Last Wednesday afternoon, Nick Clegg gave his leaders speech at the Liberal Democrat Glasgow Conference, and it stood out as a deeply personal appeal to the British electorate that will help shape the next British general election in 2015. More obviously, international questions such as the possible EU referendum 2017 (dependent on David Cameron being re-elected with a majority, bearing in mind that no government since a post-Suez Anthony Eden has become more popular due to incumbency) as well as the Scottish Independence Referendum exactly a year away will be heavily influenced by the pitches made by all three party leaders during this Conference season.
What the Lib Dems do have is an image problem. With the British parliamentary system becoming ever more Presidential (a consequence of the TV debates), this is a direct result of Clegg having an image problem. In the same way David Cameron is more popular than his party and an electoral asset, Milliband and Clegg are both less popular than their collective groupings of MPs.
The ‘betrayal’ narrative (tuition fees) is embedded in the nation’s psyche and it is pervasive not only among students but among the population at large: to the extent that Andy Parsons can make fairly unsophisticated jokes on Mock The Week every Thursday night that still rouse an amused titter.
To understand Clegg, you have to understand his personal background. He is a liberal internationalist to his core. His wife is a Spanish lawyer who also seems to have the upper hand in their marital collation as their children’s names are: Antonio, Alberto and Miguel. A mongrel of eclectic descent, actually very similar to Boris Johnson, fluent in five languages (English, French, Spanish, Dutch and German), he has no truck with the ‘Little Englanders’ UKIP who practise the politics of nostalgia and who offer ‘splendid isolationism’ in an increasingly globalised world.
As I have already conceded, the Lib Dems currently have an image problem. I would tweak this and say that the Lib Dems have always had an image problem. If Clegg has achieved anything since taking over the leadership of the Liberal Democrats in 2007 then it has been to change the Liberal Democrats from ‘the Tim Henman of British politics’ (joke copyright of Markus Brigstock) to ‘Andy Murray’ (that’s mine). They have transformed from the popular, plucky underdog, of British politics to a more sober, more serious but more powerful actors on the UK domestic scene. Being the Secretary of State will do that to you.
Before the 2010 election when I said I was going to vote Liberal Democrat, people would dismiss me by saying ‘they’ll never get in’ or ‘waste of a vote’. Their policies were nebulous, erudite and often incoherent: catering to a band of well-meaning middle class voters who would turn up in their socks, sandals and beards (both genders) and reaffirm their undying commitment to a low carbon economy whilst simultaneously arguing virulently against nuclear power. Not anymore.
Enoch Powell’s quip about ‘all political lives… end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and human affairs’ may well be true of Clegg come the next election. But he will have achieved one thing which will help the Liberal Democrats immeasurably for all future elections: to show the British public that Coalition is a stable form of government and that it once helped steer the economy out of the worst financial storm since the 1930s depression. Arguably this government has been more stable than the last “Coalition” government between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
The problem with politics, as with life, is that there is no counter-factual. But not to join in to Coalition with the Conservatives when the opportunity presented itself in 2010 would have been the ultimate proof of a wasted vote.
Clegg’s pitch to the British electorate in 2015 will be as follows: we are the centrist party, with our own distinct liberal internationalist values. If you don’t trust Labour to run the economy and dislike their record on civil liberties, think the UKIP are ‘fruitcakes and swivel-eyed loons’ and that the Tories are still the ‘nasty party’ painted over with a thin veneer of detoxification by Cameron’s PR machine, then the Liberal Democrats offer the only alternative firmly anchored in the centre-ground. We can deliver a stronger economy and a fairer society. Unlike any election in living memory we have a governmental record to defend: gay marriage, a £700 tax break for 25 million people, the pupil premium and an economy returning to growth. A pro-EU party determined to win a potential 2017 referendum on a ‘Brixit’.
This is what Clegg will fight the next election on. He is determined to prove that his tenure as Deputy Prime Minister was not a historical aberration but a sign of a permanent shift to a more plural British politics. The line that garnered the most applause was ‘We are not here to prop up the two party system, we are here to bring it down’.