Why has Clegg told millions not to vote for the Lib Dems?

The Lib Dem leader's decision to abandon any attempt to win over left-wing voters is bizarre.

ConservativeHome's Peter Hoskin has written a fine post on why the right should stick up for Nick Clegg, which equally functions as a demonstration of why the left should not (unless, as Lenin put it, we support him "as the rope supports a hanged man"). Hoskin notes Clegg's early support for austerity (he pledged that the Liberal Democrats would eliminate the deficit through spending cuts alone, a stance that put him to the right of George Osborne) and his opposition to universal benefits for the elderly. Even when the Lib Dems were still officially opposed to immediate spending cuts and to higher tuition fees, it was clear that Clegg's heart wasn't in it (he simply accepted that his leftish party would not accept a change of policy ). Under the cover of coalition government, he has emerged as the right-leaning politician he always was.

The coverage of his comeback interview with the Guardian inevitably focused on his call for a new wealth tax, but as notable was the contempt he showed for left-wing voters. He told the paper:

Frankly, there are a group of people who don't like any government in power and are always going to shout betrayal. We have lost them and they are not going to come back by 2015. Our job is not to look mournfully in the rear view mirror and hope that somehow we will claw them back. Some of them basically seem to regard Liberal Democrats in coalition as a mortal sin.

Clegg's resigned tone ("they are not going to come back by 2015") is extraordinary. Psephologically speaking, he's almost certainly right, but since when has a politician willfully abandoned so many voters? Rather than traducing the millions who have turned against the Lib Dems (in an interview with the Guardian, of all places), shouldn't he be trying to "claw them back"? When he declares that it's not his "job" to do so, one is tempted to reply, "actually, it is".

At the very least, Clegg could highlight some of the leftish policies the coalition has pursued (a 35% increase in international development spending, a ring-fenced NHS budget, an increase in capital gains tax). But when it comes to voters, the Lib Dem leader appers to value quality over quantity. Like Kurt Cobain, he would rather be hated for who he is, than loved for who he's not.

There is something admirable about such political purity but his MPs, looking nervously at their party's disastrous poll ratings (they are averaging around 10 per cent), will surely question his judgement.

Nick Clegg said left-wing voters were "not going to come back by 2015". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.