How Clegg removed criticism of Tim Farron from his Lib Dem rally speech

The deputy PM was due to say "I know that some people in our party don’t like us being too nasty to Labour" after the Lib Dem president said he didn't want to "diss" Ed Miliband.

In a much-noted interview with me in this week's New Statesman, Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat president and the standard bearer of the party's left, lavished praise on Ed Miliband. He told me: "I really like Ed Miliband, so I don’t want to diss him. I don’t want join in with the Tories who compare him to Kinnock."

He added: "I think he is somebody who is genuinely of the Robin Cook wing of the Labour Party, from their perspective what you’d call the 'soft left'. Somebody who is not a Luddite on environmental issues, somebody who’s open minded about modernising our democracy, somebody who’s instinctively a bit more pluralistic than most Labour leaders and a bit more internationalist as well."

In what some Lib Dems saw as a gibe at Nick Clegg, he also remarked: "For all that I think he could have done a lot more on the AV campaign, he did at least have the backbone to come out and back it. He wouldn’t share a platform with Nick [Clegg], so he ended up with me, poor thing. I like the guy."

In his speech at the conference launch rally tonight, Clegg was due to issue a coded criticism of Farron. The version of his speech emailed out to journalists beforehand included a passage in which he said:

"Now I know that some people in our party don’t like us being too nasty to Labour, so in the spirit of cross-party cooperation, I’m going to help them make a start. If the Eds are watching, here is the first thing they should do to win back the trust of people. Apologise."

The line highlighted above was an obvious reference to Farron's comments on Miliband ("I don't want to diss him"). But in the version delivered by Clegg it was amended to:

"But let's not be too nasty about Labour."

For the sake of party unity, Clegg retreated from an attack on his most likely successor as leader - and wisely so. When Farron signals his preference for Labour over the Tories, he speaks for most Lib Dem members. As a recent Liberal Democrat Voice poll showed, by 55% to 18%, members would prefer a post-2015 alliance with Labour than one with the Tories. If Clegg is to retain the faith of his activists, he needs to avoid giving the impression that he would rather form a second coalition with David Cameron than open the door to Miliband.

Nick Clegg with Jo Swinson outside the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.