Media pundits made fun of the Liberal Democrats’ new leader, Nick Clegg, when he split his party over the European Union treaty referendum vote. But over the weekend, he defied predictions of disaster by winning over spring conference delegates with a sweeping condemnation of “establishment politics” in a bid to position himself for the outcome of the next general election.
Clegg attacked class divisions in Britain, where “some people are still more free than others” saying that Labour had “sold its soul and became the second Conservative party”. He pointed out that children born into poor neighbourhoods might have a life expectancy far shorter than the rich. Clegg tapped into the growing disaffection with existing political structures, especially the two-party system that has dominated British politics for so long.
Casting himself and his party as rebels against the political establishment, he said, “a new type of government” was needed - “a new system, that empowers people not parties”. He called for a 100-strong citizens’ jury to join forces with parties, churches and other groups in a Constitutional Convention to “redesign the way Britain is governed”. He noted how there is a “vast and growing army of people who want something different than the main political parties” who rejected the two main parties. Clegg also called for a mass movement of millions of people to take action to protect the planet and tackle climate change.
The Lib Dem leader spoke of liberty taken and abused by government officials and “a faceless state”. He referred to Brown’s “obsession” with building bigger and bigger database systems. He denounced New Labour’s pride “that Britain is leading the world in fingerprinting children at school” and “that the identity card database will be the biggest and most complex that the world has ever seen”. He warned of the impact of a US recession on Britain, saying: “We’ve been building castles in the sand. And the tide is coming in.”
All of these things are undoubtedly true. But behind Clegg's bold words and “high-risk strategy”, he is in fact positioning his party for a possible coalition in the event of a hung parliament. When he refers to “the rotten old system”, he actually means the two-party system, NOT the profit-driven, debt-based system of production, which is now spiralling out of control. He is aware that increasing numbers of people know and feel the existing political structures are neither democratic nor representative. But the bottom line is that Clegg is seeking a way of shoring up faith in the present political system, by offering the pipe dream of capitalism with a democratic face. He is sounding alarm bells about the political system with an eye to backing a Tory or Labour minority administration in the event of a hung parliament.
Many observers, especially those far to the right of Clegg, have noted the sea change in Britain over the last few decades, particularly since New Labour came to power. There is a vast alienation from what is seen as “politics” – in other words the existing undemocratic and somewhat corrupt parliamentary system of rule. The Liberal Democrats’ re-positioning is not just speechifying but a desperate attempt to balance an extra-parliamentary movement with one still chained to the old system. It should be seen as a clarion call to develop a truly alternative economic and political vision to bourgeois democracy and corporate power. A World to Win’s next discussion on April 3 will be another step in this direction.