Nothing scrambled about Clegg’s message to Lib Dem faithful over coalition strategy

Leadership warns single-party rule could squander sacrifices made since 2010

Britain’s deputy prime minister Nick Clegg answers  questions at the Liberal Democrat’s autumn conference in Glasgow. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne

Britain’s deputy prime minister Nick Clegg answers questions at the Liberal Democrat’s autumn conference in Glasgow. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne

Mon, Sep 16, 2013, 22:34

The Finnieston crane on the banks of the river Clyde was once a vital cog in Glasgow’s industrial heartland.

Today, it stands redundant, a memorial to a long-dead industrial past. Just yards away from the crane, the Liberal Democrats have gathered this week in the SECC convention centre, anxious to ensure that they do not go the same way.

Even if few know of it, they would love to follow the example of Michael McDowell’s Progressive Democrats’ “Single Party Government, No Thanks” poster in the 2002 election campaign’s final days. Since Saturday, they sought to drive home the message that they are the crucial ingredient in British politics: one that will keep the Conservatives humane and Labour fiscally credible.

Massacre or mauling

Under the title, “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society”, Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and other senior figures warned that the sacrifices made since 2010 would be “squandered” by single-party rule.

The Liberal Democrats have 55 seats, though even the most partisan of those in Glasgow accept that losses will be suffered – the question is whether it is a massacre, or a mauling. Three years on since the 2010 coalition deal with the Tories many of the portents are grim, because across Britain coalition is no more popular today than it was then.

Just one-sixth of British voters polled believe it would be “a good idea” for the party to hold the balance of power after the 2015 general election.

Even worse, just a fraction over a third of those who voted for Nick Clegg and his followers in 2010, turned off by the realities of coalition, favour such an outcome. “A third of those supporting the Liberal Democrats now believe Nick Clegg betrayed his principles: two-thirds of those who voted for them in 2010 believe that,” said YouGov pollster, Peter Kellner.

Depending on the arithmetic, however, a mauling could still leave them with a chance of coalition – particularly since target seat polling research offers greater hope than the national figures.

“That would be the grand prize: the party could be in power for 10 years and be seen as a natural party of government, rather than a party of opposition,” said Lib Dem chief whip Alistair Carmichael.

However, they face conflicting challenges: they must maintain their separate identity in office; keep open the possibility of a deal with Labour, while all the time convince the public that coalitions “work”.

‘Transactional’ relationship

In the first 18 months, Clegg was desperate to avoid public rows with David Cameron; then it moved to a “transactional” relationship. Now, both will feel the need to emphasise their differences.

Clegg’s rank-and-file prefer the prospect of a deal with Labour, while Clegg and many others in government – even those previously not of the opinion – prefer the Tories.

“The Conservatives understand what coalition is all about,” said former Lib Dem leader, Paddy Ashdown said yesterday, speaking of Cameron and those who surround him, if not of others in his party. “I’m not sure about how they got there, but they have. Labour, on the other hand, have a lot of learning to do on that terra incognito,” he added.

He vehemently rejected predictions of doom and pointed to figures coming from the target seats – particularly “the 40 where the Conservatives are vulnerable”. National poll figures for the party had once been so low that they were “represented by an asterisk, not a figure”, he said. “The position that a party is in across the country is . . . irrelevant.”

Since Saturday, Clegg’s people played up the chances that his backing for the coalition’s deficit-cutting plans would be seriously challenged. “The only people who will welcome what we do today if we adopt these amendments are George Osborne and Ed Balls. You were brave last year, be brave again,” Clegg told delegates.

In the end, the challenge, if it ever really existed, failed to emerge in numbers, though many of those who would have been delegates to man the barricades against him have simply quit.