Our starters for 2008 – how did we do? (Part I)

by Stephen Tall on December 28, 2008

A year ago, Lib Dem Voice posed 10 questions, the answers to which we believed might shape the Lib Dem year – time to revisit them, wethinks.

1. Will Nick Clegg become as well-known and respected/liked as Paddy and Charles became?

Well, not in his first year, he hasn’t – as Nick himself fully acknowleged yesterday, commenting: “This is my first year in the leadership, I have enjoyed it immensely. I also know that I am in the early stages of my leadership. If you look back in history it takes a while for all Liberal Democrat leaders to get out and about in the country so that more people can see them. But come the time of the next general election I’m absolutely confident that people will know more about me.” For more comment on Nick’s first year as Lib Dem leader click here.

In retrospect, though, it wasn’t the Paddy/Charles comparison that has been most problematic for Nick. Rather, Vince Cable’s stellar turn as acting leader set the bar high, and Vince’s subsequent high profile throughout a financial year of turmoil has sometimes left Nick in the shadow of his deputy. In fact, Nick deserves a lot of credit for being more than happy to share the limelight with Vince; the cynics may say he didn’t have much of a choice, but still the prospect of the next general election campaign being led by a Nick/Vince double-hander is one that would surely work well for the party.

2. Will the party manage to stake out clear and mainstream liberal policy lines while asserting a more edgy approach to politics?

Opinion on this inevitably varies, but for me 2008 was a year of progress (though not perhaps epiphany). The summer launch of Make It Happen earned generous plaudits both among the Lib Dem blogosphere and the mainstream media. Its effect was a little tarnished by the subsequent confusion caused by Nick Clegg loosely talking of the “vast bulk” of the party’s promised £20bn public spending cuts being ploughed into tax cuts. But this slip was quickly corrected, and the Lib Dems are now in the fortunate position of having a (relatively) coherent policy programme to put forward, one that is gradually being absorbed by the media. The Indy’s Steve Richards caputured a sense of this in a recent article, favourably comparing Nick Clegg’s positioning of the Lib Dems with David Cameron’s positioning of the Tories:

… where Clegg is placed, [is] supporting a stimulus but not the Government’s version. In another anniversary speech he outlined some of the ways the £12bn wasted on the cut in VAT could have been spent. His proposals included funding for insulation and energy efficiency and reopening old railway lines. That sounds to me like a better use of fiscal stimulus on the eve of an era where public spending is going to get eyewateringly tight.

Not so long ago senior Liberal Democrats feared being wiped out by the Tories. Now they are more confident. Probably this is because Clegg is placed where Cameron ought to be if he had modernised his party – pragmatically pro-European, anti-state, putting the case for progressive taxes and some public spending savings.

Clegg has not done his sums. It is not clear yet how he would pay for some of his tax cuts. But in theory at least he outlines a liberal case that could be supported by most Conservatives if they were not obsessed by euro-scepticism and even bigger cuts in public spending, the details of which they have yet to specify.

3. Will Brian Paddick’s London mayoral campaign take off?

The short answer is no. Not Brian’s fault, but that’s the truth. As Lib Dem blogger James Graham put it in an article for The Guardian’s Comment Is Free blog:

Whether there was much Paddick could have done about being squeezed between the Boris and Ken “manwich” is open to question. This was a much more emphatically two-horse race than we saw in 2004 or 2000. It is just possible that if people understood the electoral system a little better, they might have spared our blushes a bit, but ultimately so what? Third place is still third. But with the focus so relentlessly on the mayoral election, a better performance might have prevented the meltdown in the assembly elections.

4. Will May’s local election results show a Lib Dem advance or retreat?

An advance proved to be the answer, against the expectations of many of us in the party and certainly of the media. The Lib Dems polled 25% of the national vote, pushing Labour into 3rd place for only the second time in history, and ended the night with more councillors and control of more councils than when fighting the same set of seats as in 2004, when the party was benefiting most from our anti-Iraq war stand. The party gained Sheffield, St Albans, Burnley and Hull councils, and came within just one seat of gaining overall control in Oldham, Warrington and Cheltenham. The party aso made important gains in key seats like Derby, Colchester and Reading. All in all it was a good night, covered here in some detail on LDV.

5. How will Nick Clegg fare at Prime Minister’s Questions? (Especially in comparison to Vince Cable.)

Let’s get one thing straight: Nick is different from Vince. (And a good job, too; nothing would have fallen flatter on its face than Nick attempting a “Mr Bean” put-down.) But let’s get another thing straight: Nick is probably the most effective leader the party has had at Prime Minister’s Questions. Paddy, Charles and Ming all hated the PMQs experience, and none fully got the hang of it. Nick’s self-assurance at PMQs is even more impressive when it’s remembered that he had been in the House of Commons for less than three years when he stood up for the first time to represent the party in that boorish bear-pit. In reality, Nick’s allowance of two questions allows him very little room for manouevre, still less for genuinely holding the Prime Minister to account. And, like any pace bowler he might do well occasionally to vary his delivery. But he has stuck impressively to his self-imposed brief: to raise ‘bread ‘n’ butter’ issues – fuel poverty, mental health, housing, the Gurkhas campaign – of national significance. Though a handful of repressed Westminster Villagers wet themselves at Nick’s mention of a single mother visiting him at his constituency surgery – Imagine! A single mother visiting Nick “a lot less than 30” Clegg! Oh, the hilarity! – it is Nick who is having the last laugh: by proving himself well able to excel at PMQs.

Look out for Our starters for 2008 – how did we do? (Part II) tomorrow.