Clegg got himself into this pickle.

As part of the coalition, LibDems are exposed to the pressure that "something must be done". It is easy in opposition to fall back on the wise liberal position that government does not have to respond to every request to do something. In government, LibDems need to make stronger cases why carrying on as before is the correct response.

If there is a solid case for doing something, how quickly does it need to happen? In the case of internet activity databases held by ISPs and private companies, which will take time to establish, the proposal is not something that can be delivered overnight. There is a practical distinction between this proposal than, for example, raising the age for purchasing alcohol on whim to 21 years. Government and Parliament have a lot of time to think about the database proposal which is not a new "solution" and has been discussed at length in the last ten years. There is no rush to do anything.

If it is established that something needs to be done, that is a separate argument from what is actually done. In this case, government has immediately leapt on a solution that has been rubbished in the past. For any policy, citizens expect that parliamentarians seek a range of opinion and that we will be told what it is intended to achieve.

This proposal suggests a technical solution to social and political problems. This proposal is being presented by politicians (who are not noted for their technical skills) on behalf of unnamed people. We are not given a full explanation of what it is intended to solve and why the specific measures are the only answer. There's no technical report from network architects or prosecuting bodies explaining what is being fixed.

I've no doubt that, on reflection, senior LibDems will ensure that this proposal gets the thorough kicking that it deserves. But they should never have needed to reflect.

Understanding what being the junior partner means in a coalition government seems to have escaped some LibDems. It means delivering liberal policies whenever there is chance or agreement. It means supporting the agenda of the coalition agreement. It means that every policy must be on the table for dissection and analysis.

Ignoring the lapse of liberalism though, this fiasco illustrates lack of thinking. I have addressed the proposed internet activity database in my argument, but the argument could apply to any ad hoc policy suggestion. Being in coalition, LibDem ministers have to question everything. They have to bring in thinkers to appraise proposals. This practice has not escaped Conservatives.