Round and round we go with Martin Kettle

Martin Kettle’s articles in the Guardian do always manage to bring a smile to my face. They are pure Westminster Bubble nonsense. His latest suggests that Nick Clegg will soon be replaced by Vince Cable and that’s about the only remotely plausible insight on offer. He also manages to contradict himself several times. I’ve posted it here at the Mambo (the original can be found here) with a few comments of my own just for a laugh really. I’m sure you can work out which bits are mine, but if not Kettle’s text is in italics.

History will be quite generous to Nick Clegg, and rightly so in some ways. It will admire him for leading his party into government, for blazing a trail for coalition government, for continuing to promote a distinctively liberal project in prodigiously difficult economic and political circumstances, and for sticking with dignity to his task as his authority was assailed and eroded.

Maybe I’m sticking my neck out here, but I’m pretty sure that a leader who is likely to preside over an electoral evisceration and who made his party prop up a government with such a deranged ideological project will not be judged too generously by history. I’m also unclear what evidence there is that he was able to “promote a distinctly liberal project”. What policies would Kettle point to that would illustrate his point? Are there any? Or would it be fairer to suggest that the Lib Dems have spent the last couple of years engaged in a series of capitulations and u-turns that some sections of their voter base will never forgive them for?

But it is not history’s verdict that Clegg has to worry about today. The verdict of the here and now counts more. Above all, he must face the increasing suggestion that his party is irrevocably on course to do significantly worse with him as its leader in the 2015 general election than it would do under someone new, specifically the business secretary Vince Cable. That doesn’t mean Clegg is political toast. A could is not a should, or a will. But it is a problem that, ultimately, he and his party cannot ignore.

This verdict is in many ways unfair to Clegg. Several of the charges that are most often and intemperately made against him are wrong, while the case for his defence or mitigation is sometimes far too routinely dismissed. But Clegg, like Tony Blair, has become a figure about whom it is all but impossible to have an objective discussion. And since that too is a fact, it is part of the problem and cannot be ignored either.

Which charges would they be then, and why are they wrong? Why doesn’t Kettle spend just a sentence or two demonstrating why? Or am I imagining that he and his party have agreed to support a series of policies that were the diametric opposite of what he and his party promised in their 2010 manifesto? Tony Blair is a hate figure for very, very good reasons. We should never forget his role in the Iraq War. Clegg is despised because he is a hypocrite and liar, and he has based his decision to sign up to the coalition agreement on a flagrant lie, that the deficit was the over-riding issue of the day,  was the fault of the previous Labour government and not the international situation. A global capitalist crisis has converted into one of public spending to suit a particular political agenda and Clegg has completely gone along with that in exchange for few ministerial cars and seats at the cabinet table. Admittedly the bile he is on the end of would be better directed at the puppet-masters but even so the content of that abuse is perfectly justified.  

It remains the case, for instance, that the results of the 2010 election, rather than Clegg’s deregulatory Orange Book ideology, were decisive in pushing the Liberal Democrats into coalition with the Conservatives. The relative failure to deliver on some distinctively Lib Dem policies in government – though the report card is mixed – reflects the inherent problems of any small party in any coalition dominated by a much larger rival.

Is the report card “mixed”? Or are we actually talking non-existent? Now to be fair the Tories were the biggest party in 2010 but that doesn’t excuse the Lib Dems signing up for a political programme of privatizations and cuts. They didn’t need to do that. There were other options available. Not easy ones, but they existed. And if you are in politics to make people’s lives better, as the Lib Dems claim, then signing up for a political programme of savage austerity, one based wholly on lies, should surely not have been the option they decided to go for. Earlier Kettle says that Clegg has been able “to promote a distinctly liberal project”. He is now saying that they failed to deliver on some (i.e. any as I’m sure if pressed Kettle wouldn’t be able to actually cite anything distinctly Lib Dem about this government’s legislative agenda) Lib Dem policies in government. It can’t be both, surely?   

And it is worth remembering, amid what is a continuing bleak picture for Lib Dem prospects, that the public has even now a more nuanced view of Clegg than the echo chamber of condemnation – especially on government economic policy – might suggest.

Loads of people support austerity! Of course they do! Until it actually starts to affect them of course. And I’m guessing that many of the vaguely left-leaning Lib Dem voters (although the left-wing credentials of the Lib Dems are wildly exaggerated) didn’t vote for that and don’t support it. The difficulty I have with Kettle is that he seems to have a serious aversion to political passion and powerfully expressed views.

Voters still think the Lib Dems did the patriotic thing by going into government at a time of crisis. And voters also believe that the deficit needs fixing. These are assets to set against so many other losses.

Do they? So why are they facing annihilation? Why have they lost hundreds of councillors? Why have so many voters (and members) deserted the party? It’s a curious comment by Kettle here. He seems to be trying to manipulate the facts to suit his agenda. If Clegg was doing ok in the eyes of the electorate he wouldn’t be facing the boot. Even though at the start of the piece Kettle states quite categorically that he thinks he will be replaced by Cable……  

Like everything else about Clegg, his Guardian interview this week, promoting a new wealth tax, will be over-praised by his supporters and too easily dismissed by his opponents. Wealth taxes are very difficult to operate, and one-off taxes do not provide lasting solutions to enduring problems and inequalities. Promoting this idea may weaken the chances of the Lib Dems’ mansion tax, which is both easier to apply and provides an annual, rather than one-off, tax take. But you can’t dismiss the wealth tax and say at the same time that Clegg is a Tory poodle, although many will.

I think Labour have made a mistake dismissing Clegg’s proposal out of hand. Of course it is self-evidently absurd posturing. But by supporting it Labour would a) have put some much-needed clear red water between themselves and the coalition and b) provided Clegg with the rope to hang himself with. That they didn’t demonstrates that Labour is still in thrall to Blairite triangulation. I think you can say that Clegg is a Tory poodle even though he suggests this policy. It’s empty posing, as I’ve already pointed out this week.  

Clegg’s interview has two much more immediate political purposes, in my judgment. The first, most obviously, is that it underlines to the public the new differentiation on which the party is embarked, particularly in the wake of the collapse of Lords reform. It’s a signal about a commitment to fairness within a more chastened and fractious coalition. Whether it is an effective one is another question. Right now, it is too vague.

True enough, but fairly obvious too. It’s a PR exercise. Who knew?

The second purpose is aimed squarely at Lib Dems themselves. It tells them just before what should by rights be a jittery party conference that Clegg wishes to be seen as a radical, that he shares their instincts, and that they can still have confidence in him as their leader, perhaps even in a Lab-Lib coalition. It’s a Lloyd George-style shot across Cable’s bows too, and a veiled challenge to the party’s left wing to put up or shut up about alternative economic strategies.

Possibly, but not quite so convincing. Firstly the party’s left-wing is largely a media construct. Of course he wishes to be seen as a radical. Will anyone believe him though? It could have the opposite effect of seeming cynical and opportunistic when considered in the light of his previous stances (i.e. voting for the 50p rate to be cut) and the sheer unlikelihood of the government he is signed up to making it a reality.

Perhaps it will work. Perhaps enough Lib Dems want the coalition to succeed – never underestimate this feeling within the party – for them to continue to rally around a radical-sounding Clegg in the face of the party’s continuing poll slump, even as the election nears. Perhaps enough non-partisan voters of the sort Clegg identified in his interview exist to share Clegg’s wealth tax reflex – and feel sufficiently distanced from the other parties, including Ukip – for this to start pushing Lib Dem numbers upwards. Perhaps.

Maybe. One thing that has become apparent in the last couple of years is that the Lib Dem membership are not nearly as left-wing as they claim (although many of us knew that already) and so one can conceivably see them sticking with the coalition for now. But I think the calculation that many in the party will make will be based on the party’s prospects, and not high principle, and if a candidate is identified that can save them from oblivion (i.e. Cable) then Clegg will be gone.

My instinct is that this is far too complacent. In particular it is complacent about electoral necessities. The Lib Dems desperately need more voters. The public’s views about Clegg have become very set. It will take a big change to shift them. Yet, speaking of the 1.6 million Labour-leaning voters who have abandoned the Lib Dems, Clegg says baldly in his Guardian interview: “We have lost them.” But a lot of those voters elected Lib Dem MPs who will struggle for other support, while Labour tactical voters in Tory-Lib Dem marginals remain crucial for Lib Dem hopes too.

Kettle is contradicting himself here. On the one hand, earlier in the piece he says that the voters see Clegg as having made good decisions on the deficit and public spending. Now he is saying that he has lost vast swathes of support. Both of these things can’t be true simultaneously.

The underlying crisis for the Lib Dems is even more serious. As YouGov’s Peter Kellner says in an article in Prospect magazine that should be compulsory reading for all Lib Dems, if the party remains on 10% (its current opinion poll average), it risks losing 47 of its current 57 seats. Recover to 15% – no sign of that yet – and they still lose 29, mostly to the Tories. Clegg may be right that his party should never again try to position itself to the left of Labour, but he still needs those Labour-leaning voters. He can’t just forget about them. Meanwhile, the party’s local government base haemorrhages council losses every year.

As above, if the situation is as bad as Kettle now says it is then how can the aforementioned “assets” be worth anything? Also if the party never positions itself to Labour again it will cease to have a purpose. There is no middle ground between Labour and Tory right now, mainly because there is so little ground between Labour and Tory. If the Lib Dems hadn’t positioned themselves to the left of Labour they wouldn’t have won enough votes or seats for us to be even having this conversation. They occupied a space, however dishonestly.

Importantly, his party and his voters sense there is an alternative. This month’s Lib Dem Voice poll of party members had 87% support for Cable against 31% for Clegg. That’s partly why, surely, half of the survey wanted Clegg to quit before the election. YouGov’s polling finds nearly three times as much respect for Cable than for Clegg among Lib Dem voters too. Cable’s appeal to former Lib Dem voters dwarfs that of Clegg. At some point, sentiment cannot withstand such figures.

Indeed it can’t. But again, Kettle is contradicting himself. Earlier he was saying Clegg’s position was stronger than was popularly perceived. He’s changed his mind again.

These numbers make the question of whether you admire or agree with Clegg almost irrelevant. Clegg may be a genius or visionary – or not – but the figures show that he is a loser. Crucially, they also show that Cable – and nobody else matters here – could be a winner in his place. That might not be enough for Labour to oust such a leader, but the Lib Dems, like the Tories, are more ruthless. With Cable having said he is available, it seems the only question is when, not if, the party decides that Clegg should do an Andrew Strauss.

In the space of just one article Kettle has gone from saying that Clegg is toast, to not being at all sure if Clegg will be unseated as he is well-regarded by the electorate (is he? Really?) and then back to saying he is likely to be replaced by Cable………

Having read it through several times now I’m still trying to work out what Kettle’s point is. It’s just rambling. Did he have a short deadline and just trot out any old rubbish that looked reasonably plausible, hoping that no one would actually take the time to analyse it?  

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. charliecountryboy
    Sep 02, 2012 @ 13:04:43

    Maybe he has become like the politicians he corresponds upon. Clueless😉


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