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21 September 2011

Winning back every seat? Clegg has a long way to go

The Lib Dem leader's speech will not reverse the public view that he has said one thing and done ano

By Samira Shackle

It was fighting talk from Clegg today, and it went down well in the conference hall. Channelling Neil Kinnock in his 1985 speech to the Labour conference, he proclaimed: “you don’t play politics with people’s jobs”.

He spoke these words in an angry, raised tone, reminiscent of his performance in the election debates, when he presented himself as being above the fray, with greater concerns than the petty politicking of the two main parties. However, while Clegg may want to frame his entry into coalition as a new kind of politics, the impression the public is left with is, unfortunately for him, precisely the opposite. In the comedown from Clegg-mania, the overwhelming view is that he’s just the same as the rest, saying one thing and doing another.

Today’s speech did little to correct that view. Clegg was disingenuous on tuition fees, putting on his best forlorn/misunderstood face and implying that people are angry because they have misunderstood the bill:

No matter how hard you work on the details of a policy, it’s no good if the perception is wrong. We can say until we’re blue in the face that no one will have to pay any fees as a student, but still people don’t believe it.

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In fact, people are not angry because of their “perception”, but because of photographs of Clegg, and other ministers, grinning next to a pledge to vote against a rise in tuition fees if they were elected. It is not good enough to dismiss this as “easy promises of opposition” as opposed to “the invidious choices of Government”. People do not like being lied to, and it will be nigh on impossible to explain away that basic fact.

Clegg was consistent in his narrative of differentiation and necessity: the Liberal Democrats “are in nobody’s pocket”, and had no choice but to enter the government. It went down a storm with delegates, but this attempt to frame the Lib Dems’ role in the coalition as a noble and selfless act is unlikely to reverberate beyond the conference hall.

The steady decline in Lib Dem support may have just about stopped, but that is not the same as reversing the losses. There is a very long way to go if Clegg is to come anywhere near the promise he made today of winning back every single seat lost.