Going down fighting

decision...My goodness the atmosphere around the Libdems is febrile at the moment.

No sooner had it become clear that Friday’s Libdems4change petition was going to fizzle out than we learn of Lord Oakeshott’s freelance polling manoeuvre. It’s almost as if the timing of the leak of the poll results was planned to keep the heat on.

A number of people online referred to Lord Oakeshott as a Scooby Doo villain, but his acrid resignation letter may yet prove to be genuinely damaging not only to Nick Clegg but also to Vince Cable, his preferred party leader. If so then the self-inflicted damage means the comparison with Dick Dastardly might turn out to be more apt.

As Lord Oakeshott disappeared sulphurously into the sunset the next instalment in the saga arrived in the form of a letter to The Times from the co-chairs of the Social Liberal Forum. The letter calls for a review of strategy and approach, including to the leadership. This was initially represented – and indeed was represented by the Times – as another call for Nick Clegg to stand aside. But, to be fair, the letter doesn’t call for that. Not quite.

Throughout these public contortions there has been a string of posts at Lib Dem Voice reflecting on the recent election results and where to go next. These have triggered comment thread after comment thread in which posters call for Nick Clegg to go. When the results of a LDV poll regarding Clegg’s leadership were reported on Tuesday and showed a majority – but not a particularly overwhelming one – in favour of him staying as leader that raised the temperature a notch or two.

This sort of activity is not going to bring Nick Clegg down. Much of the discontent emanates from those the leadership can dismiss as “the usual suspects” – the vocal minority who have been unhappy ever since the party when into Coalition. That wouldn’t be entirely true. But it is a line with sufficient substance to mean that it can be spun heavily, and probably successfully.

It is far more significant when those who are extremely loath to criticise Nick Clegg express their doubts, or call for him to step down. In that respect, Stephen Tall’s post explaining why he thinks Clegg can’t lead the party into the next election is likely to have much greater impact on thinking at the top. It cannot be dismissed so lightly.

As George Eaton observed today, while no one has organised one big move against Clegg, it is possible that his leadership might die of a thousand cuts.

Apart from the SLF letter to the Times there have been a number of more measured contributions to the debate calling for a review of last week’s election defeat and a revision to future strategy, including a very good post yesterday by David Howarth.

Nick Clegg announced today – via his Call Clegg programme – that precisely such a review is going to take place. It is symptomatic of the atmosphere in parts of the party that the initial response at LDV was to declare that the review was clearly going to be a leadership stitch-up. It is just an attempt to silence critics and kick problems into the long grass.

The whole debate has reached a bit of an impasse. Those who suggest that the priority is to stop bickering and focus on preparing for the general election are criticised as Clegg stooges who are attempting to silence concerns. Those who have concerns about the leadership would appear not to be sufficiently numerous to be able to invoke the relevant constitutional mechanisms. So they simply make a lot of noise in public and online.

These internal convulsions are, of course, attracting plenty of attention outside the party, and a range of interpretations. There is more than a little schadenfreude. Some of the interpretations of events seem rather wide of the mark. Some of them contain more than a bit of wishful thinking on the part of those who will the demise of the party.

I’ve seen a couple of posts which have argued that all that is happened is that structural splits in the party that could be patched over in opposition have, belatedly, been cruelly exposed in government. They have offered rather different readings of where the splits actually are.

The most obvious place to start is the putative distinction between social liberals and ‘Orange Bookers’. That isn’t a distinction that that many in the party are willing to acknowledge, although some are happy to self-identify as Orange Bookers.

Dan Hannan in the Telegraph takes the problem back even further. He argues that while the Whig-liberal tradition achieved great things it was betrayed during the twentieth century. In his view the Liberal Democrats forfeited all claims to being the keepers of the liberal flame when they merged with the SDP in 1988. He sees liberalism, instead, as alive and well in its bracing classical form in part of the Conservative party. The latter statement is of questionable plausibility. And the former argument only makes sense if you cleave to certain nineteenth century definitions of liberalism. Clearly a party that combines the tenet of social liberalism and social democracy is not going to occupy the same political and policy space as a party of undiluted classical liberalism. But that should hardly be news.

The SL-OB distinction is, of course, vastly too crude. But there clearly are significant differences in emphasis and in policy priorities between different wings of the party. To pretend otherwise is to delude oneself.

Talk of splits is unhelpful and not hugely illuminating. But, on the other hand, I think it touches on something important. Lord Oakeshott accused Nick Clegg of leading the Liberal Democrats to be a party with “no roots, no principles and no values”. The point is overdrawn for rhetorical effect. And few would agree with it. But, as I’ve said before on this blog, I think that the party doesn’t reflect sufficiently on principles and values. And that is perhaps because of a fear of the differences that will be revealed. Toleration of difference is undoubtedly a virtue, but without a strong anchor and common understandings, and clear explication of the way values feed through into specific policy proposals, it opens up ambiguities and the scope for misunderstandings. It allows talk of splits and accusations of bad faith to be thrown backwards and forwards with no way to arbitrate the dispute or put it to bed.

We are going to have to grapple with the fundamentals and re-establish a firm foundation of principle before we are likely to make much headway. My feeling is that this is a necessary precondition for building a distinctive and credible policy platform. It’s more important than changing the leader. The question is whether strengthening the fundamentals in this way can happen under the current leader.

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  1. Obviously I’m no friend of the LibDems, despite voting for them a number of times in the past.

    Still, I think the complacency of the leadership on some big issues really needs more examination than it tends to get.

    Pace your comments about “enabling a dastardly Tory party” – I suppose that is the way I feel and that might not be “serious” in your view, but still I think the record on big issues is not at all positive:

    We’ve had a complete grey wash over GCHQ, the LibDems co-operated in vastly expensive, incompetent and ultimately centralising reforms of the NHS, they’ve co-operated in the greatest centralisation of education in 30 years… on a personal level, I’m painfully aware that we’ve had immigration officers stopping brown people at Stratford Tube station, menacing British citizens and demanding evidence citizenship because of the colour of their skin…

    I don’t see how this is at all defensible in terms of principle, one might think some of it might even prick the conscience of Orange Bookers…