Nick Clegg’s Strategic Error

I’ve never paid much attention to the Liberal Democrats and I can say with confidence that I’ve never felt like I was missing out. But last week my ears pricked up as Nick Clegg made a rather simple, but serious, strategic error. The Westminster media spent the entire week selling Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems as potential king makers in a post-2015 Parliament; but unsurprisingly, I wasn’t buying.

If you spent the week lapping up Clegg’s narrative that the Lib Dems are to be rooted in the centre, reigning in the socially contemptuous Tories or moderating a Labour party pathologically addicted to destructive credit binges, then you will no doubt have been impressed. It is said, mostly by those who are capable of deceiving themselves, that what the electorate really want for Christmas is for British politics to be anchored in the centre.

Whilst a fantastic narrative, allowing Clegg to distance himself from the Conservative Party without trashing the record of a government of which he was a part, I just don’t buy it. I’ve never placed much importance on the centre; preferring the common ground myself. Also, I find their claims incredibly patronising and even more unsubstantiated.

For me, the Lib Dem conference oozed nothing short of contempt for the electorate. For all intents and purposes, Clegg spent his entire conference speech labelling anyone who doesn’t vote for the Liberal Democrats dangerous ideologues, hell-bent on the destruction of the country. He needs to be in government to mitigate the fact that a majority of the electorate made the wrong choice.

In addition to being more patronising than David Cameron addressing a female MP, this narrative is also predicated upon a false assessment of the state of British politics. It is true that the Tories haven’t won an overall majority since 1992, but it also happens to be true that, without Tony Blair, Labour hasn’t won a general election since 1974.

These things didn’t occur because the Great British public have suddenly decided that they needed some more ‘centrism’ in their lives. The electorate hasn’t turned away from the two main parties because they’re far too principled and ideological, as Clegg would like us all to think. Suffice to say, no one is consciously begging for the sort of social and economic centrism offered by Clegg.

Clegg is also on the wrong side of history. For coalitions in British politics it’s a case of been there, done that. The 1920s and the 1970s for example, both of which were followed by substantial periods of single party rule, the latter seeing the emergence of two of the most influential and long serving Prime Ministers of the 20th century, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair respectively.

In the information age, politics has fragmented and apathy reigns supreme. This is the real cause of the 2010 coalition and any future coalition that follows.

People are tired of governments giving with one hand and taking with another. Modern British politics is conducted on the head of a pin, with most voters seeing no difference, no matter who wins. So why bother voting for either? Alternatively, try a vote for someone completely different It can’t hurt.

This phenomenon can be seen in the rise of UKIP, which feeds on this exact thought process, whilst it was also this line of reasoning that gave the Lib Dem’s their position in Government in 2010. So I’m sorry Mr Clegg, but far from being centrists, it is my experience and bared out by polling that the public prefer and demand principled positions and conviction politicians.

‘These two parties are so different, I’m inundated by distinct political ideologies espoused by principled politicians, let’s send some sandal wearing, tree hugging Liberal Democrats in to settle things down and reign them all in,’ said nobody … ever. There is a subtle difference between none of the above or simply having no preference and actively espousing the virtues of coalition.

So, all things considered, it’s hard to view Nick Clegg’s conference speech as anything more than rubbish.

But perhaps it was never intended to be anything but. Although predicated upon false truths, it did appeal to the core Lib Dem vote whilst simultaneously inducing indifference within everyone else. Maybe this is his grand strategy, with the speech just part of this cunning trick. After all, Clegg has been loved and hated in equal measure. Perhaps now he just wants to be left alone.

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