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Who is Nick Clegg talking to these days?

By Angela Harbutt
September 5th, 2011 at 7:58 pm | 2 Comments | Posted in Liberal Democrats

Last year at conference, a motion calling on the party to “urge” people “not to take up the option” of the new Free schools was overwhelmingly carried. It was a very Liberal Democrat kind of conference motion.

It had no teeth, had the political lobbyists chuckling into their gin and tonics and the likes of my friends and family asking what the hell that meant? It meant very little.  A squeal from the activists at having lost some of their historical power over the party, a squawk against having to work with the hated Tories. A symbolic gesture. 

And a damaging one at that. For a party that purports to advocate freedom in the abstract, why is it that conference all too frequently objects to it in practice ? No wonder so many of my friends tell me that the Lib Dems stand for nothing – and everything – according to what suits them at the time. I some times feel they may be right. But we should remember that votes at conference don’t always reflect the views of the wider Lib Dem voters. On the issue of free schools I bet you any money you like that regardless of the conference vote there will be swathes of Lib Dem (and Labour) voters, not just Tory voters, itching to get involved in setting up these schools.

Nick’s initial stance on free schools was spot on. So one the one hand I am delighted that Nick ignored conference, considered the evidence and embraced free schools – to the extent that today, he is calling for more of them. His instinct that parents want more choice is right – and the evidence from countries such as Holland, Sweden and Denmark is that they work.

Where I think Nick is wrong however is to create another “phony” yellow roadblock.

His statement that these Free Schools must not be “for-profit”  was however a mistake. It is to imply that he (and his colleagues) have somehow stopped the Conservatives going down this route. It has been taken as such by many political commentators and discussed widely across the media today. It is however perfectly clear that the Lib Dems have had nothing to do with stopping “for profit” schools . Gove, Osborne et al had already decided that “for profit” schools were a political step too far for the Conservatives just now. Nor indeed is there any suggestion that these are intended, or will turn out to be, middle class enclaves. So why has Nick even ventured down the path of raising these issues? Is it “muscular liberalism” (“don’t worry folks I have my beady eye on these blue bastards” ) or, more likely, is it to send out “reassuring” warm words to his party. But which part of his party? The activists or the voters?

If it is the activists he is wrong because he has shown time and again that he is much more in-tune with the voters than conference activists are. If it’s the voters he is wrong. We can’t really be planning to go into the next election asking the electorate to judge us on the our record in Government by churning out a long list of things we “stopped” rather than the things “we have done” ? Especially when they twig that half the time the claim of a Lib Dem roadblock is er hmmm a tad overstated. People are not that stupid. Nor do people vote for negative action, roadblocks and political gesturing. They vote for positive action, solutions and results delivered.

And that’s not to say he should not voice his views. He was spot on coming out of the blocks fast to dispel any idea that he would sanction any moves to restrict social network sites in the aftermath of the riots. But that is a world away from allowing this “yellow roadblock” concept to gather further traction.   

There is also just the chance that we might have to work with the Conservatives again in the next term. As things stand the next election may well be close. How much harder will it be for David Cameron to persuade the Tory grass roots to go along with another term in coalition with the Liberal Democrats if all they get over the next two years is a constant stream of  “yellow roadblocks” real or phony. We can differentiate in a positive way just as easily and with better results.

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