Ah, the Great Leader’s speech. The main & last event of the Liberal Democrat party conference on Wednesday, was I don’t know how to describe it other than a muddled mess. It had great bits, don’t get me wrong. Parts of the speech made me when I watched it live, think Clegg is the man of the moment, the guy with the ability and determination to take on the vested interests and win.
Yet, at other times, his speech made me think “actually, you don’t get it. You’ll lead this party into opposition for another century and we as a party are blindly following”.
I finished watching being more conflicted about Nick’s leadership. With one hand, I want him to be Prime Minister, with the other I see him leading us to an electoral abyss.
The speech started off with a slight groan that he was going to be yet another politician to politicise the Olympics and Paralympics but I thought he handled it quite well.
The way he showed that behind each Olympian or Paralympian stood a coach. Behind that coach stood a team of physios and trainers. Each member of the team is using their individual talents to come together to do something extraordinary. Nick built on that theme by looking back at the riots and seeing that teams of individuals who came together to clean up Britain. Nick pointed to Maurice Reeves who started up his furniture store again and on the walls of the new store were pictures of young people with messages of hope.
I have to say this part reminded me of Obama’s “Yes we can” campaign of 2008. It also reminded me of his speech a few weeks ago where he tried to make the same message, that we all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. That we can build things together.
I was hoping that this would be a white British Obama speech, but I was disappointed because it quickly fell away into a muddled mesh of words that ended up being too much for political wonks. It failed to inspire either the activists. More importantly, it failed to show the electorate as a whole what we, the Liberal Democrats are about.
Nothing shows what a mess the speech was more than the ending. Nick paraphrased Grimond and Steel: “I see generations of Liberals marching towards the sound of gunfire.(Grimond) And yes, I see them going back to their constituencies to prepare for government. (Steel)”
Nick ended up finishing with: “That’s the prize. It’s within our grasp. So let’s go for it.”
To paraphrase the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons: Worst. Ending. To. A. Speech. Ever.
Despite the limp ending, what made me conflicted about this speech and about Nick’s Leadership as a whole was really the core message of the speech.
The speech was really about the Clegg project.
Clegg was telling us as a party, where he as leader wanted to take the party and how we were going to get there.
He was effectively trying to win back those people like myself who are critical of exactly where he is leading us as a party. Of course there are others in the party, who aren’t just trying to provide constructive criticism but who are actively calling for Nick to stand down.
It didn’t work though. At least not for me.
I’m on board with the aims of the Clegg project. I don’t want the LibDems to be a party of protest. I want the party to be one of 3 parties of government. Better yet, I want the party to be one of 2 parties of government.
So up to that point, I’m 100% behind Nick.
The problem I have with Nick and his leadership is his strategy of making us, one of 3 parties of government. Nick’s sell to the electorate is:
are you ready to trust Labour with your money again? And do you really think the Tories will make Britain fairer?
To use the colour analogy that Nick used in his speech. Nick wants the Liberal Democrats not to be yellow i.e. a colour that is incomparable to either red or blue. Nick wants to turn the Liberal Democrats, purple.
He wants to be Tory Blue enough so people trust us on the economy and Labour Red enough, so that we can be trusted to help the poor, the vulnerable and make Britain better.
The problem is we’re already there.
We’re being attacked from the right for being too red. We’re being attacked from the left for being too blue.
Nick might think that’s the perfect place to be but I say that has left us on 8% in the polls and leading us to become a party of perpetual opposition once again.
To use a slightly different analogy. If you go out on the pull with someone that looks completely different to you. Each of you will probably attract the attention of about half of the opposite sex (or same sex if your that way inclined). Now if you find someone who looks similar to you but slightly uglier to go out with you as well then you’ll find that the majority of the attention of the opposite sex comes to you. However, if the third person that you and your mate go out with is a slightly uglier version of your mate then the majority of the attention of the opposite sex goes to your mate. (This by the way can be much better explained by Dan Ariely here from about 11 mins in, I recommend you watch the link.)
The reason, I use that analogy is that for so many years we were seen as the similar but slightly uglier version of Labour. People looking at the Lib Dems and Labour would think that Labour were the far superior option. Therefore they would vote Labour.
Now we’re in coalition with the Tories, those voters who saw as the inferior Labour party have left to join Labour. The coalition is also now painting us, as similar but slightly uglier version of the Tories, so come 2015 who are they going to vote for? Us or the Tories, well its a no-brainer, they are going to vote for the Tories.
Nick has recently hired Ryan Coetzee (the former Director of Strategy for the DA in South Africa) who has an impressive record of building the DA vote share up from almost nothing to the largest party in a 7 party coalition that unseated the ANC. I’m interested in seeing what his strategy will be.
I’m particularly interested in seeing if he is capable of making the other parties look like similar but slightly uglier versions of the Liberal Democrats rather than the other way around.
One of the best lines of Nick’s speech was “Our Future is Ours to Make”. Indeed the future is ours to make, Nick. But what future will you make for the Liberal Democrats? I hope to see us as one of 3 parties of government but I fear your making our future one of perpetual opposition.