lundi 23 septembre 2013

What Nick Clegg can learn from François Mitterrand

The party faithful should not be dismayed by their leader's unpopularity. History shows the Lib Dems will bounce back

When parties get into trouble, the thoughts of activists naturally turn to a change of leader. With the Liberal Democrats, this is still one of those rarely mentioned subjects. Apart from Lord (Matthew) Oakeshott, Liberal Democrats are generally too polite to mention the leader's poor ratings, which are indeed well below the territory that fashioned an ejector seat for William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Sir Menzies Campbell.

For all that, Nick Clegg is probably safe until the general election, and certainly until after next May's local and European elections. Crucially, his ratings are not much worse than Ed Miliband's and there is the added consolation for him, though not for the voters, that all three main party leaders are unpopular.

This is unprecedented. Maybe the first party to dump its leader will reap the advantages of the pioneer, but such changes are often messy and divisive. Regicide should not be undertaken lightly. For a warning, look at the Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard saga in Australia.

Clegg has also earned loyalty. He warned his party about the consequences of government, and ensured that he had every part of it approving the decision (unlike David Cameron, who must regret his high-handedness). It was inevitable that half of the party's supporters (who were split between wanting a Labour or Tory deal) would be disaffected with the outcome. Clegg's strategy has rightly been to shape the party as a liberal check on either Labour or the Tories, a position that will never win a majority of voters but can win enough for the party to prosper.

Paddy Ashdown's reminder yesterday that the party could do another deal with the Tories was quickly corrected by Clegg saying that it could be Labour, too. Equidistance matters: as soon as the party is seen as a junior appendage of either large party, it will lose not just its central appeal but also its bargaining power in any coalition negotiation.

Activists should remember that the real damage to Clegg's trust and other leadership ratings was done during the alternative vote referendum, when Cameron and George Osborne sanctioned vituperative personal attacks on him for breaking promises, even though those compromises were demanded by the Tories as the price of coalition.

That hypocrisy may have been tactically clever for the Tories, but it was a strategic blunder. Anyone who has run an organisation knows that alienating your team is not a great motivational plan. It put steel into Clegg's heart. Any Liberal Democrat who went through that campaign was reminded that the first Tory option is to destroy their party.

That experience in turn meant that the 1930s scenario – in which the Conservatives increasingly co-opted Liberals in the national government – was less likely to occur.

Clegg's apology on tuition fees started some reputational repair. He has reinforced the party's policy safeguards against over-promising. But a third step remains: Clegg now needs to make amends to the students and their families who looked to the Liberal Democrats for help. One solution would be free tuition fees for state school students who win three As at A-level.

For all that, my guess is that there will be a large constituency who recognise that we needed a stable government, faced with the crisis of 2010, and that not everyone could get what they promised. One person's betrayal is another person's reasonable compromise.

Reality in politics depends on how the issue is framed, a lesson I first learned when covering the 1981 French presidential elections for the Guardian. I was mystified as to how the Socialists could seriously think that François Mitterrand might win when his ratings were so dire.

I went to see Jacques Séguéla, who was Mitterrand's key strategist. He took out a blank piece of paper to explain how the Socialists intended to turn around the appalling perceptions of Mitterrand. On one side of the paper, he wrote down the negatives. On the other he put down the counter-narratives.

Old became wise. Ministerial careerist under the Fourth Republicbecame experienced. Two-time presidential loser became a doughty and persistent fighter for justice. After all, said Séguéla, Mitterrand only escaped from his Nazi prisoner of war camp on the third attempt. He will win his third attempt at the presidency. And he did.

Worried party faithful should also remember that the mid-term polls have traditionally underestimated the Liberal Democrats' general election performance. In every parliament, the midterm polls show, as they did this weekend, that the party was losing a shocking proportion of previous support. Yet on average in each parliament since 1987, Liberal Democrat support rose by 8.5 percentage points between the low point as measured by polls and the general election. This bounceback was sometimes big and sometimes small, but it has been inexorable.

This bounce may be because the Liberal Democrats fell out of the spotlight between elections, which is not the case today. But it may also be that, when people are asked about polls, they think nationally about their preferences. In real elections, however, they usually face not a three-way contest but a straight two-way fight. Most Liberal Democrat MPs face one other serious contender, not two or three.

The result is that the Liberal Democrats can put the same squeeze locally on the third party that the two big parties historically put on Liberal Democrat voters in the more numerous Labour-Conservative marginals. It is not a pretty consequence of our winner-takes-all election system, but it is an inevitable one.

The 2010 election was not a flash in the pan: it was the culmination of a 30-year breakdown in two-party politics. If the Liberal Democrats hold their nerve, they will do better than most people think at the next election and may well be in the next government.

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