Clegg has made coalition work. Now he must show he believes in more than hung parliaments

The risk for the Deputy PM is of looking desperate to stay in office at any price.

There is a new puppy in Downing Street – plaintive-eyed, poorly house-trained and, no, it isn’t called Nick Clegg. Days before delivering his Autumn Statement on the economy, George Osborne announced that No 11 had acquired a bichon frise called Lola. She is a gift for the Chancellor’s children from which, no doubt, newspaper diary columnists will also benefit.

So far, the Liberal Democrat lapdog jokes have been few, which is noteworthy given that Clegg was once caricatured as a Tory poodle. The gag doesn’t work any more. The Labour reflex is still to deride the Deputy Prime Minister as a gutless accomplice in Tory wickedness but many opposition MPs are starting to accept what Conservative backbenchers have been complaining about all along: that Clegg’s role is much more than ornamental.

Proving that junior coalition parties wield real power is half a victory for the Lib Dems. It rebuts the old charge that there is no point in voting for them. It doesn’t prove that their contribution has been a good one. Clegg’s strategy relies on people thinking he has thwarted the Conservatives’ beastlier impulses, while imposing kinder – but still affordable – measures of his own.

Neither Labour nor the Tories wants to encourage that interpretation, while their actions reinforce it. David Cameron flatters the Lib Dems by claiming that their signature policy – lifting the income tax threshold for low earners – was a Conservative plan all along, although in 2010 he insisted it was an unaffordable luxury. Meanwhile, Ed Mili­band has accepted that voters see spending restraint as a mark of a party’s economic credibility, which makes it harder to attack Clegg for conceding the same point on day one of the coalition.

The economic case that there was a better, slower pace for cuts is now academic. There was a time when some Lib Dems, most prominently Vince Cable, looked queasy in their commitment to the government’s economic plan but that dissent was crushed at the party’s conference in September. Cable is now the spent cartridge from an anti-austerity shot that was fired into the air.

With growth restored, the debate inside government has shifted to the balance between rewarding voters for enduring years of hardship and reminding them that the job of repairing the public finances is not yet done. Too much pre-election generosity could signal that the crisis is over, which, as the Treasury sees it, amounts to “permission to vote Labour again”. Too heavy an emphasis on constant belt-tightening looks obsessive; militant accountancy trumping compassion.

Here, too, the Lib Dems see an opportunity to position themselves as guardians of the middle way. Clegg will not match Osborne’s pledge to keep cutting through the next parliament until the Budget is in surplus. Nor does he agree with the Chancellor that all future deficit reduction should be achieved without raising taxes. “It can’t be done,” a close ally of the Deputy Prime Minister tells me. “Or rather, it can be done but not if you care about distributional fairness.” The Lib Dems will let the Tories campaign for ever-stingier benefits, while they promise a “mansion tax”.

Not for the first time, Clegg is being helped by the Tories’ self-defeating – and arguably not very conservative – quest for doctrinal purity. Cameron once understood that voters like Budget discipline because it sounds practical, not because they see public expenditure as the thin end of a socialist wedge. These days, he asserts that the state should be leaner “not just now, but permanently”. Austerity, in the Prime Minister’s view, is no longer the response to a financial emergency but the enactment of Tory philosophy.

The Lib Dems think that allows them to pose as the steady-handed surgeons, wielding the knife because the patient needs it, not because it gives them pleasure. This they will contrast with what one cabinet minister describes as Osborne’s “ideological fetish” for cuts.

The question that then arises is why, if Clegg occupies what his strategists call “the liberal centre”, does his party still languish so low in opinion polls? One explanation is that, in a climate of voter contempt for politicians and economic insecurity, the centre has moved to somewhere less classically liberal. Some Tories see Ukip’s success as proof that politics is now about the survival of the toughest – on crime, immigration, Europe, welfare, the colour green; areas where the Lib Dems are liable to look soft. By contrast, Labour detects a renaissance of left populism, marked by the appetite for government to slap down greedy energy companies and raid bankers’ bonuses.

A more prosaic account of Clegg’s poll woes is that standard surveys of national voting intentions ask the wrong question where potential support for his party is concerned. In a close race, what matters is whether, in constituencies where Lib Dem candidates have a chance, people see them as a possible insurance policy against undiluted rule by whichever of the big two parties they like less.

Since Labour and the Conservatives will paint each other as wild-eyed ideologues, the offer to anchor either of them in moderation may not sound too far-fetched. The risk is of looking desperate to stay in office at any price. It is already a problem for the Lib Dems that many people don’t know what they stand for and many who thought they knew before the last election feel betrayed. Clegg’s closest advisers recognise that their “liberal centre” position needs to find expression in values that voters recognise before it becomes a campaign. Without that, it sounds like a plot to thwart other leaders’ ambitions. Left and right will accuse Clegg of obstructing progress by gaming for a hung parliament. He will be cast as the ideological mongrel in the manger, which is a lot better than being written off as Cameron’s dogsbody.

Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Burnout Britain

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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