Richard Reeves, quondam Director of Strategy for one Nicholas Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Liberal Democrats (goodness, how time flies, that combination no longer sounds jarringly new, just faintly absurd) has an excellent article in the New Statesman, not least because it contains an actual strategy for the Liberal Democrats, rather than a random jumble of undergraduate sociology thesis titles, which is what we usually have to put up with ahead of the Party conference season.*
I have to confess, on reading this epistle, I scratched my head. How on earth could such pellucid text come from the hand of a man so intimately involved with the most laughably incompetent political operation of my adult life?
Wait. It can’t be that writing about politics is easier than doing politics, could it? Surely not.
A large part of Reeves’ essay attempts to persuade the Liberal Democrats that a renewed liberalism is the right stance to take, As a respectful outsider, I shan’t comment on any Liberal Democrat debate about their political philosophy and the choices that follow from it. I might be a liberal, but I’m not a Liberal, so I don’t think I should lecture those who are on what they should or shouldn’t do, philosophically speaking.**
However, I think I am qualified to comment on the part of Reeves’ article that relates to brute political self-interest. At heart, I’m a thug, not a thinker, so I can relate to this. Reeves says:
“..on the narrowest grounds of straightforward party interest, sticking to a truly liberal path is the best option. Those who yearn to pull the party back to the left should think hard about what the campaign message would be in 2015. Any attempt to position the Liberal Democrats as a party of the centre left after five years of austerity government in partnership with the Conservatives will be laughed out of court by the voters – and rightly so.
Anybody who wants a centre-left party will find a perfectly acceptable one in Labour. The Liberal Democrats need centrist voters, “soft Tories”, ex-Blairites, greens – and anyone who thinks the Tories are for the rich and Labour can’t be trusted with the economy. There is a new political market for the Liberal Democrats. The party just needs to seek it out, rather than looking wistfully at the old customers who have turned away. The left-wing votes “borrowed” from Labour in 2010 will not be available in 2015. New ones must be found.”
This makes an awful lot of sense to me. I don’t mean to be boastful, but some genius wrote the other week that:
“the LibDems are mistaken if they think that the electoral coalition that got them to the mid-twenties under Kennedy and Clegg is ever going to come back for the next election. That coalition included HE students, large numbers of white-collar public sector workers, and a substantial number of people who defined themselves as being to the left of the Labour party. For good or ill, Government has shattered that alliance…
..Imagine the Shiny new Lib Dem leader explaining why the decision to join with the Conservatives, approve the cuts, cut the deficit was absolutely right and necessary, but at the same time, needs to be repudiated so that the Lib Dems can form an alliance with a party that opposed these absolutely right decisions every step of the way…
…The Lib dems should stop dreaming of a return to their salad days, but to see that their potential support is much narrower than it was, and made up of a much more political centrist and conservative pool of voters… …hard headedness, a certain economic dryness, all set in a moderate and centrist one nation framework, might maximise their appeal among those who are still willing to consider voting LibDem in 2015.”
After the Tories unknowingly took my advice earlier this week, I don’t know whether I’m tupenny ha’penny Cassandra or a pint-pot John the baptist. Certainly no-one in my party is listening to me, so it’s strangely discomfiting that people I think are wrong about everything appear to agree with me.
However, Reeves errs when he links the “pure centrist” Lib Dem political strategy, which certainly could exist, with the continuance in leadership of one Nicholas Clegg, the one person who could never sell such a position to the electorate. This is because, and I can’t put this strongly enough:
PEOPLE HATE NICK CLEGG.
REALLY HATE HIM.
REALLY. REALLY. HATE. HIM.
They are not kidding about this and are not going to change their minds.
So, come on, Richard, the progressive graveyard is full of indispensable leaders. The only question about getting rid of Clegg is when is the smartest time to bring on the chopper. I’d suggest Autumn 2014.
The strange thing is that if we recognise Clegg is an electoral busted flush***, the person who could best sell the strategy Reeves advocates is the one he seems least enamoured of, namely Vince Cable.
After all, a socially liberal, economically credible, counter cyclical but fiscally disciplined, services reforming strategy could edge up to the “Blair shaped hole” Reeves identifies, and of all the possible replacements for Clegg, Cable is the only one who has retained any affection among the electorate and has the political chops to carry off such a move. Laws would be tainted, Alexander and Huhne are embarrassments, Farron and Davey are nobodies and the rest are frightful****. Curiously enough, the danger for Cable is the reverse. He must not fall into the solicitous embrace of well wishers to the left, thus making him unacceptable to those in his own party. If he wants to kill Clegg, he should do so with kindness, not oak-arrow-shots. (see what I did there?)
So, LibDems, take Reeves’ advice on strategy, but reject it on personnel. Install Cable or an acolyte in ’14, but make sure he steers clear of the likes of me beforehand. Now, off you trot.
*Except for New Labour, which preferred baffling statements of unidirectional intent which appeared to be lifted verbatim from an upmarket Estate Agent’s brochure.
** Though can I confess an eye roll at the title of a Clegg pamphlet Reeves proffered. It was called “The Liberal Moment”. Good Lord, so hackneyed. If there’s one truth in centre left politics, it’s that we do all have our “moments”.
***If you’re Liberal Democrat: pause here to mark his ‘huge tribute to Liberal Democracy for which we are all so grateful” before shoving him off-stage.
****Look, I’m not a Liberal, so I can be horrid. But I’m probably the sort of person Reeves wishes was a Liberal. So you should listen