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What Labour thinks!!

March 21, 2013 12:07 PM
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

So the anger and betrayal was very real for many on the left when Clegg took the Tory shilling. Indeed according to the polls, many formerly Lib Dem voters felt the same as they quickly switched to Labour. Clegg went from hero-to-zero in weeks as he became Cameron's Poodle and was widely ridiculed for having sold out his and his Parties principles for a stint in a Ministerial car. My particular favourite Calamity Clegg joke is:

"Q. What does Nick Clegg stand for?

"A. When David Cameron walks in the room."

It may be cruel but it sums up the view of Labour party activists across the country. And to be fair, he did seem pretty determined to confirm this view as he was outmanoeuvred on the AV referendum and then clumsily supported the increasing of tuition fees allowing himself to be branded a hypocrite.

His party's polling numbers went into free fall and Clegg's personal ratings fell further still. He and his party often looked a bit amateurish and they were blamed over and over by Labour politicians for propping up Cameron's cuts. The possibility of House of Lords reform came and went as once again the Tories scuppered a favourite Lib Dem policy. And then UKIP started occasionally, and then consistently, pipping the Lib Dems for third place in the polls. The consensus within the Labour Party has been that Nick Clegg lacks principle, is a busted flush, a bit of a joke and that his party should and will dump him before the next election.

But I think that this view is wrong and that Labour has let its own prejudice cloud its strategic judgement. Nick Clegg entered government with two very clear aims. Firstly to prove that the Lib Dems could be a responsible party of government prepared to take tough decisions. And secondly to deliver as much of the Lib Dem manifesto as possible.

And on both he has succeeded.

Being in government always puts stresses and strains on parties as they navigate the inevitable compromises and disappointments. But it is not Clegg's Lib Dem MPs who are rebelling against their leader or calling for him to go in the face of difficult circumstances. In fact journalists looking for Lib Dem split stories or whispers of Clegg plots struggle to find anyone apart from Lord Oakeshott (generally off the record) or Adrian Sanders MP's occasional gripe about tactics.

Clegg has courted his party assiduously by meeting weekly with his MPs and ministers. And out in the constituencies Lib Dem activists have been loyal despite the losses of council seats and a fractious reception from voters on the doorsteps.

What a contrast with the ungovernable Tories and Cameron's approach with his MPs and minsters! It is the Tories not the Lib Dems who seem to be struggling with government.

But Clegg's real success has been on his influence on the governmental agenda. Far from being the passive partner, simply rubber stamping Tory policy, the Lib Dems have quietly secured large swathes of their own manifesto. It may not all be to Labour's satisfaction but the pupil premium, retaining the governmental goal of ending child poverty, the banking levy, increasing capital gains tax for higher rate earners, restoring the link between pensions and earnings, delaying the replacement of Trident, pushing on with renewable energy, creating a green investment bank, stopping the closure of local post offices and increasing the numbers of apprenticeships were all Lib Dem manifesto commitments.

And the budget saw George Osborne announce that the key Lib Dem commitment of a £10,000 tax free allowance will be achieved in 2014. But whilst the tax commitment is getting the headlines Osborne also announced that there will be no further savings in welfare spending in the 2015/16 spending round which is also a significant Lib Dem victory in the face of Tory calls for further cuts.

So calamity Clegg is in fact leading a united party that is quietly getting on with securing its manifesto while their partners in government rip themselves apart over Europe and stalking horse challengers to Cameron. Certainly Tory backbenchers are pretty sure that the Lib Dems are punching well above their weight! If you are in any doubt about it just mention the boundary review to a Tory in a marginal seat and then duck.

Meanwhile Labour is still struggling to find a credible and coherent approach to the politics of austerity. Far from a consistent political approach the Labour front bench is involved in a push me-pull me over the cuts by appearing to accept the need for them in principle but opposing the specifics.

While Clegg seems prepared to make a virtue of taking difficult decisions and then explaining them to his party, Ed Miliband hasn't yet found his "you're not going to like this but…" voice when talking to his.

The recent Leveson discussions have been instructive in this. It seems clear that Clegg made a decision to do what he saw as the right thing even if it upset the Prime Minister. Harriet Harman and Jim Wallace did the negotiating and by all accounts Harman impressed the Lib Dems.

Those on Labour's side found Clegg to be tough but intelligent. But when it came to the business end of the process over pizza and kit-kats Ed Miliband underwhelmed by seeming to find taking and sticking to a decision difficult as he came under pressure from Hacked Off.

And finally Clegg himself clearly has a plan. He is engaged in a Blair style masochism strategy that involves radio phone-ins and increasingly frequent engagement with the public. He is re-developing a distinct voice. It is not hard to see that at some point in late 2014 he can exit government head held high with a slowly re-enhanced reputation in advance of the poll. He then asks for support on the basis of Lib Dem delivery and moderating the excesses of the Tories.

His party polls in the high teens and he retains a sizeable chunk of his MPs. If there is a hung parliament then he is once again king maker.

So Labour need to re-appraise Clegg. He is in fact turning out to be a pretty impressive deputy prime minister and is likely to be a formidable opponent at the next election. It may be fun painting him as a lightweight and a fool.

But he is clearly neither.

In fact Nick Clegg has in many ways been the most impressive of the party leaders, and Labour may very well need his support in the weekend after the poll in May 2015.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party