Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Some unsolicited political advice for Nick Clegg

Earlier this evening I took part in a conference call on the Coalition's proposals to oblige internet service providers to collect and store more data about their customers.

One of the other participants claimed to be Nick Clegg's 'political adviser'. As - how shall I phrase this? - I am not wholly convinced that this person can be relied upon to offer Nick the best political advice on a consistent basis, I am offering him a little of my own.

Let me explain, Nick, why this issue, which may appear to be a little esoteric, poses a threat both to you and the party.

The threat to you

However unfair it may be, there are two narratives about you that have acquired considerable purchase with the public. The first is that you are subservient to David Cameron - the fag to his captain of school, if you want to put it at its most insulting.

The second is that you say one thing and do another. This has its roots in the Coalition's decision to increase tuition fees after you had signed a pledge saying you would never do any such thing. I am not a fan of pledges and believe such an increase was pretty much inevitable given the rise in student numbers in recent years. And you did try to persuade the party to row back on this commitment

But you did sign that pledge. And it can hardly have been a surprise that student voters - an interest group you and the wider party had courted so assiduously - were outraged.

If you are now seen to go along with what the Conservatives want on the retention of data after all you have said on the subject, they you will simply convince more voters that these unflattering narratives about you are true.

The threat to the party

Civil liberties are at the heart of what it means to be a Liberal Democrat. Our support for them is almost what defines our party: the reason why many talented people joined us rather than seek an easier path to public office through Labour or the Conservatives.

If you are seen to water down this commitment then many of your members will question their commitment to the party and even their membership at all. A few people left after the NHS & Social Care Bill: I fear that rather more will leave if these proposals go through.

And there is a wider question. Who do you expect to vote for you at the next election? As my Liberator colleague Simon Titley never tires of pointing out, the Liberal Democrats' great weakness is that our core vote is so small. We pride ourselves on working harder than the other parties, but the fact that we have to work so hard to persuade people to vote for us is really a sign of weakness.

What we need is a core of liberally minded people who naturally vote Liberal Democrat. If you put yourself on the other side of this debate from every civil liberties group in the country, it is hard to see why liberally minded people should vote for you.

So if you take my advice you will distance yourself from these proposals very loudly and very publicly.

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Adam said...

I think it's partly the fundamental problem of Nick's dual role as DPM and LD Leader (as well as MP and mind-of-his-own). He's commenting on Govt proposals as DPM but then once he gets feedback from the party and public he might have to say something else as LD Leader (or else unsuccessfully try to change the minds of party members). Cameron's euro-veto springs to mind as another example.

These spads need to find a way for his office to say to the press, "No comment - my party and I first need to study the details of A and B to make sure it's in accordance with the liberal values of X, Y and Z." It's not the best of images but it's far better - for him and for the party - than any more flip-flopping.

Anonymous said...


Very clearly written, thank you. I hope the LD party leadership is listening. Strengthening the core vote is an essential - and that requires a clear definition of what the Liberal Democrats stand for and sticking by it. Everything I understand of the LDs tells me that this proposal is the antithesis.

Paul McKeown

Simon said...


As someone who has voted for the Lib Dems in the past (though not in 2010) but not been a party member your "dual role" comment is indicative of Jonathan's point about Clegg being subservient to Cameron... the public don't see it as being a dual role. Anything Clegg says as DPM he is also saying as LD party leader.

Of course I realise he'd be doing and saying different things if he was PM in a majority LD government but LDs and Clegg can't innoculate their party from what he in particular and the party in general does and says in government.

I wholeheartedly agree with you that he needs to start with no comment rather than flip-flopping or (equally bad) looking as if he is not listening to the party.

It's a pretty shambolic way to conduct oneself in government if the Home Office can release a statement that seems to go so fundamentally against liberal values.

Tristan said...

Watching this unfold I had the same thought.

This has the potential to destroy the LibDem core vote (as tiny as it is).

It looks from here like LibDem ministers have gone native and will only listen to the mandarins who push this sort of thing no matter what the government (like ID cards - I'm sure that those civil servants who wanted them are calling for them still).

Personally I am incredibly disappointed - it is the one area where I trusted the LibDems to stay firm. I am glad to see the membership and some MPs are opposing this, but that will not come across to voters.

James said...

As I posted on another blog, who the hell picks these utterly utterly useless "SpUds"??

Some of us will be dusting off the LibDem constitution if Clegg doesn't get his act together quite soon and looking at the various clauses, particularly 10.2(f)

Jonathan Calder said...

Phil Hunt tells me he has tried to leave the following comment a couple of times without success.

"But like every other Lib Dem I have heard from today, I cannot
support him over email snooping."

Sadly -- and I say this as a former Lib Dem myself -- Nick Clegg
doesn't stand for Lib Dem values.

I suggest that people who don't like this leave the Lib Dems and join
the Pirate Party. Civil
liberties on the internet is a core issue for us: we're totally
against the online surveillance regime this would institute.

And in truth, if you did join the Pirates, you wouldn't be leaving the
Lib Dems, it's the Lib Dem leadership that has left you. The policies
that Nick Clegg supports in cabinet are not Lib Dem policies.