Wednesday 13 May 2015

Steel's six beefs

After praising Nick Clegg for his "dedication and skill" in keeping the coalition intact for the whole term  of the parliament, when many pundits confidently predicted it could not possibly last, our former leader David Steel, in an article yesterday, goes on to make six criticisms of Clegg's leadership.  In my view he misses out Clegg's two most crucial errors, but  first let's examine the Steel Six.

1.  Clegg promised that, in the event that no party had a majority he would talk first to the largest minority.  I don't see this as an error but think this was and is perfectly acceptable position.  It seems right that the largest party should have first crack of the whip, though there was no need for the discussions with the second party to  be vaguely clandestine.  I do agree that the idea, floated by panicking Tories in 2015,  that a coalition which excluded the largest party would somehow lack legitimacy, is a nonsense.

2. The formation of the coalition over a weekend was too rushed. Agreed.  I suggest a minimum a three weeks, which would give the parties time to study the "small print" and recognise the pitfalls (eg in 2010 that a Tory agreement  to "bring forward proposals  for electoral reform" did not mean that they would vote for them.) *

3. In both he coalition negotiations and in government little use was made of experienced senior people  (Ming Campbell et al). Instead jobs given to inexperienced young Turks.  Agreed, and so  in the coalition negotiations in particular the Tories ran rings round us. Also neglected were the Liberal Democrat council leaders who had already had experience of negotiating successful coalitions at local government level.

4.  Tuition fees.  Yes, the issue is not the tuition fees themselves, but the dramatic loss of trust in our reputation for  credibility and honesty which, painstakingly built up over the years, was our major asset.  Thanks, young Turks.

5.  The constitutional reforms (AV referendum and House of Lords proposals) were ill thought out and introduced too hastily.  I would be more inclined to accept that the proposals were the best that could be obtained in a coalition compromise. Electoral reform failed because the Tories misled us (see above), the campaign against was disreputable and the campaign for feeble.  Lords reform failed because of Labour's duplicity (they voted for the reform but not for the parliamentary time to implement the legislation).

6.  The debate with Farage. I don't see this as an error.  By taking part Clegg enhanced our pro-EU credentials and I  fully expected him to win the day with may plaudits.  Sometimes, alas, over-confident bluster triumphs over reasoned argument, but this was not to be anticipated.

The two major errors which Steel does not mention are:

1.  Clegg's early declaration, made in the era of the misguided "rose garden" hubris, that we could not pick and choose, but must "own" everything the coalition did.    Rather we should have, in the coalition negotiations, defined:
i.  those issues on which we agreed and on which we  would argue and vote together;
ii.  those issues on which we, as the minor party, took a different  view, but on which we would give "confidence and supply" support;
iii.  those issues on which we would reserve the right to campaign for an alternative and to abstain in on any vote in parliament;
iv. issues on which we would reserve the right to campaign and vote independently.

This taxonomy, or something similar, should be noted and argued for if and when we got the chance to be part of another coalition government.

2.  The craven support of a misguided, vindictive, unnecessary and counter-productive economic policy way outside the traditions of the party, heir of that of Keynes and Beveridge.  One if my worst political memories is that of Nick Clegg  patting with approval the shoulders of George Osborne after his first and highly illiberal budget, which reversed the economic recovery already under way.  On this issue we should have at least taken option (ii) above, explained that the Tories had over 300 MPs, we had only 57, so we couldn't stop them, but were the numbers reversed we should do things very differently.

A minor irritation rather than a personal error (lots of Liberals are equally guilty) was Clegg's repeated claim of occupying the "centre ground."  He and others have been told repeatedly that that definition allows others to define our position.  We are a distinctive party with a distinctive position; on liberty, the rule of law, democracy, internationalism, compassion, the responsibility of the government to attempt to regulate the economy in the interest of all etc.  We define ourselves and don't and won't allow anyone else to do so.

* Comments below claim, and I accept, that it was always clear that the Conservatives would campaign against.


  1. the "small print" and recognise the pitfalls (eg in 2010 that a Tory agreement to "bring forward proposals for electoral reform" did not mean that they would vote for them.)

    That wasn't 'small print', was it? It was always the openly-stated intention that the deal was there would be a referendum and the Tories would campaign for 'no'. Because the Tories didn't want electoral reform (they were never secretive about that) but they would reluctantly go through with it if it were the will of the people as expressed in a referendum.

    Certainly that's what I understood was the position back in 2010.

    1. I retain the impression that they would either support it or remain neutral. If I can find the time I'll check back, and, if necessary, withdraw.

    2. I reckon Peter's to be a FAR more balanced assessment than the sour grapes of a Peer, who has striven so hard to oppose democratic reform of the Lords and feels he has been excluded from the Clegg advisory network as a result.

    3. 'Both parties will whip their Parliamentary Parties in both Houses to support a simple majority referendum on the Alternative Vote, without prejudice to the positions parties will take during such a referendum.'

      That's the coalition agreement, from ; that 'without prejudice' rather implies the intent to campaign against it, it that it is specifically reserving the right to vote for the Referendum, then campaign for 'No'.

      And then from July 2010:
      'The Liberal Democrats are set to campaign for the new system, while the Conservatives will oppose it.'

      So two months after the agreement it was clear that the Conservatives were going to campaign against AV. And I don't remember this coming as a surprise to anybody; the Conservatives' long-standing opposition to electoral reform, combined with the fact that instead of simply bringing a bill to change the voting system the agreement simply promised a referendum and specifically left open the option of one party campaigning against it, had made it clear form the start that this was something the Tories had conceded reluctantly and would be trying to defeat, not something they had any intention ever of standing back and allowing.

      (And then there's the fact that personally, as an opponent of electoral reform, I am sure I would have felt worried, worried enough to remember even now, if I thought there was the slightest chance that it might be going to happen; but I remember in May 2010 being reassured that only a referendum had been conceded, and that the campaigning might of the Tory party machine would be doing its best to ensure it failed, so I wasn't worried. So I am sure that there was never a point where it appeared that the Tories would do anything but their damnedest to stop electoral reform.

      If the Lib Dems couldn't see that, then I suggest that the reason was not that the Tories were trying to hide their antipathy to electoral reform and determination to ensure it didn't happen, but that in the post-coalition glow they were seeing things through rose-tinted glasses of wishful thinking?)

    4. (Not that I thought the campaigning might of the Tory party machine would be necessary, I was fairly sure that the inherent conservatism and distrust of radical change of the great British electorate would read to the rejection of the proposal at a referendum; but the weight of the Tory campaign ensured that the defeat was an overwhelming one that took electoral reform off the agenda for the foreseeable future.)

    5. OK: I withdraw - clearly you're right and I'm looking at things "through rose-tinted glasses of wishful thinking." Hope that's not true of House of Lords reform as well.

  2. Bernard Disken19 May 2015 at 20:30

    Clegg and the party made many mistakes. But I think many of the problems simply stemmed from the act of going into coalition. Many of our voters felt betrayed. They simply did not accept our entering into a government with another party. I expected most of these voters to switch to Labour (which I can accept).

    This time we were not (as in 2005 and 2010) setting ourselves up as an an alternative government. We were setting ourselves up as a minor coalition partner, not sure with whom. For voters who like backing a winner, this was not an attractive option. For voters who hated Labour or hated Tory, again this wasn't much of an offer.

    I hoped that by going into government we would be able to say to people what we had done for them. But what we did was effectively to remove ourselves from the ballot paper. If you generally approved of the coaltion government's record, you voted Tory. If you didn't you voted Lab/Green/UKIP.
    Furethermore , I don't think anyone foresaw that the collapse in the vote would extend to the seats we were defending just as much as the non-target seats. This may relate to the fact that we were a governing party so it was harder for our MPs to sell themselves as anti-establishment champions of the local interest.

    Going back to the coalition point, it would be interesting to know how many people who were outraged by the Lib Dems going into coalition nevertheless themselves switched to Tory, or whether we lost votes to the Tories because our voters were satisfied by the coalition's record, didn't want Labour to wreck ita nd thought the safest way to continue the coalition's programme was to vote Cosnervative.

    1. Yes, I’m sure you’re right that many of our supporters felt betrayed because we went into coalition with the Tories, but I suspect that others (particularly in the South West) would have felt equally betrayed if we had gone in with Labour (which, as you know the parliamentary arithmetic did not permit in 2010, nor were several Labour Big Beasts all that willing whatever the circumstances.

      One option is to say beforehand that we will only go into coalition with Labour , which appears to be Steel’s position, but I think the reaction of many people would be: “Well, if by voting Liberal Democrat you get Labour, you might just as well vote Labour,” (or for the Tories if your preference is to keep Labour out.

      The other option is to say that we won’t go into collation with anybody, which means we turn ourselves into a glorified think- tank or pressure group. Despite the glorious euphoria of February 1974, which I experienced, and a short t period after the formation of the SDP, there is very little likelihood of our, or the Greens or UKIP, leaping from next to nothing into government in one short step. So the logic is coalition, and we need to do our best to educate our supporters and the electorate on that reality.

      I think it was our success at Eastleigh which deluded us (and the pollsters) into expecting that we should do so much better in our incumbency seats than nationally. Sadly not so. I stick by my feeling that, notwithstanding Eastleigh, the bottom fell out of our credibility when we reneged on our student- fee pledge. Unfair I know, because Labour have broken their promises, not once, but twice, on that very same subject, and the Tories on their even more sensitive promise of no top-down re-organisation of the NHS. How can life be so unfair, but it is and complaining gets us nowhere.
      Now we need to buckle down and cement our “pavement politics” and reputation for working “all the year round” in the base of a firm understanding of the wider values and vision which go to the creation of a truly liberal and democratic society.

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