Clegg takes on the establishment

The Lib Dem leader's "in power but anti-establishment" messsage is a promising one.

When the introduction to a politician's speech starts with a black and white photo of them looking serious, you know there's a sombre message coming.

So it was with Nick Clegg's speech ending the Liberal Democrat autumn conference, as he talked of the state of the UK and world economies, about how the party was "not doing the easy thing, but doing the right thing. Not easy, but right". He was frank about the challenges of being in government: "Liberal Democrats, we have now been in Government for 500 days. Not easy, is it? None of us thought it would be a walk in the park, but I suspect none of us predicted just how tough it would turn out to be. We've lost support, we've lost councillors, and we lost a referendum. I know how painful it has been to face anger and frustration on the doorstep."

But much of the speech was about a positive message for what the Liberal Democrats are achieving in office, taking on vested interests: "We speak up, first and loudest, when the establishment lets the people down. In the last three years, we've seen establishment institutions exposed one by one. The City of London, shattered by the greed of bankers. The media, corrupted by phone hacking. Parliament, shamed by expenses."

It was a good message, well received in the conference hall with close interest in the sombre patches and heavy applause at other times.

The anti-establishment lines got the heaviest applause. But the themes of Clegg's speech were not ones consistently portrayed throughout the rest of party conference. Indeed, the conference slogan itself ("In government, on your side") was far more notable by its absence from most of the other
conference key note speeches and in itself is not really an anti-establishment.

So if the "in power but anti-establishment" message is to get over to the wider public, who pay only passing attention to political news most weeks, a lot more work remains to be done.

Mark Pack is co-editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and in his third decade of conference-attending.

Mark Pack is the Head of Innovations for the Lib Dems. He previously worked in their Campaigns & Elections Department for seven years.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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