Due to his banishment by the Yes campaign as 'too toxic', yesterday was the first time I had heard Nick Clegg argue his case for the alternative voting system since the campaign launch. I'd wholeheartedly supported the decision to distance the campaign from the deputy prime-minister, with his rock-bottom approval ratings, but settling down amongst a small audience at the ippr offices in Central London, I was prepared to be proven wrong. After all, here was Nick Clegg fighting for a referendum outcome, not speaking on behalf of the coalition; perhaps I would be transported back to the pre-election days before Clegg-mania became Clegg-phobia.
You can read the speech here. It opens with a promise to transcend party politics. A yes to AV, Clegg said, would be a "strong start to the job of cleaning up politics" at a time when Britain is faced with a "political crisis to match the economic crisis". It is about "more power and more choice". He accused the No campaign of peddling "falsehoods", and of attempting to "distract" the public by framing the referendum as being about the coalition and party politics.
Yet he immediately went on to dedicate the next third of the speech to a defence of the coalition and his role in it. AV represents a chance for new politics, he said, but “the truth is this: If we want a different kind of politics, one in which parties can work together in the national interest, we all have to grow up a bit…Compromise is not betrayal.” Proceeding to argue that pluralism means compromise, Clegg made his stance clear: He is already doing the new politics as deputy leader of the coalition, and the alternative vote is another step along the same ‘progressive’ path.
This conflation plays straight into the No campaign’s hands, strengthening their power to manipulate widespread bad feeling towards Clegg as well as opposition to the coalition and its austerity programme, drawing on the anger of the student and anti-cuts movements as well as regular Labour supporters. Clegg doesn’t seem to comprehend this, just as he didn’t appear to understand the argument made to him by Anthony Barnett that the coalition is perceived as widening, not narrowing, the growing gap between people and politicians.
There’s less than a fortnight to go until the referendum on AV. For the Yes vote to stand a chance, Nick Clegg must play as small a part as possible in its campaign.