Nick Clegg opens his question and answer session in the Wesley Memorial Chapel with disarming modesty: “I’m not a walking encyclopaedia” he insists, “I don’t necessarily have every single fact, every single statistic at the end of my fingertips”. He does a good line in expectation management, a skill that no doubt comes in handy as leader of the Liberal Democrats. It is easy to denigrate Britain’s ‘third party’, so near to power and yet so very far; a party that at once looks back to a distinguished Liberal past and forward to the bright new dawn that always seems to be just around the corner. However, Lib Dem-bashing is a sad sport that doesn’t seem to do British politics any good – at its worst it is a wilful denial of the possibility of progressive change in this country. As such, it is easy to see why Clegg works himself into a lather over the “rotten political system” that perpetuates the Lab-Con seesaw and switches off the average voter from political debate.
It is only a radical who could utter the words “Westminster is a clapped-out 19th century institution that desperately needs to be replaced”. There are few in either of the two main parties who could bring themselves to do so, and neither Cameron nor Brown have shown an appetite to “change the fundamental corruption in the British political system” as the Lib Dem leader says we must. Clegg’s words are tough, but is anyone listening?
On many points I find it – personally – very hard to disagree with Nick Clegg’s diagnosis of our political system: the influence of “big money” on party funding; the unrepresentative nature of our House of Commons; one of the only unelected second chambers in the world. To Clegg, all of these problems add up to voter disengagement. He repeats several times the statistical nugget that “more people didn’t vote in the last election than voted for the winning party”. He is convinced that our politics fails to prove its relevance to people and he’s convinced that Labour and the Conservatives “don’t want to change it”, unlike the “insurgent” Liberal Democrats. The problem is, such radicalism is easily dismissed as the preserve of the irresponsible, those not faced with the gravity of government can afford to offer pie in the sky. Take last week, when Clegg went on a media blitz to peddle the idea that the government scrap the Queen’s Speech and spend the last 70 sitting days of Parliament getting the House in order. Prima facie, it’s a great idea, but it was never going to happen, and would have been a constitutional and political headache for all involved. Instead of stoking a vital debate about the dismal pace of parliamentary reform and Labour’s timidity, he was given a rather condescending hearing by most commentators.
‘There is something seriously sick in the way we run politics.’
This gets to the crux of the Lib Dem problem: there is a time in any party’s political life when they have to decide whether they are happy with insurgency or whether they want to make a viable claim to become the Establishment. Labour had to do it in the early 20th century, and I would argue the Liberal Democrats have to have that conversation today. Early in his leadership, Nick Clegg declared “I want to be Prime Minister”, and this pointed in the right direction for a grown up party. But a Prime Minister, and more importantly a party of government, is judged by the breadth of its vision, by its pragmatism and by its sense of purpose. These are all traits which Clegg has tried to bring out in the Lib Dems, showing that they are hard-headed as well as idealistic. For instance, the Lib Dem conference row over the fate of their policy on tuition fees. Clegg wanted to show the public that he understood politics was about hard choices so he said they could not guarantee fees would be scrapped under a Lib Dem government; but at the same time he wanted to show they cared by reiterating his support for the principle of scrapping tuition fees. This kind of ‘have your cake and eat it’ subtlety is lost in a media spotlight which shines but briefly and intermittently upon the third party. It is hard to act the grown up when you are fighting for attention, and when throwing a tantrum is far more likely to deliver TV cameras and column inches than quiet competence.
Despite these enduring challenges for the Liberal Democrats, it is clear that Clegg thinks they have come a long way and deserve to be taken seriously. “There’s a much steelier quality to the Liberal Democrats today” he tells me, a legacy of the party having participated in devolved government in Cardiff and Edinburgh, run large metropolitan councils like Sheffield, Liverpool and Bristol, and holding the balance of power in the House of Lords. He is right that if you look beyond the petty squabble over who has the keys to Number 10, the Liberal Democrats loom a lot larger. They got 28 per cent of the vote in the local elections earlier this year, considerably more than Labour, and while they may only have one in ten of the seats in the House of Commons, this belies the fact that they got one in four of the votes nationwide at the last general election.
It is difficult not to agree with Clegg that the system which keeps the Liberal Democrats down also smothers genuine difference between the two main parties, who are forced to vie for a narrow section of the electorate in a few marginal seats in order to make a majority government. Clegg sees firm battle-lines drawn between his party and the others, especially on progressive issues.
“We’re the only insurgent party in British politics”
The Lib Dems, he says, offer “a commitment to far, far greater social justice and fairness than either the Conservatives believe in or Labour has been able to deliver” and will back this up with “the most radical tax switch this country’s seen in a generation”. Further, he is proud of their “staunch defence of civil liberties” against an “astonishingly authoritarian” Labour government, and their “staunch defence of our internationalist credentials” against an isolationist Tory party.
One-to-one, Nick Clegg makes an excellent case for his party, neatly drawing distinctions that show the weakness of ideas in the main parties. I ask him what the difference is between Lib Dem and Conservative brands of ‘localism’ and his answer is direct. “One word: money.” He insists that, “as long as the Treasury has its clammy hands on the purse strings of the way we run this country any number of warm-sounding speeches from David Cameron won’t make the faintest bit of difference.”
Nevertheless, if rhetoric from the Lib Dems is ever going to become the change we need, the party will have to start thinking more seriously about how it can get a hand on the reins of power. Then there will be some soul-searching about how to stop power corrupting their ideals, but that is a conversation only a grown up party ever gets round to having.