If you’re reading this, there’s a high chance you aren’t keen on Nick Clegg, and possibly the Liberal Democrats as a whole. If I were to ask you to post why in the comments – as if you need an invitation – I imagine you’d probably say something like this genuine extract, quoted verbatim:
Clegg is the most insincere, deceitful, disingenuous, untrustworthy man to hold office in the UK.
…only with a few more expletives thrown in for good measure.
Thing is, like Mr Clegg, I just lied to you: I changed one of the words. The comment wasn’t about Clegg, but another politician who went from being an electoral asset to a liability after a spell in power. It’s about Tony Blair, from a Guardian article in 2009. Pretty mild stuff compared to what you’ll find underneath any article about Nick Clegg. And yet, the main source of hatred reserved for Clegg’s Lib Dems is that they lied and broke manifesto promises, and this is something that Labour themselves know a great deal about too.
Leading up to the 2010 election, both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats published documents highlighting failures from Labour’s 2005 manifesto (the Tory version can still be read here, but ironically the link on Nick Clegg’s site promising the PDF of Labour’s Broken Promises is broken), but the party broke promises even when fully united with a massive majority in the early days of New Labour too. Party strategists seemed aware that this was becoming an Achilles heel – in 1997, part of their winning campaign was to publish five point pledge cards, containing promises for the coming parliament. They repeated this for the following three elections, but compare the specific pledges of the first (“We will cut NHS waiting lists by treating an extra 100,000 patients as a first step by releasing £100m saved from NHS red tape”) to the happy thoughts of the 2005 batch (“Your Family Better Off”) and there’s the unmistakable air of a party trying to promise something so vague that they can’t be accused of failing to deliver. No wonder: they were forced to admit before the 2001 election that they had only managed three out of five of the specific pledges, which were previously viewed as a touch on the unambitious side.
So why do Labour get such a comparatively easy ride from the left? Sure, there are negative comments about Miliband and Labour in general, but they don’t contain anything like the special kind of bile reserved for the Liberal Democrats. Over 13 years, Labour broke plenty of election pledges including, lest we forget, their own pledge not to bring in top-up fees (“We will not introduce top-up fees and have legislated to prevent them.” – 2001 Manifesto), not to mention abandoning their own 1997 commitment of delivering a referendum on parliamentary voting reform, much to the annoyance of Liberal Democrats (“We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons” – 1997 manifesto). They even went so far as winning a court battle over their failure to deliver a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, getting the court to agree with the defence that “A manifesto promise is incapable of giving rise to a legally binding contract with the electorate”. And the biggest kicker? They did much of this with a handsome majority of seats in the Commons, without the excuse of being the junior partner in a coalition government, which is actually a far more explanation than it’s often given credit for being. Labour haven’t recently had to defend another party’s ideology to maintain government unity, which will hurt you far more than a couple of policy ideas failing to come through.
Perhaps Labour get off lightly because the pledges they failed to deliver on were not high-profile policies – electoral reform gets Lib Dem activists all hot and bothered, but barely registers with Labour voters, let alone the public at large. And although there’s a lot of bluster about the Lisbon Treaty and the role of the EU, Labour has never been the natural party of eurosceptics – indeed the man bringing the case against the government was a UKIP activist, who probably cast his vote elsewhere anyway. The Liberal Democrats on the other hand have always relied heavily on the student vote, and although they weren’t as vocal about tuition fees in 2010 as they had been in previous years (even the Tories were unconvincingly making free tuition a manifesto pledge in 2005), Clegg wasn’t averse to campaigning at university campuses and repeating the manifesto policy of scrapping tuition fees to any student who would listen. It’s worth noting the actual pledge to ‘vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament’ signed by the party’s 57 MPs was an NUS campaign, rather than a Liberal Democrat initiative (indeed some Labour and Conservative candidates were also signatories), but plenty happily posed for grinning photo opportunities alongside their signature, blissfully unaware that they had just lit the fuse on a bad PR time bomb.
Maybe the real problem is that many centre-left voters feel stupid for being taken in by Nick Clegg’s impressive television debate performance, where he artfully positioned himself as a new kind of politician in a brand new, exciting medium – one who doesn’t break promises, and doesn’t believe in limp pragmatism. It seems like another lifetime now, but Nick Clegg’s debate performance was genuinely inspiring, coming from nowhere and winning over much of the audience with his polished presentation and refreshing words which resonated with a disillusioned public, fed up with Labour but suspicious of the Tories – and he may have done a little too well. It’s easier to deal with hollow marketing copy on a page like every other year, than to find out the man you trusted on the TV turned out to be promising the impossible. The former is just business as usual, but the latter can genuinely hurt – a lie to your face. No wonder people are vocally angry.
The Liberal Democrat campaign team wasn’t shy about capitalising on the jadedness of the populace towards the two main parties either. It will make Lib Dem activists cringe now to watch campaign videos such as this one, amusingly titled “Say Goodbye to Broken Promises” in which Clegg makes an impassioned message to the camera about “promises being kept” and how political parties have proven they just can’t be trusted. Of course, he was inadvertently correct – he just didn’t appreciate at the time how being right about this one might make it a dangerous sentiment to tap into.
But ultimately the main reason Labour doesn’t face the same anger nowadays may be disappointing to those commenters who wishfully boast about the impending Liberal Democrat oblivion: anger fades. Most have forgotten about New Labour’s broken promises now that Blair and Brown are party conference memories, and it’s entirely plausible the same will apply to the Lib Dems in time. In 2016, once Clegg has either jumped or been pushed and a new face is in place, Milliband will likely be facing similar flack when his One Nation Labour turns out to be the familiar old Two or Three Nations, and Cable or Farron may once again seem a suitable vehicle for protest votes in by-elections. However implausible it may seem right now in the heat of the moment, time heals all wounds – to come back to the Guardian comment I started on, there will always be a next “most insincere, deceitful, disingenuous, untrustworthy” figure waiting to fill the hate vacuum. And that’s a promise I won’t break.
Alan Martin writes about politics, tech and gaming (although rarely at the same time).