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

Photo: Getty
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Leader: Labour and the Brexit debacle

The party appears to favour having its cake and eating it – yet the dilemma is not insuperable.

In the year since a narrow majority of people voted to leave the European Union, the Brexit project has not aged well. Theresa May’s appeal to the electorate to “strengthen” her hand in negotiations was humiliatingly rejected in the general election. Having repeatedly warned of a “coalition of chaos” encompassing ­Labour and the Scottish National Party, the Prime Minister has been forced to strike a panicked parliamentary deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. European leaders have been left bewildered by events in the United Kingdom.

The Brexiteers, who won the referendum on a fraudulent prospectus, have struggled to cope with the burden of responsibility. In the manner of Dr Pangloss, they maintain that the UK will flourish outside the EU and that those who suggest otherwise are too pessimistic, or even unpatriotic. Yet wishful thinking is not a strategy. Though the immediate recession forecast by the Treasury has been avoided, the cost of Brexit is already being borne in squeezed living standards (owing to the pound’s depreciation) and delayed investment decisions.

At the same time, far from disintegrating as the most ardent Leavers predicted, the EU is recovering, with a revival of the Franco-German axis under Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. Donald Trump’s antics have dispelled the illusion that “the Anglosphere” can function as an alternative to the bloc. Britain has embarked on the great task of withdrawal at a time of profound national and global instability.

For all this, the Brexiteers retain an indisputable mandate. What the Brexiteers have no mandate for is their model of withdrawal. And there is a nascent majority in the House of Commons for a “soft” exit. Roughly two-thirds of voters remain supportive of Brexit but they have no desire to harm the economy in the process. A recent YouGov survey found that 58 per cent believe Britain should trade freely with the EU, even at the cost of continued free movement into Britain.

In these circumstances, Labour has profited from ambiguity. Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to uphold the referendum result and to end free movement won the respect of Leavers in the election. His pro-migration rhetoric and promise of a “jobs-first” Brexit impressed Remainers, who were in the mood to give the Tories a bloody nose. Although Labour fell 64 seats short of a majority, it partly spanned a divide that had been considered unbridgeable.

Mr Corbyn’s desire to avoid the cross-party Brexit commission proposed by some commentators and MPs is understandable. As Ed Smith observes on page 22, Brexit is a metaphorical “plague” that contaminates all those who touch it, claiming one Conservative prime minister and fatally infecting another. The Tories, who inflicted an unnecessary EU referendum on the UK, must not redistribute the blame.

As the Brexit negotiations progress, however, Labour cannot maintain its opacity. While vowing to retain “the benefits of the single market and the customs union”, it has also pledged to “end” freedom of movement. Like the risible ­Boris Johnson, Labour appears to favour having its cake and eating it. Yet the dilemma is not insuperable.

The logical extension of the party’s vow to give the economy priority over immigration control is to support continued single-market membership. This is the most practical and reliable means of ensuring that Britain’s dominant services sector retains the access it requires. Membership of the customs union would ensure the same for manufacturers. Economic retreat from the EU, which accounts for 44 per cent of all UK exports, would unavoidably reduce growth and living standards.

Such an arrangement need not entail continued free movement, however. Under existing EU rules (not applied by the UK), immigrants resident for longer than three months must prove that they are working (employed or self-employed) or a registered student, or have “sufficient resources” to support themselves and not be “a burden on the benefits system”.

It falls to Labour, as a reinvigorated and increasingly popular opposition, to chart an alternative to the ideological Brexiteers on the Tory benches as well as in the virulent right-wing press. Is Mr Corbyn a covert Brexiteer? It does not really matter. What matters is that he leads a party of committed Europeans who have no wish to see Britain humiliated, its influence in the world reduced, and its economy damaged by the folly of the Brexit debacle. 

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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