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The Central Question for Brent Central

Posted: 18/09/2013 00:00

I'm not an angry kind of person. I tend to put up with a lot - and always have - because I don't seem to have that bit of software which causes others to respond in a bitter or agitated way when things go wrong for them. Besides, I'm far from perfect and I make loads of mistakes myself, and am the first one to admit it.

But I've always had a strong sense of fair play. It provokes me massively to see good and sincere people being sidelined, disrespected or willfully misrepresented. Sadly, these are three ills being experienced by the traditional, left-leaning wing of the Liberal Democrats.

At the big annual Lib Dem conference - in Glasgow - attendance was down, morale was down, and the in-fighting, which on timeless occasions has torn political movements apart from the top down, has begun. I'm not surprised. I predicted all this last year, in my book The Alternative View. Most predictions in that volume have come to pass. These include appalling local election results, consistently grim poll ratings and an erosion of the Lib Dem 'brand image'. So the gloomy predictions made in the book - attacked by Cleggites in the past - have largely turned out to be right. Now, most people can see where it's all going to end up: more lost council seats in 2014, a catastrophic decline in Lib Dem members of European Parliament, and a massively weakened Lib Dem party activist base in the run up to the all-important General Election. As Ukip and their erudite leader, Nigel Farage, deftly assume the mantle of the protest party, the Lib Dems seem helplessly mired in their relationship with their Tory coalition partners.

Faced with this structural strain in the organisation, you'd think Clegg would now focus on an urgent re-launch of his beleaguered leadership. You'd imagine he might try to appeal to me and others on the party's liberal left wing - in an effort to create the unity he has recently appealed for. You might even expect him to learn from the past and see that an anti-war agenda reflects the internationalist values of our movement. So what does he talk about in a keynote speech? Charging 5p for plastic bags. Never mind the collapse of the party's campaigning strength. Forget increasing dissent, and voices calling for him to stand aside. Everything's going to be fine because we'll pay for our plastic bags. They already do that in Wales but, strangely, Lib Dems haven't enjoyed a recovery there. I wonder why.

I've made private approaches to the leader's team. I've offered to meet them and discuss my concerns behind closed doors. In fairness, I've had one or two informal chats over a pint with some of them, and those discussions should - and WILL - remain confidential. But what I haven't had is any sign at all of a genuine appreciation from Clegg and his close cabal that he is personally responsible for doing damage to the party which is irreparable before the next General Election.

Clegg's not a terrible person. Even though his people made personalised anonymous briefings against me, and though he broke a commitment he made at the time of his leadership election, I forgive him. What's harder to forgive is his bloody-minded determination to stay in charge even though just about every performance indicator available shows that under his leadership the party has gone backwards. Remember when he said his goal was to double the number of Lib Dem MPs? I do. Instead, he's already presided over the second biggest numerical decline in Lib Dem MPs since 1945. The 100% growth commitment appears to have been as expendable as the pledge on student tuition fees.

And still the leadership doesn't get it. Clegg's close ally Danny Alexander made a speech on the Tuesday of the annual conference which was largely focused on justifying the original coalition arrangement. Look, pal, the past isn't the problem - it's the present where it's all going wrong. Their claims that they've 'kept the coalition anchored in the centre ground' proves they miss the fundamental point: the Lib Dems are NOT a 'centre ground' party. We're left wing and libertarian by nature. It just looks 'centre ground' to Clegg & Co because they feel happier there than in a traditional left/libertarian positioning. It's all part of the 'head-in-the-sand' attitude which has driven the party's campaigning capacity down to sub-critical levels in large parts of the country - and which directly contributed to the almost laughably diabolical, deposit-losing fourth place in the London Mayoral elections.

In this context, Sarah Teather's decision to stand down in profoundly important. She was a close ally of Clegg's when they deposed Charles Kennedy, notwithstanding his work to help her get elected in the first place. For Teather to turn on Clegg's agenda in her comments suggests trouble deep within the leader's circle. Even the inner team must surely by now be hearing murmurs of rebellion outside their Cabinet Office doors.

So, now there's a vacancy in Brent Central. It's time for someone to stand up and offer an alternative view of what the Lib Dems stand for. And, if they're not hypocrites, the current leadership will welcome my decision. After all, Clegg's reward for publicly turning on Charles Kennedy in his darkest hour was to eventually become leader himself. By contrast, I have not sought to take such a Machiavellian approach against Clegg. And nor do I wish to be leader! I merely offer Brent Central Lib Dems the chance to decide whether they feel their future is more tied to the Clegg team or a more traditional liberal and left wing agenda, represented by me and many, many others who feel little or no resonance with the current brand of what's called 'Orange Book' politics.

I tell it like it is. So I have to say I do not believe anyone reflecting the Nick Clegg flavour of politics will hold a seat such as Brent Central for the Lib Dems. The best chance for the party is a campaign which feels authentic and real to people who haven't got a fortune and a huge income; someone who is more in tune with local folk who worry about rent and unemployment; and who elected Teather partly because the Lib Dems opposed the Iraq war - as opposed to supporting one in Syria.

In short, I joined this party because it stood up for the ordinary person, at around the same time Mr Clegg was working for a Tory in Brussels. I cut my teeth in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, delivering leaflets, recruiting members and winning my seat on the council through sheer, hard graft. I even did my best all along to help others succeed too, such as Fiona Hall MEP who worked for me in a crucial stage in her political career. The current party leadership didn't take that route to power. They breezed in from European Parliament, and came down to Parliament, not up through grass roots activism. Perhaps that's one reason they've lost a sense of connections with millions of British people, who've said as much in ballots and polls since 2010.

If I'm the one who's out of kilter with the zeitgeist of the party and inner city London, I'll accept that with humility - as I said, I'm not an angry person. So, this is the central question for Brent Central: if the local party agrees with me it's time to move on from Clegg and the 'Orange Book' - and if they concur that their best hope of holding Brent Central is a 'left leaning truly liberal' agenda and a ' grass roots campaign,' they now have the chance to select someone who feels the same.

 

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