For anyone that doubts that Lib Dems still have soul: meet Tim Farron the new Party President. I might not always agree with him talking down the opposition, but for sheer passion and unswerving direction Tim’s the man…
A question often asked and if (like me) your memory needs some help with an ever growing list then you might want to print some copies of this:
I am a firm believer in people and their capability, capacity and desire to do the right thing. But I am also a realist and I know this only really happens when they are properly informed, enabled and empowered.
For me this means investing a significant sum of my own money and time throughout the year and last weekend making my way to Sheffield City Hall for Lib Dem Spring Conference; but for many others it meant making their way to the same venue on that same weekend to confront me (and others like me) to demonstrate with a passion that comes when people feel their core rights and values have been ignored or abused.
On the very first day, as I tried to make my way to City Hall, people were chanting insults, shouting personal abuse and spitting on me. But once inside the cordon I couldn’t help feeling that we shouldn’t really be on opposite sides of a security fence. So I decided to spend quite a lot of time this weekend on the ‘wrong side’ of that barrier; wearing my Lib Dem pass in the city with pride, taking the criticisms on the chin and listening at a proximity that meant there was no need to shout.
I learnt something quite simple and also quite obvious: everyone was there standing up for what they believed would create a better, fairer future for all. It quickly transpired that, for the majority of people, what that future looks like is pretty similar and is all about fairness. But what struck me most was that many of the people protesting were not Conservative or Labour supporters – they were “ex Lib Dems” accusing us of ‘selling out’ and ‘turning Tory’ and accusing me specifically of being a naïve idealist; an optimist who just refused to see the real truth.
Well I absolutely know I haven’t sold out, I certainly haven’t become a Conservative and, as those who really know me will confirm, I am a natural sceptic and pessimist in most (if not all!) things.
I knew there was some work to be done here; because I knew I was more like them than they realised. So I began to share the logic of my position: a party manifesto is at the core of what the party is about and it represents the core of their principles and desires for the future. But, and to me this is the absolute key, if the party concerned doesn’t get into power and the manifesto does not get implemented then even the best manifesto in the world ever becomes a completely ineffectual document that did nothing more than destroy some trees in its creation.
I definitely wasn’t a coalition supporter at first, indeed I booked my place at special conference in order to make my objection to the decision, but when you get down to it the reality is if the Lib Dems hadn’t gone into coalition then they would be doing what they had always done and would be getting what they had always got. Which, in terms of implementing their manifesto from the opposition benches, would have be basically not very much at all although at an individual level it would have been a far easier life in so may ways for everyone concerned.
The first fact that is of absolute importance is that quite simply the Lib Dems didn’t win a majority. This means they were not given the power to define or control what government policy would be. If they had been then, and Nick Clegg personally confirmed this at the weekend, we would have been in the process of implementing all of our manifesto and doing the things we believe in – like abolishing tuition fees.
At this point our leaders could have simply accepted defeat and returned to opposition, to a place of very vocal and articulate criticism which, lets be honest, was of very little real influence. They could have stood back and watched as the Conservatives formed a minority government, called another general election in quick order and went on to form a majority government.
But instead when the chance came to have more influence, and maybe to implement one or maybe even two of our policies, then our leaders grasped at that chance. They knew it would be a very tough ride but they also knew that they could do something that was otherwise impossible – they could prevent that Conservative majority government. They could potentially curb some of the more extreme policies that their coalition partner would have implemented and they potentially see some of their manifesto do more than look good on a printed page.
Does this mean they (then or now) suddenly have to become supporters of the other coalition party’s manifesto? Of course not. When they don’t get their own way does it mean they have changed their minds? Of course not. If Conservative policies are implemented unchanged while the Lib Dems are part of the coalition government – is this any worse than them being implemented with the Lib Dems in opposition? No – it is exactly the same.
What has changed though – is that not all of the policies in the Conservative manifesto are being implemented. Which is why I could have understood if the protestors outside City Hall had been disgruntled Conservatives.
Better still it has meant that 65% of the Lib Dem manifesto is being implemented (details here). So out of a possible 0 available marks Nick Clegg has scored 65 so does he deserve an A+ or F- ? Forget common marking schemes maybe its all about perception.
For example, on tuition fees which is one area where the Conservatives (as the senior partner in the coalition) are insisting on implementing their policy – so why is Nick Clegg taking all the flack? Nick and his team have still managed even in this situation to moderate some of the worst aspects of the original policy so to be honest I really don’t know and when it was put that simply to Nick at the weekend by Brian Paddick – neither did Nick! This might sound flippant but it does support a theory I had which is that Nick and his team are just too busy doing what Lib Dems do – heads down, putting in the hard graft and not allowing themselves to be distracted by any negative campaigning…
What is true, but I think we all knew this all along, is that the Conservatives and Labour are both much better than Lib Dems at sales, marketing and media control. They have the power of spin. Maybe this is just one of those areas where our different style of working and our inexperience in government shows – maybe Lib Dems just haven’t quite reached ‘government approved standard’ in spin just yet. But, as much as that gives me additional work to do and mountains to climb as a grass roots supporter, actually I am kind of proud of this deficiency. In a perverse way I like the fact that we believe that putting all of our efforts into doing the right thing will, in the end, win over our doubters and might even eventually put pay to the need for spin instead making the focus about what is actually being done.
Nick Clegg might be a convenient target for those people that want to hate someone for the state of the country right now and the fact that there is no easy / overnight fix for that problem. Similarly some people hate Simon Cowell because he tells kids who can’t sing that there is no magic wand that can turn them into the next pop sensation.
Simon has refused to change who he is and what he stands for just to be liked; he believes that being straight with people, telling them the truth and not sugar coating the pill gets the right outcomes and so he just carries on doing it. Over time, like him or loath him, you eventually have to admit that he knows his stuff when it comes to the popular music business. I hope by the end of the coalition’s fixed term the same can be said of Nick Clegg and the business of creating a fairer, better Britain.
For me going into the coalition quite simply means that 65% of the Lib Dem manifesto will be implemented – that is quite simply 65% that would never have happened otherwise. If we can implement 65% of our manifesto through coalition (which is a record most directly elected parties would struggle with) then why would people doubt we would implement 100% if we were to be elected as a majority Government?