Who’s sorry now? The battle facing the Lib Dems
WITH Nick Clegg’s apology inviting derision, the Lib Dems are struggling to reconnect with Scottish voters, writes Eddie Barnes
GOOGLE tells the story succinctly. Typing the Deputy Prime Minister’s name into the search engine at the end of last week produced three options – “Nick Clegg apology”, “Nick Clegg song”, and “Nick Clegg looking sad”.
The apology – to say sorry for pledging to stop tuition fees prior to the 2010 general election – had been under discussion for a while within Lib Dem ranks. A newspaper sting last Christmas caught Lib Dem ministers revealing how they felt about having gone back on the deal. “I’ve just done the worst crime a politician can commit, the reason most folk distrust us as a breed,” declared Scottish Secretary Michael Moore. Despite happening two years ago, Lib Dem members were finding that the issue was killing them. A little like Iraq with Labour, the party would get so far with people as they tried to sell to them the merits of their policies, before tuition fees was raised and potential support would scatter.
The hope was that the apology would cauterize the wound. “We weren’t getting past it. The apology was an effort to break down the barriers so we can promote other things we’re doing in government,” said one adviser. The risk was that the apology would end up only reminding people about the sin in the first place.
Even now, the Liberal Democats concede they have no idea whether it will backfire horribly. But, so desperate was the situation, and backed by his colleagues, Clegg decided to go ahead. Opinion the day after was decidedly mixed. “It’s like cheating on your wife, and then apologising to her for getting married,” said one wag.
The song materialised the morning after the apology had been aired. In the latest example of how the web has changed politics for good, a satirical website called “the Poke” asked Alex Ross, a 28-year old music producer, to have a go at mixing it to music. Clegg’s apology appeared on the web late on Wednesday afternoon. At 9pm, Ross started work remixing it. He finished at 3am before heading to bed. Four hours later, John Prescott was among the first to retweet it. By Friday evening, more than half-a-million viewers had accessed the website’s link. Clegg soon gave his permission for the song to be sold commercially, with proceeds going to a local hospital in Sheffield.
He may get plaudits for having the good grace to accept being mocked. But mockery it remains. So is Nick Clegg still looking sad? The third Google link relates to another viral website of the same name, which has found mass popularity simply by posting photographs of the Lib Dem leader looking miserable. There are plenty of examples – and reasons too. Last week, a new Ipsos Mori poll found that Clegg is now enduring his worst ever ratings. Just 23 per cent are satisfied with his performance, as against 66 per cent who are unhappy. Currently, only two frontline politicians in Britain score worse: the two Georges, Osborne and Galloway.
After remorse comes reconciliation. The Lib Dems hope that their conference over the coming days might act as some sort of political punctuation mark, from which to kick on, in Scotland as in the rest of the UK. But when the wounds and the derision are this deep, is that possible?
On the ground, the Lib Dems are searching around for signs that the green shoots of recovery are on their way. Earlier this month, just north of Glasgow in Kirkintilloch, the party hailed its result in a council by-election where, compared to the main elections a few months earlier, the party saw its vote go up tenfold. Willie Rennie, the party’s Scottish leader, celebrated the achievement. But the result still left the Lib Dems third, behind the SNP and Labour, in a part of the country where they have a decent presence. Labour now believes it can move on to pick up the Westminster seat in the area, held by local MP Jo Swinson.
One Labour figure in the area notes: “Clegg saying sorry doesn’t make any difference. All the Tories in the area hate them. And the Lib Dem and Labour voters think they screwed people over on tuition fees”. At last year’s Scottish elections, the results of this were all too apparent. Writing afterwards, former party leader Tavish Scott noted: “Despite having an impeccable record on abolishing tuition fees in Scotland, the Scottish Liberal Democrats were remorselessly dragged into the political gutter by the decision in London.” Scarily for the Lib Dems, they were defeated in their traditional Scottish strongholds: from Skye to Fife, the tide went out, leaving the party without a single constituency seat in the Scottish mainland, and conferring upon it the moniker: “the Orkney and Shetland party”.
However, with 57 Westminster seats across the country, including 12 in Scotland, the hope among Lib Dem figures is that their traditional strength – the party’s legendary ability to sink deep foundations into a local area – will now see them through these dark days. In Scotland, the examples of MPs such as John Thurso in Caithness, Charlie Kennedy in Ross, Skye and Lochaber and Sir Menzies Campbell in Fife are raised as figures whose status can outweigh the national trend. But thanks to the tuition fees u-turn, and the widespread snarky view that the Lib Dems “sold out” by getting into bed with the Conservatives, the party finds itself taking the full brunt of public cynicism against the political class.
Speaking to Scotland on Sunday, Scottish Secretary Michael Moore – who holds a vulnerable 5,500 majority over the Conservatives – said that the only way back was to reconnect, door by door. “I was thinking back the other day to 1997 when we had a whole raft of public meetings [in his seat]. Nowadays we have moved to a more rigid system of mass emails, Twitter and Facebook,” he says. “There’s nothing like getting direct contact with people.”
He says he has drawn inspiration from a public meeting he arranged recently in Jedburgh with supporters of the left-wing web-based 38 Degrees campaign. “We had the most invigorating debate on everything from fundamental philosophy to fuel duty tax. I’m not going to pretend I won them over but what I do know is that through that meeting I am better informed about what worries them and they will take away more about the complexity of decisions that face us and how we respond to the many different competing demands.”
Alongside that reconnection, Moore and his fellow Lib Dem colleagues are now desperate to try to find air time amid the apologies and protests for other non-tuition fee related material to be pushed. The decrease in the basic rate of tax and the “triple lock” on pensions are chief among them. Moore brandishes a new figure, claiming that every pensioner will have been given an extra £509 by next April since the coalition’s pensions changes were brought in last year. Expect plenty of this from Clegg on Wednesday when he is likely to use his keynote address to the party conference to exploit the space opened up by his apology in a bid to drive home the message that the party is making a difference. However, given not just the tuition fees u-turn, but also his double failure to secure House of Lords reform and a change to the Westminster voting system, that will be some ask.
And, in Scotland, the party hopes the constitutional battleground will also provide it with a further shot at salvation. Rennie has held the line with Labour and the Conservatives so far on the referendum, insisting that there be a straight choice on independence given to people. But, at its Scottish conference next month, the party will put forward the findings of its Home Rule Commission, headed up by Sir Ming Campbell, which will set out a path to a more federal UK structure, and highlight the Lib Dem’s long-standing desire to push for a more powerful Scottish Parliament within the UK.
The party hopes the Commission’s work will become an early blueprint for a more powerful devolution, something it hopes may attract the large bulk of public opinion in Scotland which – albeit hazily – appears taken by a “more powers” option. The Lib Dems believe there is a large plot of political turf waiting to be occupied. One aide notes: “The Commission can be a rallying point to secure more powers for the parliament.”
Rennie is expected to use his speech to the conference this week to set this out. Yesterday he told the conference that the Commission may lead to a new Home Rule plan for Scotland. He added: “And we don’t need a referendum to deliver it”. Moore says that, as well as rolling out a long pro-UK campaign over the coming months to highlight “some of the things we take for granted”, the message on further devolution will be argued by the party “simultaneously”. Many in the Lib Dems warn this is necessary if only to attract back the hundreds of thousands of Scots who have not yet backed independence, but are sorely tempted.
More fundamental questions also need to be examined. Having joined up with the Conservatives, the Lib Dems can now kiss goodbye to the hundreds of thousands of disaffected left-wing voters who plumped for them over Labour last time around (polling company YouGov has estimated that the number of Labour “identifiers” who still expect to vote Lib Dem has plummeted from 1.6 million in 2010 to a mere 200,000). So shouldn’t the party now point more focus on the centre-right territory that the Conservatives may soon vacate? In Scotland, where the Tory brand remains weak, a fiscally conservative Liberal Democrat party might find rich pickings. Hairy activists in Brighton this week, however, may have different ideas.
For now, Clegg will stay put in his job, with his team of ministers determined to see out the whole of this parliament in government. The hope is that the economy turns and the act of contrition of this past week draws the public’s sting. One old hand notes: “We’ve been here many times before when our poll ratings were nowhere”.
On the positive, Clegg has at least stopped being a figure of hate. On the negative, he is now a figure of fun. It will therefore be a while yet before any claims of a revival will be taken seriously.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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Temperature: 8 C to 17 C
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