Why the Lib Dems need to start drawing red lines now

To win back trust, Clegg needs to spend the next 548 days telling voters about his policy guarantees.

While the phrase "we’re all in this together" has become rather devalued in political circles of late, it’s still very much in vogue in the Liberal Democrats. Over here, we’re pretty much up to our necks in it together, and the spirit of party democracy still burns brightly.

Thus the general election call to arms has taken place and we’ve all been invited to submit our contributions and ideas to the 2015 manifesto. I can only imagine what it must be like for the poor souls on the receiving end of our missives. But, hey, that’s party democracy for you.

In reference to this, the suggestion has been made that we should avoid setting out any manifesto red lines at this stage. Prompted by Nick’s resolute defence of the HS2 project (and the inevitable is it 'a red line?' question, given Labour's vacillations), Lib Dem Voice has wondered out loud about this:

"'Red lines' are tricky territory for our politicians. If Nick says, implicitly or explicitly, that HS2 (or any other policy) is a red line then he’s limiting his room for manoeuvre in any coalition negotiations. And after the party’s scarring experience of the tuition fees U-turn, we can hardly afford to offer more hostages to fortune by making categoric promises we find ourselves unable to keep."

I couldn’t disagree more. I think we need some red lines drawn ASAP.

Firstly, I think we need to do this because of the tuition fees U-turn. Trust is the main obstacle we face. We shouldn’t shy away from it. We should acknowledge it (and indeed, we’ve already had a mea culpa moment), state the lesson we’ve learned and put down some markers to judge us by. Tackle the trust issue head on.

Secondly, given Nick has already accepted that for us to remain in government means another coalition, the manifesto will turn into a 'two parter' – three or four policies that we guarantee voters will get if they vote Lib Dem, with the rest of the manifesto a statement of wishes and aspirations that will form our side of the collation negotiations. We have form on this – the 2010 manifesto clearly stated our four priorities, and those have formed the cornerstone of everything we’ve done in government. We need to state our four priorities this time – and give ourselves the maximum time possible to hammer that message home.

Why? Because of my third issue. Our (in my view misguided) 'two halves to the Parliament' strategy means we spent the first half of this government joined to the hip with the Tories, alienating many of our supporters from the left. Now we’ve embarked on our full throttle differentiation strategy, we’re hell bent on alienating those on the right. As the eminent Lib Dem blogger Jonathan Calder puts it: "I suspect that the problem here is his (Nick Clegg’s) often-declared strategy of making the Liberal Democrats a centre party. Because being such a party can easily turn you into the champions of the status quo and thus the opponent of anyone who proposes radical reforms. And, as so often, I wonder who Nick expects to vote Liberal Democrat next time."

The answer to the problem he poses is, of course, that we need to set out some chunky, bite-size, easily understood policy built on principle and spend the next 548 days telling voters 'here are our rock solid guarantees'. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being the centre party per se – it’s the zigzag on positioning that, ahem, confuses folk

Will these policies become hostages to fortune? Sure, but at least everyone would know the price of the ransom – and then they can decide whether they want to pay it.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Nick Clegg speaks at the Buhler Sortex factory on October 8, 2013 in east London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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How Donald Trump is slouching towards the Republican nomination

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb.

In America, you can judge a crowd by its merchandise. Outside the Connecticut Convention Centre in Hartford, frail old men and brawny moms are selling “your Trump 45 football jerseys”, “your hats”, “your campaign buttons”. But the hottest item is a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Hillary sucks . . . but not like Monica!” and, on the back: “Trump that bitch!” Inside, beyond the checkpoint manned by the Transportation Security Administration and the secret service (“Good!” the man next to me says, when he sees the agents), is a family whose three kids, two of them girls, are wearing the Monica shirt.

Other people are content with the shirts they arrived in (“Waterboarding – baptising terrorists with freedom” and “If you don’t BLEED red, white and blue, take your bitch ass home!”). There are 80 chairs penned off for the elderly but everyone else is standing: guys in motorcycle and military gear, their arms folded; aspiring deal-makers, suited, on cellphones; giggling high-school fatsos, dressed fresh from the couch, grabbing M&M’s and Doritos from the movie-theatre-style concession stands. So many baseball hats; deep, bellicose chants of “Build the wall!” and “USA!”. (And, to the same rhythm, “Don-ald J!”)

A grizzled man in camouflage pants and combat boots, whose T-shirt – “Connecticut Militia III%” – confirms him as a member of the “patriot” movement, is talking to a zealous young girl in a short skirt, who came in dancing to “Uptown Girl”.

“Yeah, we were there for Operation American Spring,” he says. “Louis Farrakhan’s rally of hate . . .”

“And you’re a veteran?” she asks. “Thank you so much!”

Three hours will pass. A retired US marine will take the rostrum to growl, “God bless America – hoo-rah!”; “Uptown Girl” will play many more times (much like his speeches, Donald J’s playlist consists of a few items, repeated endlessly), before Trump finally looms in and asks the crowd: “Is this the greatest place on Earth?”

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb. Only a minority within a minority of Americans, it was assumed, could possibly be stupid enough to think a Trump presidency was a good idea. He won New Hampshire and South Carolina with over 30 per cent of the Republican vote, then took almost 46 per cent in Nevada. When he cleaned up on Super Tuesday in March, he was just shy of 50 per cent in Massachusetts; a week later, he took 47 per cent of the votes in Mississippi.

His rivals, who are useless individually, were meant to co-operate with each other and the national party to deny him the nomination. But Trump won four out of the five key states being contested on “Super-Duper Tuesday” on 15 March. Then, as talk turned to persuading and co-opting his delegates behind the scenes, Trump won New York with 60 per cent.

Now, the campaign is trying to present Trump as more “presidential”. According to his new manager, Paul Manafort, this requires him to appear in “more formal settings” – without, of course, diluting “the unique magic of Trump”. But whether or not he can resist denouncing the GOP and the “corrupt” primary system, and alluding to violence if he is baulked at at the convention, the new Trump will be much the same as the old.

Back in Hartford: “The Republicans wanna play cute with us, right? If I don’t make it, you’re gonna have millions of people that don’t vote for a Republican. They’re not gonna vote at all,” says Trump. “Hopefully that’s all, OK? Hopefully that’s all, but they’re very, very angry.”

This anger, which can supposedly be turned on anyone who gets in the way, has mainly been vented, so far, on the protesters who disrupt Trump’s rallies. “We’re not gonna be the dummies that lose all of our jobs now. We’re gonna be the smart ones. Oh, do you have one over there? There’s one of the dummies . . .”

There is a frenzied fluttering of Trump placards, off to his right. “Get ’em out! . . . Don’t hurt ’em – see how nice I am? . . . They really impede freedom of speech and it’s a disgrace. But the good news is, folks, it won’t be long. We’re just not taking it and it won’t be long.”

It is their removal by police, at Trump’s ostentatious behest, that causes the disruption, rather than the scarcely audible protesters. He seems to realise this, suddenly: “We should just let ’em . . . I’ll talk right over them, there’s no problem!” But it’s impossible to leave the protesters where they are, because it would not be safe. His crowd is too vicious.

Exit Trump, after exactly half an hour, inclusive of the many interruptions. His people seem uplifted but, out on the street, they are ambushed by a large counter-demonstration, with a booming drum and warlike banners and standards (“Black Lives Matter”; an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, holding aloft Trump’s severed head). Here is the rest of the world, the real American world: young people, beautiful people, more female than male, every shade of skin colour. “F*** Donald Trump!” they chant.

After a horrified split-second, the Trump crowd, massively more numerous, rallies with “USA!” and – perplexingly, since one of the main themes of the speech it has just heard was the lack of jobs in Connecticut – “Get a job!” The two sides then mingle, unobstructed by police. Slanging matches break out that seem in every instance to humiliate the Trump supporter. “Go to college!” one demands. “Man, I am in college, I’m doin’ lovely!”

There is no violence, only this: some black boys are dancing, with liquid moves, to the sound of the drum. Four young Trump guys counter by stripping to their waists and jouncing around madly, their skin greenish-yellow under the street lights, screaming about the building of the wall. There was no alcohol inside; they’re drunk on whatever it is – the elixir of fascism, the unique magic of Trump. It’s a hyper but not at all happy drunk.

As with every other moment of the Trump campaign so far, it would have been merely some grade of the cringeworthy – the embarrassing, the revolting, the pitiful – were Trump not slouching closer and closer, with each of these moments, to his nomination. 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism