Mini interview

Nick Clegg, MP for Sheffield Hallam and leading Liberal Democrat strategist
June 18, 2005
It is hard for third parties under first past the post. But this time you had uniquely favourable circumstances. Considering that, your result was disappointing. Does this show the limits of a "left" strategy for the Liberal Democrats?

I'm not convinced that the opportunities at this election were unrepeatable for the Lib Dems. If you look at the steady increase in Lib Dem representation in the House of Commons during the last few elections, it might be more accurate to say that this election represented a significant leap forwards in a long-term advance. A once-in-a-generation breakthrough, in which the third party might suddenly overtake one of the other larger parties, is an ambition which never takes sufficient account of the punitive effect of the first past the post system on Lib Dem fortunes. The 2005 general election should be seen as an important staging post in the creation of a new three-party political landscape, not a make or break throw of the dice.

As for the virtues of a so called "left" strategy, I bridle at the notion that we fought a leftist election campaign. Yet inasmuch as the "left" label is being hung round our necks by others, it's clearly unhelpful. The party must continue to fight on the progressive centre ground of British politics, where we have always belonged. That is one reason why Charles Kennedy has called for a total review of party policy. It will give us a chance to restate our progressive, liberal views free of some narrow "left wing" tag. The centre ground is always the most crowded territory in contemporary politics. But just because it's a congested place does not mean we should not have the confidence to stand out from the crowd.

What do "Orange Book" liberals propose? Is there a case for being more economically liberal (less statist, less "free everything for everyone") but also politically liberal, for wholesale reform of our institutions and with a workable plan for real localism?

I chuckle at the idea that there is now an identifiable school of "Orange Book liberalism"—when the book was and remains a collection of essays. Still, the question raises important issues about the meaning of modern economic and political liberalism. There's no political appetite for a third party simply rehashing Thatcherite dogmas from the 1980s. In any event, many of the great economic debates of the 1980s have now been absorbed into a fairly strong cross-party consensus on the fundamental tenets of macroeconomic policy (sound monetary and fiscal policy, dynamic labour markets and so on).

By contrast, the areas susceptible to real influence from a liberal position are the way in which local public services are organised, and the way in which the state tackles the challenges of crime and terrorism. On the latter, it's obvious that Charles Kennedy has stood out as the only party leader in British politics prepared to take the long view, resisting the sacrifice of civil libertarian principle to satisfy immediate demands for action.

Blair and Brown have delivered the rhetorical illusion of choice in our hospitals and schools, while presiding over the persistent overcentralisation of the public sphere in this country. The great debate on the fundamental organisation of our public services, especially health, remains wide open.

On tax, I think it's plain that the resistance to higher taxes will stiffen in the years to come as Gordon Brown's fiscal imprudence becomes obvious, and the opaque complexity of his tax system begins to grate. There is real space for the Lib Dems to cut through the meddling, disingenuous way in which the treasury has befuddled taxpayers for the last eight years with a radical programme of tax simplification and transparency. This doesn't necessarily mean becoming an aggressive tax-cutting party—Lib Dems are always unlikely to win a Dutch auction on tax cuts against the Tories. But it does mean restoring clarity and simplicity to our tax system, presenting a whole tax package rather than a series of piecemeal proposals, and making greater use of hypothecation to specific public services which are unarguably the responsibility of local or national government.

In 2005 the centre-left vote—adding Labour and the Lib Dems—was an unbeatable 57 per cent. Yet because of vote switching from Labour to Lib Dem, the main beneficiaries, in seats, were the Tories. Is there a danger this might happen on a much larger scale at the next election?

As the Lib Dems have grown in strength, so has the shrill tone of Labour attacks against us. It's as if the Lib Dems are an affront to a pre- ordained right for Labour to be the sole standard-bearer of progressive opinion.

Not only is this arrogant, it also ignores the way Blair has betrayed the sincere hopes of progressive opinion in this country. His failure to provide leadership on Europe, on electoral reform, on civil liberties, on the environment, on decentralisation are not mere blemishes on an otherwise blameless record.

It is preposterous to claim that Lib Dems are being self-indulgent in wishing to hold Blair's government to account by challenging Labour in its own heartlands. Such an argument reveals one of the fault lines which continues to separate the Labour and Lib Dem parties—the Labour party still seems incapable of embracing the politics of pluralism. As long as that remains the case, I see little scope for a renewed rapprochement between the two non-Conservative camps.

Do you need a new leader?

Of course not. Charles Kennedy will be the only leader of the three main parties today still standing at the next general election. He's always played a long game, with a sense of pace and patience which is rare in politics.