Leaders in search of parties

Liberal Democrat party leader Nick Clegg held a Q&A session during his party’s fall conference. At times, Clegg seemed almost impatient with some of the questions party members were asking, even lecturing one of them for not listening to the answer being provided. As noted in the Guardian:

The Nick Clegg 2011 model is not the same as the 2010 one. People have been talking about it at the conference, but his Q&A session really brought it out. He’s more thick-skinned, confident and abrupt. One theory is that it’s just experience. (Last year he did at times look like someone playing at being deputy prime minister.) Another theory is that he’s received so much abuse that he’s become inured to it. Whatever, it meant that he treated delegates during the Q&A session to a rhetorical duffing up. But what I don’t know is whether or not they appreciated the smack of firm leadership. Colleagues who were in the hall say that it was hard to tell.

Other columnists have noted a deepening split between the Liberal and Social Democrat wings of the party, with Clegg and the other “orange bookers” firmly wanting the party to move more towards a liberal/centrist position. This, of course, is not news. Prior to last fall’s conference, he candidly stated that the party had no future as a left-wing alternative to Labour:

“I totally understand that some of these people are not happy with what the Lib Dems are doing in coalition with the Conservatives. The Lib Dems never were and aren’t a receptacle for left-wing dissatisfaction with the Labour Party. There is no future for that; there never was.”

Fraser Nelson recently wrote that: “Like David Cameron, Clegg has no great love for his party members.” A comment left by a reader on a different Spectator blog post about Clegg’s Q&A session observed:

His problem is that his party is composed of sanctimonious bores who would much rather be complaining from the sidelines than in power.

Odd that the three major parties should all be led by men who are so obviously not enamored of their own members.

This is an interesting phenomena in the UK. It does seem that all three of the main party leaders are at odds with a significant number of their party membership.

There has been much grumbling in Conservative Party circles of David Cameron not being a “real” Tory, or that he listens far too much to the Liberal Democrats and not to his own membership or caucus. Take, for example, the recent exchange during Prime Minister’s Questions when Tory backbencher Nadine Dorries asked this of the PM:

Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire) (Con): The Liberal Democrats make up 8.7% of this Parliament and yet they seem to be influencing our free school policy, health and many issues including immigration and abortion. Does the Prime Minister—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. The question from the hon. Lady will be heard.

Nadine Dorries: Does the Prime Minister think it is about time he told the Deputy Prime Minister who is the boss?(source)

The issue isn’t that David Cameron listens more to Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, but that the reality of a coalition with the Liberal Democrats allows David Cameron to ignore some of the more extreme elements of his own party because numerically, he simply doesn’t need their support.

Both Andrew Rawnsley (the Guardian) and the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson make this point very clearly. Robinson observed that (emphasis added):

There is a growing sense of betrayal on the Tory backbenches – not just on abortion and Europe but issues like tax cuts too.

They may blame the coalition but most must know that on all these issues David Cameron is acting according to his own instinct.

What they resent is the fact that the Lib Dems have given him a majority big enough to ignore lobbying from Tory backbenchers, unlike John Major who found himself constantly having to appease them.

The Commons became hysterical when David Cameron tried to reply to Nadine Dorries by saying he knew she was “extremely frustrated” – which MPs took as a comment on her personal proclivities rather than political demands.

Tellingly, he then sat down and gave Nick Clegg a reassuring clap on the shoulder.

Rawnsley puts forward a similar argument (emphasis added):

One simplistic school of Tory thought has it that their leader is too lacking in conviction, energy and steel to secure a full-on rightwing agenda. He allows the Lib Dems to have their way more often than he should because he can’t be bothered enough to fight.

A more sophisticated school of unhappy Tories think that David Cameron uses the Lib Dems as an excuse for not doing things he didn’t want to do anyway. Too often, for their tastes, he calls himself a “liberal Conservative” with almost as much emphasis on the first word as the last. This has more plausibility as an analysis. Most of the things about this government that upset rightwing Tories are not actually down to the Lib Dems.

Labour leader Ed Miliband has also taken stances somewhat at odds with those of his party. He wants to sever, or at least limit, the party’s ties to unions. He also wants to explore opening up the leadership process, potentially even letting non-members vote.

The problems all three leaders face is that their parties span a diverse spectrum of opinion, not surprising since they are “big tent” parties. The Conservative Party membership ranges from extremely right-wing and small “c” conservatives to individuals like David Cameron himself – who is indeed far more liberal. Labour remains torn between Old Labour – strongly socialist and pro-union, and Blair’s New Labour. The Lib Dems, born of a merger of the SDP and Liberal parties, have never really merged into one cohesive party – they retain their SDP and Liberal sides, and the current leadership would like to the party to become a classically liberal party – centrist and progressive. Indeed, during his Q&A session, Nick Clegg urged party members to stop obsessing about the people who won’t vote for them now and to start going after the people who might now vote for them. A slight but important distinction, since most who won’t vote for them now are probably more on the left, and Clegg is hoping his party may now appeal more to more centrist/liberal voters.

In an ideal world, these parties would split up into two or three parties each. That would probably happen if some form of proportional representation (not AV) were adopted to replace First Past the Post, but since there is little or no chance of that happening in the near or even distant future, the phenomena of party leaders at odds with their parties is likely to continue.


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