I imagine that Nick Clegg might well be feeling a bit irritated right now, especially if he’s read the Liberal Democrat Voice survey which shows his overall approval rating at an all time low of 16% among the members who responded. As author Stephen Tall says, those figures come with a bit of a health (sorry) warning, given that the survey had an awful lot of questions about the NHS in it.
I have always believed in Nick Clegg. The very first time I met him was in 1998 when he pitched up at East Midlands Lib Dems tiny, dingy office in Leicester. I was on the shortlisting panel that was interviewing prospective Euro candidates. It was late, we were tired and grumpy and it was going to take a lot to impress us.
From the moment Nick Clegg entered the room and started talking of his frustration that talented people were being held back because of their background and how he wanted to sort that out. His authenticity, passion and commitment were clear, even if his experience and knowledge of the party was not as good as it could have been. He blew us away that night and there was never any doubt he’d make the shortlist. In fact, we all thought he’d end up leader of the party at some stage. The idea that he’d lead us into Government for the first time in 80 years never crossed our minds, though.
We still see today how he’s true to his roots and principles, through all the stuff he’s done to help people get up and get on. These aren’t just ideas, but actual real things happening because he’s there in Government. On mental health, he’s challenging stigma, he’s provided much needed, effective talking therapies for half a million people. I’ve been there with Depression
so I know how liberating and life changing that is. He’s put £2.5 billion a year into the Pupil Premium to give extra help to the children from deprived backgrounds who need it most. As a parent, he knows the struggles surrounding child care so he’s making the system easier and more flexible so people can decide what suits them best. He’s led a team of ministers who have given tax cuts to the lowest paid, delivered the biggest cash rise in state benefits, made sure the Chancellor uprated benefits in line with inflation when Osborne really didn’t want to. He’s spoken out to defend human rights measures when the Tories want to undermine them, especially at the time of the riots last year. He’s doing what he can within Government to repair the damage done by the Prime Minister. He has stopped the appalling scandal of kids being locked up for months on end in horrible places like Yarl’s Wood and Dungavel for immigration purposes. He’s stopped LGBT people being sent back to places where they’d face persecution.
That’s an impressive list and it’s nowhere near exhaustive. I haven’t even started on climate change and the Green stuff, but it would just make this post too long. We as party members need to keep that sort of stuff in our heads and we do need to confidently go out and shout about it. Nobody else is going to shout about it for us.
There have been low points, too. We know what they are. From tuition fees to the parts of welfare reform that’s taken money from vulnerable, sick people to thinking that anyone in this party needed or wanted a referendum on AV especially in year 1 to this weekend’s performance over the NHS Bill, there have been misjudgements and mistakes. All parties cock up in Government, though and our mistakes have not got anywhere near starting an illegal war against the will of the people or building a whopping deficit through indiscriminate and wasteful spending. Governing is hard enough without having the most hostile and dangerous economic environment for generations.Nick and his team need to learn from our cock ups, though and they need to understand that at times he’s leading the party way out of its comfort zone and to manage that process a lot better.
There is no point in Nick or other ministers getting cross and deciding to retreat from the party. That way lies tumbling satisfaction numbers. The party’s future, more than the others, relies on having lots of activists getting out there and knocking on doors and doing the work on the ground to get our Councillors and MPs re-elected. And, like it or not, that bit of the Party that comes to Conferences is the bit that leads that campaigning effort.
Nick showed a couple of signs of irritability with and misunderstanding of the party this weekend. The first came at the rally on Friday night where he was referred to his first experiences in the party having been marked out by Paddy Ashdown as a good prospect.He didn’t sound entirely happy at having been sent leafletting. That’s not just about dropping bits of paper into letterboxes. It’s about getting to know how the party works, chatting to the people who make it what it is. When people shy away from the doorstep or the campaign team, that’s a sure sign that they need to get out there and do it. The best place to learn any organisation is from the ground up, especially if you’re going to spend your whole life in it.
And then there was the misguided statement that you were either on Shirley Williams’ side or Andy Burnham’s, a real slap in the face to the likes of Evan Harris who knows what he’s talking about. That was only ever going to irritate people and in fact I know that it made people actively decide to vote the other way.
The team around Clegg showed a worrying misunderstanding of how Conference debates work, too. They just didn’t get enough cards in. There were 3 times as many cards against the “Shirley Williams” motion as there were for and the debate, as it should have done, reflected that balance. In fact, there were less speeches against than there should have been due to a late start. If they’d found another 20 people out of the 600 present to be willing to speak, the debate would have been much more evenly matched. It’s basic strategy and they failed on that. That’s the problem with having the strategy and tactics developed by people who haven’t had much experience of being an activist. I’m not saying they have to, but they should maybe ask some for advice. Anyone with half an ounce of common sense would have been able to tell them that what they had planned would not work.
So, there’s a couple of signs of tension in the relationship between the leader and the party. Tell me any relationships in life that don’t have their ups and downs. The one sure fact is that things won’t improve if we retreat from each other.
Way back in May 2010, I wrote some advice to Lib Dem Ministers which I remind you all of from time to time – and this seems to be an appropriate moment to do so again. I wrote then:
I’ve seen it happen before when, for example, a Lib Dem Council group is formed for the first time, or a Council administration. Sometimes the people who are holding the office at whatever level can really feel that their loyalties are torn. A friend of mine and I were talking yesterday and he called it almost like Stockholm Syndrome. Our ministers will be spending most of their time within the corridors of power and may feel that their first loyalty is to the Government rather than the party. In fact, there may be times on both sides of the coalition when the company of people outside their party is preferable. I think that this sort of thing is inevitable but both the ministers and the party need to be aware of it and do the old working at our relationship sort of thing. We in the party need to listen to the ministers and understand the pressures on them too. Just take it from experience that a bit of time cuddling up to the party will pay dividends in the long term and cause much less hassle.
Our party is not one that just blindly obeys its leaders. That will never change and nor should it. Part of being a liberal is understanding and relishing in diversity and debate. That’s not always easy for leaders to deal with and it won’t always be possible for them to find the energy to inspire. The party and the ministers will need to have a bit of give and take on both sides. I was glad to see that there has been proper thought to how to maintain the relationships within the coalition – similar thoght needs to be given in how to ensure that relationships between the ministers and the party stay as cordial and mutually supportive as possible.
I think our ministers would love to have the comfort of Stockholm Syndrome to give them some relief from the daily battles I’m sure they fight with Tories to stop them doing stupid things. Coalition Government, especially between two parties with such different outlooks, must be hard work. The obvious discomfiture of the Tory right, who would be calling the shots if we weren’t there, shows that they are doing a good job of that.
The last thing on earth I can imagine they want to do is to come out and soothe a scratchy party that they think doesn’t understand them, but the more remote they become, the wider the gulf will get. Certainly, they can’t be telling us the awful internal secrets of day to day Government life, but they can reassure us when we get a bit worried. For our part, we need to show them that we appreciate the things they are getting through and imagine what it must be like to have to deal with the likes of Eric Pickles, Theresa May and IDS on a daily basis.
So, what specifically can Nick do to shore up his relationship with the party? I can think of three things:
Get back out there and talk to members, listen to them too. A touch of humility about this weekend might not go amiss.Also remember that we are taking the same sort of abuse he’s getting, but he’s insulated from it in a way. Any of us on the internet, using the social media that helps us campaign without the need for massive funds, has every troll for miles around trying to freak us out. That’s fine. We know they’re trolls, but wading through tonnes of abuse to get to the people who genuinely want to communicate with you can be at times a bit tiresome. And some of us do get more grief than we’re used to from non Lib Dems in our lives.
The e-mails from HQ have vastly improved since the early days of awfulness, but there’s more of a need than ever to keep refining and keep communicating in all sorts of different ways.
Nick needs to do more web chat events with members and do the Summer tour thing again – but don’t try 8 lots of people in two days because he’s clearly knackered by the end of it. It’s cruel and unusual punishment for one person to put themselves through that.
For the love of goodnesss, please start giving us some decent information to combat the rubbish that’s been written about us out there? The quality of the stuff on Huddle is variable to say the least and is mostly written in Bubblespeak.
If you read the internet, you would get the impression that we’d destroyed the NHS, which, even if this bill passes, won’t happen, taken all benefits away from the sick ad disabled, and made university unaffordable for many. A lot of the things said are not true, but they become established truth because they are not being effectively challenged soon enough. We became the spawn of the devil on tuition fees despite reducing the monthly payments for lowest earners by £74 a month. How did we let that happen? On welfare, we have made a difference by getting more money put aside to mitigate the effects of the benefit cap and bedroom tax changes, we got rid of the stupid Tory plan to cut Housing Benefit by 10% after a year, we reduced the amount people would have to pay for child maintenance enforcement up front by a lot.
Expecting us to go out on the doorsteps without decent information to combat the myths is cruel and unusual punishment of us. We urgently need to sort this one out. Yes, it’s important to fight our cause on our issues, but we need to have the ammunition to respond to what people are saying to us on the doorsteps or our good news won’t cut any ice.
People on doorsteps generally aren’t as angry as we expect them to be, but being sent out with knowledge inspires confidence and motivation.
Nowhere has this been more obvious than on the Health and Social Care Bill. We urgently need something on one page in plain English that tells us why change was necessary and, from a patient’s point of view, what will change and how it will be better if this bill is passed.
Get everyone on the same page BEFORE you agree to legislation
The Health and Social Care Bill is a case in point. That person with half an ounce of common sense would have taken one look at the original Lansley Bill and seen straight away that there was no way the party would accept it and that the Parliamentarians would be split on it. That was the point to kick it into touch.
There is a need to try to keep everyone together when you’re doing something like this otherwise you look a bit scrappy and inept. The right thing to have done would have been for Nick and Danny to go into “the quad”, way back in 2010 when the bill was in its infancy and say that there was no way the party would wear it in that form, and it wasn’t in the Coalition Agreement. However, the party would be more likely to agree to certain other changes which would sort out Labour’s prolific throwing of money at the private sector with no real gain.
We’ve done wonders for our credibility over the past two years because we have shown ourselves capable of taking tough decisions and governing in the national interest. We’ve not shown ourselves at our best on this. What’s worse is that we’ve allowed a weakened Labour party, whose record on the NHS isn’t that great, to make political capital at our expense, spreading misinformation and often downright lies. I took some stick from one as I was heading into Conference on Sunday morning who didn’t like being challenged on Labour’s record and just got stroppy. The stuff they are coming out with does not stand up to scrutiny and their scaremongering is irresponsible and untrue.
The thing is Labour and the unions have loads of resources, phone banks, research and campaigns staff. We have a teensy tiny fraction of the armoury at their disposal. To allow ourselves to become so associated with this Bill on an issue that voters feel is of paramount importance, leaving us exposed to this barrage of criticism, has been a monumental strategic failure. The Scotsman described it as I don’t think this Bill represents the end of the NHS as we know it but we’re now in a situation where, as Rachel Coleman-Finch said in the debate the other day, ” we’re screwed if we pass it, we’re screwed if we don’t.”
We need to start aggressively fighting back on health. We had better make sure that the changes, once implemented, make sure that patients are better served than they were before. My worry (one of them at least) is that if commissioning GPs, with the highly paid consultants they’ll inevitably need to tell them how the system works, start contracting with the private sector, we’ll end up with unfavourable terms which are difficult to exit from if service standards aren’t met. For example, if a GP consortium says it’s going to contract with X company for a three year period for physio services, and X company doesn’t deliver what it needs to, what will the consequences be for patients? There needs to be exit clauses. I have to make the point, though, that, currently, if the patient gets sent along to the local physio, they may face a long wait and poor service, so it’s not as cut and dried as that. The new service might be fabulous, but how do we ensure it?
It’s a huge risk. We could still pull the plug on the Bill. We have that option. That might put the rest of the reforms we have achieved and might achieve in the future within the Coalition in jeopardy so we have to look at all the consequences in the round. If we are going to back it, though, we have to be absolutely sure that things will improve from the patient’s point of view. If they do not, we’ll get a kicking.
The situation we’re in could have been avoided, but we need to make the best of it now. It must never, ever happen again, though and the party needs to be reassured that lessons have been learned. If Nick isn’t consulting frequently with people like Nicol Stephen and Robert Brown, leader and former business manager (chief whip) in the second coalition with Labour up here, then he should be. Then, Labour mucked up big time on health, closing down local hospitals and services which the SNP pledged to save and kind of half did in some places. They had less people to keep together and only one Chamber, but the principles are the same. The difference with the Scottish coalitions is that the people got roughly the Parliament they asked for. This is not the case at Westminster where we should have around 140 MPs on our share of the vote rather than 57. This makes our challenge more difficult, and the extent of our influence so far more remarkable.
Nick is a good leader and is doing very good things in Government in very difficult circumstances. Both the party and the leader need to do a bit of work on their relationship, though, and soon. I’m sure that a bit of effort on both sides and a good Budget for us will get those satisfaction figures back up where they should be.