Mr Clegg: Who are you making policy for, exactly?

I believe that party politics should work like this: people come together who share values and ideals. They formulate policy based on these values. These policies are implemented when in power. Compromises are always necessary and so these can be made providing they are based in the values of the members of the party. In practice this means that the leadership of the party will be persuading and arguing with whomever necessary to get these ideas into law. But what we have is the opposite: A leadership, who goes into government, speaks to whoever, comes out and then tries to convince and argue with the party that what is being implemented is the right thing or necessary. It is like the Government is devoid of the Lib Dem party that makes up a large part of the Government.

Take tuition fees. Clegg argued it was right and necessary despite it being the opposite of party policy. Take the Health and Social Care Bill. Clegg argued it was reasonable and necessary at the time despite it being against the party values. Take Cameron’s EU veto. Clegg came out to say why it was necessary the following day despite it being against the party values. Take the recent proposal to extend the intrusive powers of the state. Clegg came out the following day to say why this was reasonable and necessary, despite it being opposite of party policy and values. In all these instances, Clegg has the process the wrong way round. He is in Government facing the party trying to convince us that what the government is going to do it right. What he should be doing is standing in the party facing the Government convincing them that our policy is right. He has it the wrong way round. It is a telling sign that he has had to be kicked into line by the party on these issues.

In all these cases and in many more we have a bizarre situation where we, as a party, seemingly propose policy that is not popular in our own party or with the public. So I ask who are we making policy for, exactly? We should not forget that politics is about popularity, if not for the majority of the public, then at the very least for the minority of those who support your party.

I don’t believe that it is a problem of values within Clegg. I have heard him as an MEP, shadow minister, in the leadership debates, in the election and I have spoken to him and he says all the things I would expect of a man of liberal persuasion. I think the problem lies with how he views his role in Government.

It must be difficult being in his position with so many people coming to you telling you what you should do. Senior civil servants coming with their pet projects, deeply held views and ideas which have been formed over many years under many different ministers. These people know how to handle new ministers. It must be difficult having senior military personnel telling you what they need. Senior secret service or intelligence community members coming with ideas they feel they need to protect the public. I can see how this position could mean you start to form a view that is different from those you may have had when talking within the political party. I can see how it could come about that you feel the need to go back to your party to tell them we need to do something different. But it is when in Government that it is more important to stand firm in where you came from. To say no to the establishment. To tell them what they need to do. This is what it means to be in power or it is not power, it is a nominal role.

So how do you stand firm? First thing is your mindset. We have to see ourselves as outsiders in Government or we start to believe the opinion of the establishment. Secondly you have to feel you have a right to tell the engines of Government to do things differently, even in the face of their well argued cases to continue what they were doing before or in their attempts to gain more control. Thirdly, you need a strong team of advisors who also have this mindset. This team need to not get caught up in the trappings of power and they need to have a strong affinity to the values of the party. This team should be made up of a variety of people who represent all sections of the party and there need to be people who disagree with you.

I think the party would love to hear Clegg come back to the party and say he has been fighting with the ‘powers that be’ to get our policy implemented, rather than coming to conference telling us how hard it is doing things we don’t agree with. We need less of the excuses for bad policy and more argument for why it is bad and why we don’t agree with it. Something Richard Morris stated so eloquently in the recent row between the party and Clegg over extending snooping powers.

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7 Responses to Mr Clegg: Who are you making policy for, exactly?

  1. Yes! I said something very similar when I got the briefing on communications data: “LDHQ should be there to sell LD policies to the Government, not Government policies to the LDs.”

    Ministers, MPs and civil servants will of course know a lot more about the areas they work in than most party members but it needs to be a case of convincing members and then making final decisions, not the other way around – not least to avoid the inevitable and image-damaging u-turn.

    However, I don’t think the DPM’s values can entirely be discounted. As well as being DPM and LD Leader he also has views of his own (e.g. on tuition fees). That’s a slightly different minefield but again I think the dangers of being honest to the party and public about differences of opinion are outweighed by the definite damage of appearing untruthful (honesty would also be a good chance to emphasise to all that these are legitimate arguments about the best means, but that LDs are united on the goals and values).

    • Hi externalities, thanks for the comments and I’m glad we have picked up on the same issue and maybe people will start to listen?

  2. Pingback: Top of the Blogs: The Lib Dem Golden Dozen #269

  3. Byzant says:

    When the LIbdem leadership abandons principles to try and occupy a middle ground of ca 3 square inches between a Blairite neo Conservative Labour and the Conservatives, I no longer see the point of backing a political party.

    The debate is now between alternative PR agents, seeking to accomodate the wealthiest sources of funds necessary to run an effective campaign in what is now close to a US mode of politics.

    No wonder people no longer bother to vote and turn to single issue groups.

    • Hi Byzant, thanks for the comments and it is a shame when people feel disillusioned with politics and the parties they once celebrated. Did you used to support the Lib Dems? I am interested in those who have become disillusioned with the party so if you did what would be the course of action you would take if you were the leader of the party?

  4. Byzant says:

    Hello Matthew. I still am in the LDP, but becoming passive and considering my position. I shall try to be as brief if I can. The position may be looked at on three levels.

    First a quasi-philosophical one. There are two broad national options. One is to aim towards a Scandinavian/Swiss style of devolved effective democracy with smaller social inequalities than have been allowed to develop since Thatcher and Blair. The other is to continue towards a ‘New Elizabethean’ state which I would characterize as piratically imperialistic, dominated by corporate interests (chief of which the military industrial complex Ike warned about now extended with new security interests) paying lip service to democracy of which the US is the prime example.
    Perhaps the latter is apparently ‘solution focused’, but not in the long run and not for me, and not for an LDP distinguishable from the Conservative Party. The LD ministers have acquiesced in developments leading to the privatisation of education and health for spurious unrelated reasons (the financial deficit) which will consolidate the latter, contrary to the views of most LD supporters.

    Then, to be Irish, I would not start from here – the Coalition should never have survived Gove’s stealth reforms, nor accepted a referendum for electoral reform linked to an AV system which was no real reform, as most voters eventually perceived.

    Finally, tactically, what next? The LDP will be almost wiped out in the next elections. The issue is to choose the course which will most quickly revive it after that. As you set out most cogently, Clegg has many problems, no easy solutions. I think we should get out of the Coalition now and revert to its key traditional policy planks, namely electoral reform and decentralization of powers, if it is to be seen to be relevant again.

    Effective electoral reform is a sine qua non for all else. It can only be achieved in practice when the Labour Party realizes that it is also in its own long term interest and joins the LDP in this (prior to the last general election I made some effort to persuade a prominent Labour backbencher of this, with limited success – he was wedded to the single member constituency which he saw as a vital link for MPs with their grassroots). It is most unfortunate that we did not secure the extra 30 seats in 2010 which might have made this possible. And reform is also necessary for local elections – take a look at Surrey, where the Tories have nearly 100% of councillors at all levels, but only about 60% of the voters supported them. Specific proposals at both levels must be developed and adhered to.

    Decentralization is also vital. Local democracy is a myth at present. Whether at County or District or Town levels, the councils have either no effective power, or are no more than instruments for the implementation of policies decided at Westminster. It would take too long to go into details on this. The point is that vague talk of a local income tax is not enough. Again, specific proposals for administrative and financial reforms should be developed in this area and be the basis for LD election manifestos.

    • Hi Byzant, I am glad you are still in the Lib Dems and I hope you stay in. I know these are difficult times for members with no easy answers to where we are but I console myself in the fact that the party still believes in the values that I do, it is just they are not being expressed or represented in Government. We could go into the many mistakes the party, or party leadership, has made but it doesn’t get us anywhere. I am not sure there are many people who want us to leave the Coalition at the moment although I think it is probably a growing sentiment. You have some interesting views and I hope we do move on to some good proposals such as you suggest in the future which demonstrates what we stand for but I hope we don’t get wiped out at the next election either. here’s hoping for a brighter future

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