Tuesday, April 03, 2012
Some unsolicited political advice for Nick Clegg
Earlier this evening I took part in a conference call on the Coalition's proposals to oblige internet service providers to collect and store more data about their customers.
One of the other participants claimed to be Nick Clegg's 'political adviser'. As - how shall I phrase this? - I am not wholly convinced that this person can be relied upon to offer Nick the best political advice on a consistent basis, I am offering him a little of my own.
Let me explain, Nick, why this issue, which may appear to be a little esoteric, poses a threat both to you and the party.
The threat to you
However unfair it may be, there are two narratives about you that have acquired considerable purchase with the public. The first is that you are subservient to David Cameron - the fag to his captain of school, if you want to put it at its most insulting.
The second is that you say one thing and do another. This has its roots in the Coalition's decision to increase tuition fees after you had signed a pledge saying you would never do any such thing. I am not a fan of pledges and believe such an increase was pretty much inevitable given the rise in student numbers in recent years. And you did try to persuade the party to row back on this commitment
But you did sign that pledge. And it can hardly have been a surprise that student voters - an interest group you and the wider party had courted so assiduously - were outraged.
If you are now seen to go along with what the Conservatives want on the retention of data after all you have said on the subject, they you will simply convince more voters that these unflattering narratives about you are true.
The threat to the party
Civil liberties are at the heart of what it means to be a Liberal Democrat. Our support for them is almost what defines our party: the reason why many talented people joined us rather than seek an easier path to public office through Labour or the Conservatives.
If you are seen to water down this commitment then many of your members will question their commitment to the party and even their membership at all. A few people left after the NHS & Social Care Bill: I fear that rather more will leave if these proposals go through.
And there is a wider question. Who do you expect to vote for you at the next election? As my Liberator colleague Simon Titley never tires of pointing out, the Liberal Democrats' great weakness is that our core vote is so small. We pride ourselves on working harder than the other parties, but the fact that we have to work so hard to persuade people to vote for us is really a sign of weakness.
What we need is a core of liberally minded people who naturally vote Liberal Democrat. If you put yourself on the other side of this debate from every civil liberties group in the country, it is hard to see why liberally minded people should vote for you.
So if you take my advice you will distance yourself from these proposals very loudly and very publicly.