Tuesday, 20 November 2007

The Courage of Nick Clegg

I've been tracking the contest to lead the British Liberal Democrats as closely as possible from Istanbul. In particular I've been following the Lib Dem Blogs aggregate. Inevitably this is a self selected group of the over opinionated (just like must myself) but overall I think it gives a reasonable idea of how Liberal Democrats are thinking.

This point is partly in response to some of the bloggers, but also to growing general perceptions of Nick Clegg. It has to be said that Clegg's campaign has been strikingly bland after an impressive launch in Sheffield where he emphasised the limits of the state and promised to take the party out of its comfort zone. There was an obvious contrast with Chris Huhne's more abrasive style. Things came to a head on BBC TV on Sunday when a presenter produced a Huhne campaign team dossier labelled 'Calamity Clegg'. Huhne disassociated himself from the document but then proceeded to talk over Clegg and the presenter making very aggressive accusations. One of his accusations was that Clegg supported school vouchers (not an idea I find intrinsically dreadful). Clegg has said in public and apparently in a recent private conversation with Huhne that he does not support vouchers. Indeed he has supported another way of increasing choice in schools by suggesting that low income families should carry money with them to any school they choose.

Most bloggers, and probably most party members, found Huhne's attitude unacceptable. Hardline Huhnites defended Huhne as telling it as it has to be told. A few neutrals took the view that Huhne was abrasive but Clegg is too bland and lacking in nerve

Clegg not a Coward
Very recently Clegg took a lot of flak from outside the Lib Dems on two policies:
1. Amnesty for illegal immigrants who've been in the country for 10 years or more
2. Evidence based public policy on drugs including alcohol, misrepresented in some quarters as a call for prohibition of alcohol. The point in the latter case is to approach the issue in health terms not criminal law.
Earlier radical proposal
Great Repeal Act, to dispose of unnecessary legislation. Could be just tidying up but I think it has to be taken as a plan for limiting the state by seeking out over interventionist legislation.

Clegg's Problem
After making a bold start by referring to limited state liberalism, very striking for the left inclined Lib Dems, Clegg has retreated into vagueness. He certainly does not want to say much what he favours for public sector reform. Under questioning from bloggers he's said he wants individual National Health Service accounts which would give a choice of providers. He's not really following up on the speech though or on earlier indications that he's interested in forms of funding health services other than out of general taxation. Huhne makes this sound like the bench mark of good health services for all, but the reality is that France has what is widely believed to be the world's best service. There are many private hospitals and charges, those who need reimbursement or free services in the first place get them. I don't see many French coming over to Britain to use our health services, Sarkozy has acted to make less easy for British ex-pat retirees to have free access.

Huhne the Thug
Some, and not just Huhne fans, thinks he showing he's got what it takes in the political battlefield. This misses the point that an inner party leadership battle is not the same as a contest between parties. Generally Clegg has recognised this, and certainly more so than Huhne. Clegg can turn on the rhetoric when he wants to, his different style in this contest does not make Huhne a better battler. I don't think the electorate are looking for a cynical aggressive power mad type, or at least they expect politicians to keep it hidden. Huhne's fans find criticisms of Huhne unfair but think their man should grind Clegg into the ground. All this shows that given the chance he will portray Clegg as destroying the health service, and all public services. Clegg has put off the debate about public sector reform. Since in the Lib Dems the party conference really does make policy, that doesn't mean Clegg will spring some package on the party straight after being elected.

Nonsense about Huhne's Level of Support
I'm not sure it it's the result of Huhne's briefing or lazy journalism but some media, particularly the Guardian/Observer newspaper have claimed Huhne has more party support than Clegg.
What are the facts?
1. Clegg has many more MPs backing him
2. Clegg has many more supporters on his website
3. Clegg has many more Facebook supporters
4. A recent survey of constituency chairs showed more support for Clegg.
That last point is probably the most important in showing how party members will vote. party chairs are local people who will know what members are thinking and will be in tune with that.

Predictions are dangerous but I'm jumping in
Clegg will win
Clegg will be bold.
Clegg's pleasant manner will make him the right person to explain bold policies

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