Sunday, July 15, 2012

What's wrong with Nick Clegg?

Image: Marie Jenkins
Nick Clegg came to Exeter on Friday. In a room normally used for training Flybe cabin crew, he faced questions from a public audience for an hour. And then he mingled in a room full of LibDem activists.

This summer he's doing similar events all over the country: The "Feel the Hatred" Tour, some wags have dubbed it.

All credit to him. No stage management. No specially-selected audience (there were a couple of Labour councillors at the Exeter event). No speeches. No vetting of questions. Just him on the receiving end of a sceptical public.

  • Why we are giving so much in foreign aid when care costs for the elderly are under pressure?
  • Why is the dole so cushy when we're desperate to recruit a sous-chef?
  • Why do you want to deport me when my local area is desperate for my dentistry skills?
  • The Lib Dems were running Exeter City Council a few years ago. Now they're down to just 5 councillors. Doesn't that tell you something?
  • What next for Lords Reform?
  • Why not channel money from "quantitative easing" to over-stretched workers rather than to greedy bankers?
  • Why is the council supporting my tenants when they refuse to leave my house at the end of their tenancy?
  • Isn't it a problem that you and Cameron are so similar in looks and background?
  • Are you going to waste the next three years, like Labour wasted its first three years?
  • Why is it fair that, because I work, I don't get a carers allowance for my child who's got Downs Syndrome?
  • If you give tourism a boost by lowering VAT where there's matched funding, the Government will end up with a net profit. Why don't you do that?
  • I'm working hard towards my GCSEs. Are they now going to be seen as worthless thanks to Michael Gove?
Clegg engaged thoughtfully, put issues in the wider context of the problems faced by many people, addressed questions directly, gave a good account of what was being done and why, and offered to follow up personal circumstances when relevant.

Then he mingled with local Lib Dems: the ex-councillors who lost their elections thanks to the Government's austerity; the activists whose local organising is being undermined by loss of trust over tuition fees and the NHS; and the many quiet but committed members who are uncomfortable about political communications failures, climate change, free schools, internet snooping, welfare changes, economic stagnation, threats to Lords reform, and so on.

And again, Clegg did a great job of acknowledging concerns, providing a fuller context, and indicating sensible strategies.

I'm biased, but I think public and members alike were generally impressed with his answers, his engaging manner, his grasp of detail and arguments, and his passion to tackle unfairness, disadvantage and unaccountable power.

I sense that people don't quite warm to him like they did Charles Kennedy; he's not got Ming Campbell's gravitas; and he's not at the same level of Paddy Ashdown in terms of rhetoric and steeliness.

But, almost more than any contemporary politician, he has Tony Blair's exceptional linguistic ability to set out the arguments clearly and persuasively. He is operating, though, in a political culture that appears to pathologically despise error, inconsistency, compromise, inaction or long-term solutions.

My view, then, is that Nick Clegg's problem is not personal, and not even that much about policy. The challenge for him is twofold: (i) to avoid the continuing tactical errors that reduce his standing in the eyes of the commentators; and (ii) to develop the 2015 narrative (see also here). Unless Clegg gets better advisors quickly, journalists' predictions of Lib Dem wipe-out are likely to come true.

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