Clegg needs to radically change his approach to Labour

David Hall-Matthews, chair of the Social Liberal Forum, outlines four reasons why Nick Clegg needs to radically change his approach to Labour.

David Hall-Matthews is the chair of the Social Liberal Forum

Last week’s war of words between Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband over the abortive Yes2AV launch was self-destructive and unseemly. What were they thinking? With both men’s reputations dependent on a Yes vote, they cannot afford to let the campaign degenerate into a series of spats.


But while Mr Miliband must accept his share of responsibility for such childishness, Mr Clegg has been indulging in silly games like this for months. Every speech he makes is full of invective about Labour – to listen to Mr Clegg, you would think Labour were no different to the bad old days of Militant.

Of course it is true that Labour’s failure to fully accept responsibility for the economic mess is lamentable. The sight of a former city-slicker-turned-financial-deregulator like Ed Balls now claiming to espouse leftist economic views is hard to take.

On a human level, it is also understandable why Mr Clegg may not be inclined to let Labour off the hook, given the disgraceful way Labour MPs treat him during Deputy Prime Minister’s Questions. But that’s politics.

There are four pressing reasons why Mr Clegg needs to radically change his approach to Labour:

1) The pluralist politics Mr Clegg espouses only makes sense if mutual respect extends in all directions. Every time he makes a speech that portrays politics as a choice between “us” (the coalition) and “them” (Labour), it seems as though we have reverted to two-party tribalism.

The Lib Dems have always claimed to represent a meaningful alternative; it is time they started talking about that again.

2) Mr Clegg will never win any debate with David Cameron while the negotiations between the two assume the Conservatives have 80% of the votes in government, rather than 45% of the votes in parliament. Working together, the Lib Dems and Labour can defeat the Tories on a number of issues. What is more, on a great many issues – particularly health – public opinion is firmly with us.

If Mr Clegg wants to make a difference and not be remembered as the prime minister’s poodle, he needs to go into cabinet discussions from a position of strength, and that will be helped by warmer Labour relations.

3) Even the biggest Lib Dem supporters of a strategic Liberal-Conservative alliance would still want to win more concessions. The Lib Dems will be best placed to achieve what they want in the next government if they are able to do business with both sides. So Labour needs to be a potential ally.

4) On a tactical level, a change in tack from Mr Clegg would expose Labour’s divisions. For many Labour politicians, Miliband Jr stole the leadership election last year and they are remarkably happy to let their displeasure be known; Labour commentators such as John Rentoul and Dan Hodges are visceral in their dislike of the man – to a quite remarkable extent given how little time he has had in post.

The Lib Dems should be taking advantage of this. Instead of tarring all Labour politicians with the same brush, Mr Clegg should be welcoming the changes that Miliband is attempting to make, and highlighting how he faces internal opposition. That would do two things: remind voters that the Liberal Democrats are still a liberal party, not merely an adjunct of the Conservatives, and expose Labour’s contradictions.

By showing Mr Miliband a bit of love, Mr Clegg can distinguish himself from the Conservatives and strengthen his negotiating position in cabinet. All it requires is for him to try a little subtle diplomacy and to develop a thicker skin.

36 Responses to “Clegg needs to radically change his approach to Labour”

  1. Sam hussain

    RT @leftfootfwd: Clegg needs to radically change his approach to Labour: http://bit.ly/eBk41L writes @soclibforum's David Hall-Matthews

  2. Anon E Mouse

    Wow. Glad I’m sitting down. An author on Left Foot Forward says:

    “Of course it is true that Labour’s failure to fully accept responsibility for the economic mess is lamentable. The sight of a former city-slicker-turned-financial-deregulator like Ed Balls now claiming to espouse leftist economic views is hard to take”

    Am I seeing things or has this fine blog actually decided to live up to it’s tagline regarding ‘evidence’?

  3. Matthew Beaumont

    RT @leftfootfwd: Clegg needs to radically change his approach to Labour: http://bit.ly/eBk41L writes @soclibforum's David Hall-Matthews

  4. thom oliver

    RT @leftfootfwd: Clegg needs to radically change his approach to Labour: http://bit.ly/eBk41L writes @soclibforum's David Hall-Matthews

  5. Thom Oliver

    RT @leftfootfwd: Clegg needs to radically change his approach to Labour: http://bit.ly/eBk41L writes @soclibforum's David Hall-Matthews

  6. Dale Cox

    RT @leftfootfwd: Clegg needs to radically change his approach to Labour: http://bit.ly/eBk41L writes @soclibforum's David Hall-Matthews

  7. Dale Cox

    RT @leftfootfwd: Clegg needs to radically change his approach to Labour: http://bit.ly/eBk41L writes @soclibforum's David Hall-Matthews

  8. JoshC

    “With both men’s reputations dependent on a Yes vote”

    I don’t believe Miliband’s reputation is dependent on a Yes vote in the slightest. It just isn’t that much of an issue with Labour voters as it is with Lib-Dem voters and Miliband’s leadership certain isn’t on the line in the same way as Clegg.

  9. Richard

    Odd that, there are innumerable quotes from Clegg, Cable, Huhne, Hughes et al from before the election blaming “the wretched banks that got us into this mess”. It was literally a Lib Dem election refrain.

  10. Barrie Ainsworth

    Clegg needs to radically change his approach to Labour – Left Foot Forward http://ow.ly/1bRJvo

  11. Social Liberal Forum

    RT @leftfootfwd: Clegg needs to radically change his approach to Labour: http://bit.ly/eBk41L writes @soclibforum's David Hall-Matthews

  12. Adam

    RT @leftfootfwd: Clegg needs to radically change his approach to Labour: http://bit.ly/eBk41L writes @soclibforum's David Hall-Matthews

  13. Liberal Ideals

    Clegg needs to radically change his approach to Labour: Instead of tarring all Labour politicians with the same … http://bit.ly/f59b8Q

  14. Manisha

    V. good, fair article >> @leftfootfwd Clegg needs to radically change his approach to Labour: http://bit.ly/eBk41L – @soclibforum

  15. Social Liberal Forum

    RT @shanima: V. good, fair article >> @leftfootfwd Clegg needs to radically change his approach to Labour: http://bit.ly/eBk41L – …

  16. Pimlicat

    RT @leftfootfwd: Clegg needs to radically change his approach to Labour: http://bit.ly/eBk41L writes @soclibforum's David Hall-Matthews

  17. Pimlicat

    RT @leftfootfwd: Clegg needs to radically change his approach to Labour: http://bit.ly/eBk41L writes @soclibforum's David Hall-Matthews

  18. Graham

    I’d rather see a Liberal Conservative party. Conservative spine conserving all thats good and flexing economic strength along with Liberal love to end Social injustice. But most importantly self reliance and self respect. So get the economy going… then focus on social injustice. We can’t do all at once there has to be a long term sustainable plan and well.. to end social injustice we need jobs to lower the unemployment rate and jobs to soften up the dependency ratio… So yes Mr Clegg was right to join with Cameron. Yes the country is going through harsh and difficult times but it’s neccessary for the long term. We’re going to have to accept we can’t make the banks pay for it all… like it or not we need them for economic growth.. Clegg goes with the Labour party then we’ll see growth stunt for good or at best be really slow. We’ll see a nanny state come back. Liberals go better with Conservatism than Ed Millibands Left Wing Socialism. Liberal Conservatives all the way!

  19. Social Liberal Stand

    RT @leftfootfwd: Clegg needs to radically change his approach to Labour: http://bit.ly/eBk41L writes @soclibforum's David Hall-Matthews

  20. Will Straw

    Important piece from @soclibforum's David Hall-Matthews on why Clegg needs a new approach to talking about Labour: http://bit.ly/eBk41L

  21. Ian McKenzie

    @wdjstraw Bless! This Hall-Matthews Liberal chap still believes that Clegg's not a Tory and his party is still distinct http://bit.ly/eBk41L

  22. Olly Grender

    What one needs is this http://t.co/2tpOXGg + this http://bit.ly/eBk41L Don't u think? @charlotteahenry @wdjstraw both articles are right

  23. gendercart

    RT @OllyGrender: What one needs is this http://t.co/2tpOXGg + this http://bit.ly/eBk41L Don't u think? @charlotteahenry @wdjstraw both a …

  24. Mr. Sensible

    Agree with that, Josh.

    And Mr Mouse that isn’t true; this is a guest column.

    The first step on the road to recovery for the Lib Dems is to kill off Lansley’s proposed NHS reforms.

  25. Peter Ruddick

    Great points. RT @wdjstraw: Important piece from @soclibforum on why Clegg needs new approach to talking about Labour: http://bit.ly/eBk41L

  26. Anon E Mouse

    Mr.Sensible – Still waiting for your response regarding the Guardian and it’s tax avoidance scam.

    Anyway which bit of what I said isn’t true? The fact is that Labour has left this country in economic ruin and the shadow chancellor and party leader simply won’t admit it.

    We all know it’s true and they know we know but continue the denial and try to blame the bankers even though Gordon Brown, the worst chancellor and least popular Prime Minister in British history never got the books to balance since 2001. Listen to what Alistair Darling said Mr.Sensible or are you now saying he was wrong as well?

    Because of financial incompetence and taking the electorate as fools has cost the Labour Party 5 million voters in the last three Parliaments and an overdraft of around £24million.

    If Labour can’t be trusted to run their own affairs – which they clearly can’t – then why the hell should they be trusted (again) to run the countries?

    Elections are won in Britain in ‘Middle England’ and in that respect Labour are doomed and until whichever idiots are running party policy start listening to ex supporters like myself and start accepting they screwed things up the party has no chance…

  27. Ash

    “Labour’s failure to fully accept responsibility for the economic mess is lamentable”

    Their failure to accept *their share* of responsibility might be lamentable. But it’s hardly plausible that *none* of the responsibility for the economic mess lies with other governments or with private financial institutions. Exactly how powerless are we supposed to believe the banks, the US government etc are? It must strain the credulity even of Mr Mouse to believe that the UK government is/was in a position unilaterally to dictate the course of the world economy.

  28. Anon E Mouse

    Ash – If you read what I said I mentioned ONLY the deficit since 2001.

    Watch the film ‘Inside Job’ which is a fantastic, almost documentary like, telling of the collapse of the world economy via the banking system.

    I’m not an economist Ash but I know that if the last government couldn’t balance the books during 2007 and actually believed that they had ended ‘Boom and Bust’ then clearly they are fiscally incompetent…

  29. Ash

    Anon

    “If you read what I said I mentioned ONLY the deficit since 2001.”

    That’s kind of my point. You approvingly quoted the reference in the original post to “Labour’s failure to fully accept responsibility for the economic mess”, and claimed yourself that “Labour has left this country in economic ruin”. And you suggested that Labour’s attempt to blame the bankers was just a smokescreen. But the only thing you actually blame Labour for is running a modest 2-3% deficit from 2001 onwards, which plainly did not (all by itself) cause the economic situation we’re now in. Of course it suits the Tories to emphasise the role played by public-sector overspending and play down the role played by private-sector failure, but if you look at the whole global causal chain leading to our present situation, the idea that the former UK government should accept full responsibility for leaving us in “economic ruin” is bonkers. The most you could plausibly claim is that they’re responsible for the deficit being 2-3% higher in the UK than it is in countries where Gordon Brown wasn’t in charge.

  30. Anon E Mouse

    Ash – Which may be correct if it was not for Canada – not all countries are “in this together”.

    Sticking to Tory fiscal policy meant that initially Labour were claiming they were going to pay the debt off but just kept changing the goalposts on the stupid economic cycle.

    I don’t blame Labour for the total mess (although there has never been a Labour government that has left office with the economy better than the one they inherited – not one) but for Balls to say blah blah and not once propose a means of actually getting the deficit down is dishonest.

    When oppositions just oppose it doesn’t matter how poor the popularity of the government they simply will not win elections – think Neil Kinnock and how unpopular Thatcher was and he still couldn’t win. (I met him once – we had a slight difference of opinion but he was still warm and friendly and should have won that election – Ed Miliband has none of that skill)

    Labour needs to put it’s case and be damned because with the dire lead they have in the polls considering the cuts and the poor popularity (quite rightly imo) of their leader they do not have a cat in hells chance of governing this country anytime soon.

    And irrespective of how one would describe “economic ruin” or as you say 2-3% deficit, if the party doesn’t actually make it’s case then it will never be taken seriously.

  31. Olly Grender

    @James_Macintyre What one needs is this http://t.co/2tpOXGg + this http://bit.ly/eBk41L Don't u think?

  32. James Macintyre

    RT @OllyGrender: @James_Macintyre What one needs is this http://t.co/2tpOXGg + this http://bit.ly/eBk41L Don't u think?

  33. Ash

    Anon –

    “I don’t blame Labour for the total mess”

    Hurrah! That’s all I was looking for.

    “for Balls to say blah blah and not once propose a means of actually getting the deficit down is dishonest.”

    Fair comment. Personally I think Labour should be clearly saying things like “we’d have listened to the police when they said they could absorb only 12% cuts without affecting the frontline, and kept cuts below that level; the Tories are cutting by 20% regardless” – i.e. rather than leaving people to figure out what “cutting by roughly half as much” means, they should tell them what it means in terms of the services that could be protected. (This is assuming they stick to the “cut by half as much” line; given that the deficit is coming down faster than we thought it would without any significant cuts having come into effect, it looks to me as if we don’t actually have to cut by as much as we thought.)

  34. Anon E Mouse

    Ash – Agreed. I just think the party needs to formulate an argument and stick to it.

    I have no intention of voting for any party that can’t face the truth and this country needs an opposition that is credible…

  35. Merseymike

    Clegg is right wing. he is politically indistinguishable from Cameron, and in reality the FibDems may as well simply merge with the Tories and have done with it. Locally they tend to be right wing populists in any case

    The fewer seats they have at the next election – the better. Don’t forget ONLY the FibDems benefit from AV – so VOTE NO!

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