11 April 2012 7 Comments
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.