Jonathan Calder and James Graham have each commented on the ‘anti-activist’ spin given by the Guardian to Nick Clegg’s speech on education at tomorrow’s conference.
It isn’t clear whether this angle came from the reporter or a briefing from the leader’s office but, if the latter, they should call the dogs off now unless they want to make life difficult for their boss.
Most conference delegates want to support the leader, especially a newly-elected one, and are inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt on new policy initiatives.
Furthermore, recent experience on tax, post offices, Trident etc. suggests that if the leadership treat the members properly, explain their policies, campaign on them and engage in debate inside and outside the conference, they are likely to carry the day.
The vast majority of activists will listen with an open mind to the arguments. But they don’t want their votes to be co-opted in favour of a right-wing project, nor to be blackmailed on a test of loyalty to the leadership. If their opinions are treated with respect, they are more than likely to back the leader. But if the policy proposal is presented as the leader taking on the activists, they may think, ‘Do they mean me?’, turn all difficult and vote the ‘wrong’ way.
Of course, as I often say here, there are those within the party who sometimes give the impression that their views have not moved on much since 1979. But it is unnecessary for the leadership to go out of their way to bait and antagonise them. It is one thing to put forward a policy that Tony Greaves doesn’t like, but quite another to suggest it’s a good idea because Tony Greaves won’t like it. A lot of people have a soft spot for Tony, even if we don’t agree with him.
The centre of gravity within the party is probably more collectivist than I (and probably Nick Clegg too) would like. But we don’t have a militant tendency that needs to be challenged, or if we do the majority of the activists don’t belong to it.
It’s worth remembering that one reason why David Laws was not in a position to mount a credible leadership challenge whereas Nick Clegg was, despite many similarities in their views, is that through his Orange Book chapter on health, Laws appeared to have gone out of his way to antagonise the ‘average activist’. Nick had avoided this trap, while still sounding like someone with new ideas.
In the leader’s dealings with party members, persuasion will work, confrontation will be a recipe for disaster.
But, of course, it may just have been a pesky journalist looking for an angle.