Silent noctural dogs are what I thought of when I read James Graham’s CiF piece on Clegg’s leadership and Paul Walter’s response. The exchange is one of the most useful I’ve read about Clegg since the leadership contest. Essentially, Paul defends Clegg from a number of charges laid by James, who falls into camp critical at the moment:

Yet the party, after a bumpy two years, is a bit frazzled. I’ve been struck by how many people I have spoken to over the past few weeks – candidates, councillors and activists alike – who appear to be either demoralised or disenchanted with Clegg’s leadership.

(It’s worth pointing out, incidentally, that much of the negative cast of the piece comes from the title and byline, and these are usually created by the Grauny subs, so Paul might be aiming a kick at the wrong dog there.) James adduces three possible reasons for the disillusionment he observes:

  1. Lack of internal communication
  2. The confused position on Lisbon
  3. The Dark Shadow of party centralisation in the form of the Bones report outcomes

To go about this illogically, I think Paul knocks number three very effectively on the head:

We get someone from the Henley Management College to look at our organisation. They’re used to looking at businesses, among other organisations. Well, knock me down with a feather. They come back and tell us that we need to centralise our decision-making a bit. Staggering.

…and is more trusting than James that Clegg won’t – can’t – try and implement the recommendations wholesale without party consent. A battle still to be fought, there. The Europe canard is also dealt with neatly:

Chris Huhne would certainly have handled the Lisbon treaty exactly the same way as Clegg (perhaps with the odd tactical tweak) – he said as much in the campaign. And I note that James Graham brilliantly exposed the lie that the Lisbon Treaty was in any way a constitution. From that I conclude that there was no reneging of our manifesto commitment.

…though I’d be wary of over-relying on the fact that Clegg was, er, right. Whether we like it or not the entire country – or, ok, the 0.0000003% of it that comments on the Spectator Coffee House blog – is now convinced that it was a “debacle”, a word people never actually use in real life, so it’s a very useful indicator when it does pop up that they’ve been mainlining the Daily Mail and no longer have a brain cell to call their own. James’ whole point is that our position was just too nuanced to ever do us, or the cause of Europe, any good in the papers – not that it was wrong.

Paul is a little less convincing on internal communications:

I am not sure what briefing notes came out before “Make it happen”. But if any PPC cannot extemporise a selling pitch for such a brilliant document, then they don’t deserve to be a PPC.

Absolutely agree with that as far as it goes, but it doesn’t address James’ broader point:

Outside of conferences and training weekends, there appears to be no mechanism for feeding the views of key activists and candidates at the frontline back to command central, informally or otherwise. With no two-way communication, the possibility of grave mistakes being made is that much greater.

We could, of course, remind ourselves that this is still a damn sight more than the other parties get. But it’s still a good point for any party to consider, particularly in the field of communications and campaigning.

Where I think Paul really hits on something is here:

Many have expressed relief that our leadership is no longer an issue in the media. The days of the zimmer frame cartoons have gone. We have a young, vibrant and positive leader. I have certainly noticed how we managed to keep ourselves in the media day after day. It is a very welcome turn of events.

This is a dog that isn’t barking in the night-time. Look at the one big thing that is not going wrong. No-one has made any serious attempt in the media to assassinate Clegg, though you can bet your arse they would have if they hadn’t known that they’d look bloody stupid. Reports of our imminent demise have been noticeably lacking, especially since Make It Happen, even though it’s silly season and there’s only so much mileage you can get out of kicking Labour’s twitching corpse. Don’t get me wrong, a dog not barking is clearly nothing like where we need to be. But it’s further than where we were.

I also think Paul is on to something in suggesting that Cleggmania is in part responsible for any disillusionment that may be floating around. I know someone, a perfectly intelligent, politically aware, er, authoritarian socialist admittedly but of no party affiliation, who thinks that Clegg is – and I quote – just as much of a wanker as the other two. Now, I think much the same of Clegg as Paul does, as “an exciting and intelligent thinker and an earnest leader who deserves our full support.”

But it would be daft to suggest, as plenty of people were during the leadership election, that the whole population would love him and he would be the panacea that turned people on to the Lib Dems. People are just too wary of politician cults now. Anyone who voted for Clegg (and like Paul, I didn’t) and did so because they thought his being a “people person” would automatically translate into public affection and votes was misguided. That was clear all along. The media would never have stood for it.

So, while I think James’ three reasons are great starting points for discussion, the problem with being this high-falutin’ erudite liberal thinker like wot he is is that he has trouble appreciating that people might just have really, really crap reasons for taking the lines that they do.

To go back to my perfectly intelligent  and informed authoritarian socialist friend, she doesn’t like Clegg because of the Lisbon treaty, the Clegg 30 and because he’s “Cameron-lite”. That’s two thirds shitty, facile, undisproveable, media-led-by-the-nose reasons that we have no control over whatsoever, and one third good point but-not-in-the-way-she-thinks. So we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the great majority of any disillusionment with Clegg inside the party, or dislike outside, is anything like as thoughtful, nuanced or sophisticated as the JG/PW exchange suggests.

Don’t miss Pt 2, in which an Outsider makes a Constructive Criticism…