So Nick Clegg has gone through a modern political rite of passage – he’s met Gillian Duffy. It’s difficult to know why he agreed to the meeting. Whilst this was nowhere near as disastrous as Gordon Brown’s encounter with Rochdale’s most famous resident a year ago, it wasn’t pretty.
What is most telling about their brief discussion – and it was incredibly, almost awkwardly brief – is that Gillian Duffy is trying to get to the bottom of why Nick Clegg and his party went into coalition with the Tories. It is almost unfathomable to her – as it is for so many ordinary voters, especially in the North – that the Liberal Democrats could undertake what looked like a complete volte face and begin working with the Tories. At one point Duffy said:
“Liberal policies was a lot like Labour policies years and years ago.”
If you’re looking for what is at the crux of the Lib Dem poll slump and their impending electoral kicking in May, you could do much worse than consider that one line from Gillian Duffy.
For years, Clegg’s party have, in his own words, adopted the “Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance”. In traditional Labour areas, that meant a ruthless quest to portray themselevs as the reasonable alternative to Labour. Gradually as they became more successful and Labour became more jaded that meant that their candidates became seen as more Labour than the Labour candidates. They were the people you voted for if you were annoyed with Labour. If you thought New Labour was a little too close to the Tories. It was safe to vote Lib Dem in the North, Wales, Central London and parts of Scotland, because the risk of a Tory winning the seat was negligable.
Except that’s exactly what happened in so many places. In Redcar, Manchester Withington and Burnley to name just a few seats, what the electorate have ended up with is yellow Tories. The electorate wanted something better than Labour, but they ended up with something that was – for them – far worse.
Up and down the country, people caught up by “Cleggmania” are either breathing a sigh of relief that they weren’t taken in, or gritting their teeth as their vote is used to enact policies which are in many ways the polar opposite of what was on offer.
Mrs Duffy is by no means right about everything, but on this issue – the Liberal Democrats about-turn, and the years of deceit that went before it – she is completely right.