Nick Clegg has robbed my party of its soul - he must go now

Those on the left of the party have been treated with contempt as Clegg seeks to transform the Lib Dems into a free market sect.

I am in mourning. In mourning for my once great and principled party which, judging by the past week, believes in very little that it once held dear.

From opposition to nuclear power to being against a replacement for Trident and supporting a 50p tax rate for the highest earners, we’ve seen these and other totemic policies abandoned. It makes me think some commentators are right when they say that Nick Clegg has all but completed his transformation of the Liberal Democrats from a party which was to the left of Labour (or at least New Labour) to one that is now an annex to the Conservative Party. 

I’ve long argued that what Clegg wants to do is turn the Lib Dems into a British version of the German FDP. The free-market FDP wins a very small percentage of the vote but seems to remain permanently in government as a parasitical attachment to the conservative coalition led by Angela Merkel.

That kind of thing must surely not be the aim of the Liberal Democrats. Of course we’re pluralists and believe in working with other parties. But we shouldn’t ignore our own history and rubbish our own principles just so our mnisters can keep their hands on red boxes.

Our history brings up names like Keynes, Beveridge, and Grimond, radical social liberals. And, yes, other names such as Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams. As councillor and London Assembly Member Stephen Knight reminded us at a fringe put on by Liberal Left at this week’s Liberal Democrat conference, our party is a successor to two fine traditions, not just liberalism but also social democracy. Some would like to wipe the SDP from our history, but others, such as Vince Cable, continue to self-define as social democrats and we will not allow that fine tradition to be forgotten.

But over and above policy matters, what has upset me most this week has been the way some in our party, including Nick Clegg, treat those on the left. We’re belittled, patronised and treated with ridicule. Like embarrassing relatives, we're tolerated but not wanted.

Perhaps the worst example of this came during Clegg’s Q&A session when, before she’d even asked a question, Clegg made belittling comments about my colleague and friend Linda Jack, the chair of Liberal Left and one of the nicest and most principled people in our party.

When Linda did ask a question, she asked Clegg whether people such as her still had a place in the party. Clegg answered by not answering; he just talked about that morning’s economy motion. Any reasonable leader, regardless of whether they agreed with a certain individual, would have said, "Of course you have a place in our party, we’re a broad church". 

He said no such thing, which makes many of us feel like he’d really quite like us to leave the party so the transformation of the Liberal Democrats from a social liberal party to an economic liberal party will be complete.

Well, I have a very clear message for Mr Clegg and his acolytes: we’re going nowhere. As Janice Turner of the Social Liberal Forum said at the Liberal Left fringe, "this is our party too." Of course we’ve done good things in government, from re-linking pensions to earnings, to enacting Equal Marriage, but we’ve also compromised and capitulated too often and acquiesced too much.

So, after three years of biting my tongue, hoping for a better day and defending his leadership, I now call on Nick Clegg to go. What residual respect I had left for him was destroyed this week by the way he and his ilk referred to and dealt with those who dared to disagree with them.

Those of us on the centre-left of our party, who I believe continue to be its mainstream, will, despite it all, continue to fight for what we believe. A couple of years ago, at a Lib Dem conference not long after the coalition was formed, Nick Clegg told delegates, "we’ll never lose our soul."

Sadly, I fear we have.

Mathew Hulbert is a Liberal Democrat borough and parish councillor in Leicestershire

Nick Clegg delivers his speech at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

Mathew Hulbert is a Liberal Democrat Borough and Parish Councillor in Leicestershire

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change