Nick Clegg’s speech to the Liberal Democrat Local Government Conference

image301132936.jpgOn Saturday I got to hear Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, speak to the local government conference of the Liberal Democrats.

In The speech itself Nick dealt with the Party’s reaction to the current political situation, the pressures of coalition government, the economy, and laid some ground for yesterday’s budget.

It was a confident and reassuring speech made to an audience of councillors and party actvists. In content it contained nothing very remarkable. Yet it struck me that it was very much the speech of a government minister giving a government line. Not something we are especially used to and remarkable enough in itself for a Liberal Democrat!

Afterwards there was time for a few questions from the audience. I found it interesting that in answering the questions Nick was more animated and engaging. It seemed that you could gain a much clearer sense of his true thinking from his response to the questions than you could from the prepared speech. It is one of the more attractive things about Nick Clegg is that, while he can do the politician thing, if you ask him a question he finds it very difficult not to try and give you an honest answer.

I also reflected on how comfortably Nick seemed to be wearing government office. I suspect that dealing with the choices of government, and the issues, arguments and langauge involved in that, suit Clegg’s communication style. Some politicians are a more natural fit for opposition. I don’t think that Nick Clegg is one of those.

Nick admitted that entering the coalition is a huge gamble. He recognised that it is a risk, but a risk worth taking. “Let’s try and shape events not simply stand as spectators”, he said.

He talked of the personal pressure of office and how he has established a discipline of taking some time everyday to remind himself of the reasons why he is doing this. He then went on to highlight some of the liberal things the coalition is achieving.

But his main message was about public finances and the forthcoming budget. This was he said a time of unprecedented fiscal crisis. He was “in cold sweat” about how bad it is. But he was keen to blame Labour for creating the mess.

I thought that his argument that failure to deal with the deficit would represent a kind of generational theft came across very strongly. The political difficulties of dealing with the deficit were also highlighted by discussion of how as a Sheffield MP he had to handle the decision about the withdrawal of the government loan to Sheffield Forgemasters. This was “not easy”.

He stressed how the budget is a hugely important political moment. His view was that we needed to make big contoversial decisions soon, not just for political reasons, but because in a time of uncertainity there is a need to give the country a very clear direction.

On the politics he was optimistic. He recognised that coalition government is an act of compromise, but that outside the media and the Westminster village people find this fact totally uncontreversial. The public have a far more sensible view of the politics of coalition than many are giving them credit for.

One important factor that I think he was right to stress is how being in government makes the Liberal Democrats “relevant” in a way that they have not been before. This means that fears of the party losing it’s identity are misplaced. “Without relevance you can’t express your identity” was the point he made.

The thought I came away with most strongly after listening to Nick Clegg that morning was how much this coalition adventure is about being in it for the long haul. It has to be about staying the course for the full five years as that is the only way this will work. So for most Liberal Democrats the next few months should be about holding our nerve.

Special Conference

I am on my way to today’s Liberal Democrat Local Government Conference and thought it was about time I got round to posting my thoughts on last month’s Special Conference held at the NEC in Birmingham and called to discuss the coalition deal. So here it is:

Politics is always about both head and heart. Political decisions are made either through a process of rational thought, or by the emotional reactions of the human beings involved, or more usually by a combination of the two.

The ‘head’ of the Liberal Democrats on display at the special conference had made its mind up in a pretty clear and determined manner. It was more or less agreed that the logic of the situation the party had found itself in after the election pointed to a fairly narrow range of options. The Party seemed to have decided that a rational analysis of the risks and benefits of different courses of action leads to a strong argument for participating in this coalition.

Did head win out over heart?

Is it a clear case of the head being for and the heart being against? It certainly was for my friend Linda Jack one of the few speakers against the motion, who clearly stated that she was “voting with my heart”. But I think it was more complicated than that. While the head maybe clear the ‘heart’ of the Liberal Democrats was a lot more confused.
We feel very nervous. We know the risks are very high.

This pattern of a clear head and a troubled heart seemed to run through the speeches made in the vast aircraft hanger like hall.

The speeches

I did miss the standing ovation for Simon Hughes’ speech, which I have heard several people describe as his best speech for years, as I was having a cup of tea and a, very tasty, muffin at the time. But of the speeches and contributions I did hear this is my assessment;

Vince Cable gave the best speech I heard. I think he spoke for many, if not most, people in the party when he argued that although the risks were great for the party, for the benefit of our ideals and the country we had to take that risk.

Why should we participate in the coalition? “I want to confront the present reality and advance my hopes for this party and this country” he said.

The speech that moved me most was the one by Tom McNally. Others have noted Toms extraordinary journey from Labour Prime Ministerial advisor to Minister in a Lib Dem/Conservative coalition. But his speech showed how that journey wasn’t without passion and principle. His was one of the more effective lines of the day as in describing his responibility for the Human Rights Act he declared that he was now “Minister with responsibility for this Party’s soul.”

The best speaker in the two intervention slots was Alex Wilcock who managed to make several telling points in a short space of time.

The most politically effective speech I thought was from Lynne Featherstone MP. As the new Minister for Equalities she dealt well with issues of concern for the Party – “there will be no roll back on equalities on my watch” – and set out an agenda for her new role grounded in political reality – “We are here to help David Cameron’s frontbench deal with the head bangers on his back bench.” (I will say though that the speech would have been more politically effective if journalists and TV cameras had been allowed in to report on it.)

Time to get dirty

There were a number of speakers who made an argument that was essentially along the lines of it is time for the Liberal Democrats to grow up. This is a time for the party to get real, make the tough decisions, and become proper players in politics. Andrew Stunnell MP used the line that the Liberal Democrats are “not a hobby”. Similary Chris Davies MEP said “We are members of a political party, not a knitting circle”.

Evan Harris typically made the point by quoting Woody Allen – “Is sex dirty? Only if you’re doing it right!” Well, he argued, it’s the same with politics.

Evan’s speech saw one of the more poignant moments as the long applause the hall gave him demonstrated the respect the Party has for him and our distress at him narrowly losing his Oxford seat.

But it was Vince Cable who got it most right – “The biggest comfort zone is opposition”.

Shopping lists

While some did get rather excited at the sight of real live Liberal Democrat cabinet ministers, most understood the point that power and position is only important for the things it can achieve.

So there was much talk about the amount of Liberal Democrat policies in the coalition deal. But there were also those who had brought their shopping lists.

The amendments were all about things peole wanted from this deal; concerns over human rights and support for the HRA, social liberal concerns about social justice and the new governments approach to the poor, the ever present issue of tuition fees, the Digital Economy Act, and so on.

I did wonder what the two speakers from Wales thought they would achieve with what was essentially a whinge that there was not enough in the coalition deal for Wales. I do hope that now we are in government demands goodies for particular constituencies or areas doesn’t become a feature of Liberal Democrat conferences. Pork barrel politics is never very attractive.

Electoral reform

One of the themes I want to highlight from the day, mostly because i have some sympathy with it, was an underlying dissatisfaction with the deal over electoral reform.

The clearest advocate for this was former MP David Rendel, who was apparently the only member of the Party’s Federal Executive to vote against the coalition agreement. He was not a happy man. He said that the decisions of those crucial party meetings had “left me feeling very lonely”.

His concerns are real, I have some understanding of where he is coming from. He could be right that we will see five years of good government followed by five decades in the wilderness. I very much hope he is wrong.

But then that is very much the gamble we are taking. Will the things we achieve for the country be worth the potential political damage that could hit the party and can we turn delivery in government into renewed growth for the party.

But as Chris Huhne MP pointed out in his summation coalition government can work. With his tongue in his cheek he referred back to a previous coalition government, the 1940-45 coalition government under Churchill; “you know what I learnt about the Second World War? – we won!”

At the end of the debate the vote against the coalition agreement was barely into double figures.

So its Simon

The thoroughly predictable result of the contest for the deputy leadership of the parliamentary party of the Liberal Democrats is the election of Simon Hughes. Congratulations to Simon.

The impression given beforehand was that his take on the role was to be a voice for the backbenches and assert the party’s independence. But his immediate comments after the election were about unity and his support for the coalition. This nicely illustrates the difficult balancing act he will have to perform in order to make this role work. I hope he has developed a clear idea of the role he wants to play and the agenda he wants to pursue. For without that clarity there are likely to be problems.

I wish him well.

Why I would back Farron for Deputy Leader

Soon we get to find out who the Liberal Democrat MPs have chosen as deputy leader. Who they choose matters, but not a huge amount.

There is a famous quote about how the role of Vice President of the USA is “not worth a pitcher of warm piss”. How much then is the Deputy Leadership of the Liberal Democrats worth? Especially as it comes without a role in government.

There has been some exaggerated talk about the importance of this role. Not least from the two candidates themselves. The demands that the holder of the post should be elected by an all member ballot being especially silly.

Let us be clear – Nick Clegg is Leader of the Liberal Democrats and leader of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party. This role is to be deputy leader of the parliamentary party only. This is a Westminster role and has it’s significance in a Westminster context.

There are other Liberal Democrat leaders across the country. In Europe, Scotland, Wales and local government who have the authority to lead in their particular sphere of influence. In the Party as a whole any Deputy Leader would be out ranked by the Party President.

If the eventual winner tonight seeks to turn this role into something it is not I warn them that they will come a cropper. They should steer well clear of any pretensions they may have to be “the leader outside the government”. That is not say that the role won’t be significant, and more so than in the past.

The parliamentary party has a lot of work to do to adapt the way it works to the new context of coalition government and find ways to retain an independent voice. As has the Party as a whole. The role of Deputy Leader will be important in this. There is a need for a conduit between the backbenches and the frontbenches, between the party in government and the party in the country, and between Liberal Democrats in government and the voters.

So it should not be an organisational role. Establishing and running a team of backbench spokespeople is a bad, and potentially dangerous, idea. Instead it should focus on communication. If the winner tonight concentrates on that they have the potential to be an important and influential actor on a very big stage.

So who should it be?

In Tim Farron and Simon Hughes we have two highly impressive and charismatic politicians. I like and admire both of them and in truth would be content with either of them. But if I had a choice I would vote for Farron.

I am and always have been a big Simon Hughes fan but so often that admiration has been tinged with apprehension and disappointment. I would have the same feelings for him in this role. He is also in this contest the predictable establishment choice. In a funny way he is the “safe bet”. Yet the last thing we should be doing now is playing it safe.

There is also, this being a communications role, the need to catch the mood of the country and set the right tone. One of the problems with the coalition government that is already obvious is that it feels too southern and priveleged. It would be very helpful if parts of the Liberal Democrats could differentiate themselves from that. While Simon Hughes has always been a powerful defender of the poor and disadvantaged, my reckoning is that the comprehensive school lad from Cumbria would be better able to make that contrast. Farron is also funnier. So on that basis my vote would be for him.

Luton South is now Lib Dem target 56

Luton South would be Liberal Democrat target seat number 56 at the next General Election.

Paul Walter has pulled together the list of the new target seats for the Liberal Democrats ranked by the percentage point difference between the party’s percentage of the vote, and that of the winner.

According to this list the constituencies in Bedfordshire come in the following order:

Luton South is 56

Bedford is 135

Bedfordshire Mid 300

Bedfordshire South West 435

Bedfordshire North East 463

Luton North 512

The effect of incumbency in Luton

A while back I noticed this interesting article on the effect of incumbency on the general election result on It highlights the results of the two Luton seats as strong examples of where it believes this played out:

“Striking differences can be seen in the same towns, between incumbents and non-incumbents. For example, in Milton Keynes North, where the incumbent was a Conservative, the swing to the Tories was 9.2%; in Milton Keynes South, where the incumbent was Labour, the swing was 6.2%. In Swindon North, where a new Labour candidate stood, the swing was 10%. In Swindon South, where the MP ran again, the swing was 5.5%. Most notably of all, perhaps, in Luton South, the swing to the Conservatives was 4.6%, while Luton North, where the sitting MP had distinguished himself during the expenses scandal, showed a rare swing to Labour of 0.5%.”

Greencoat Boy

I’ve been following a bit of the mini-Twitter scandal about the Greencoat Boy. If you missed this read this report to get the gist.

While the reported homophobia is of course appalling, and it is good to see another example of new media being used as a weapon to fight bigotry, my main reaction to this story was to start reminiscing about my time working for the Commission for Social Care Inspection in 2008.

The Commission had its headquarters just round the corner from the Greencoat Boy so the pub became a regular after work haunt for a time. As it is for hundreds of office workers who work in that corner of Westminster. I always thought it was a funny sort of pub. It was obviously reliant on that office trade and had no real particular qualities of its own. I remember the service was often slow.

After a while we gave up on the Greencoat Boy and relocated to another regular venue. If you are in that part of London and fancy a drink can I recommend The Speaker. A friendly pub, with a good atmosphere, and proper beer.

Shuker and the Commons Communication Allowance

The Daily Express has a story criticising the advice that the new MP for Luton South Gavin Shuker gave to his predecessor Margaret Moran about the Commons Communication Allowance.

I am not sure there is really that much in this story, but then the news that Moran sought to gain maximum poltical advantage out of her use of the Comminications Allowance is not news to me. It will interesting to watch what Shuker does with this money.