January 19: Clegg fighting for political life

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NICK CLEGG is not the only leader being airbrushed out of the election material being published by Lib Dem candidates – a significant number of Tories and Labour politicians are unwilling to be closely associated with their respective leaders.

However, the Deputy Prime Minister cannot escape the fact that his party will almost certainly lose a significant number of MPs, perhaps half, on May 7. The reason is this. In 2005, the Lib Dems were a repository for those who opposed the Iraq war. Five years later, Mr Clegg wooed the student vote before the party’s volte-face on tuition fees that continues to be exploited by Labour.

Now the Lib Dems are in the unusual position of heading into election where they have to defend their record as a party of government for the first time in a century. Yet, despite the party’s record on the economy and improving social mobility, Mr Clegg is struggling to articulate a clear message which will resonate with the electorate.

His principled commitment to liberalism and free speech means the Lib Dems are opposed to the tightening of internet surveillance laws when a majority of people believe that they are a necessary price to pay in order to protect Britain from those jihadists who are a threat to the security of all.

Mr Clegg’s difficulties were further illustrated in yesterday’s setpiece television interview when he spoke about the desire of the Lib Dems to keep the Tories or Labour in check in the event of a hung parliament. At a time when most voters are calling for strong leadership, this tactic appears to be naive. For, unless the Sheffield Hallam MP gives people far more positive reasons to vote for his party, such as its ambitious and laudable commitment to eradicate child illiteracy by 2025, Mr Clegg risks having so few MPs after May 7 
that the Lib Dems do not even hold the balance of power.

At a time when politics has never been more pluralistic, it would be a humiliating rebuff for a party, and leader, which made coalition history five years ago. For that reason, Mr Clegg is now facing the fight of his political life.

The jobs divide

DESPITE the Tories and Lib Dems taking the plaudits for the creation of more than one million jobs since 2010, the coalition has been less successful on its commitment to narrow the North-South divide.

Though the devolution of economic growth powers to the region is firmly on the political agenda, it did take the threat of Scottish independence to spur Ministers into action and today’s Cities Outlook report shows a dramatic gulf in the performance of Britain’s major population centres over the past decade.

For every 12 new jobs created since 2004, the Centre for Cities think-tank claims that only one position was in the North. The divide is also stark in Yorkshire, where the rate of business expansion in Leeds and York has not been matched by other cities.

Moving forward, what does this mean? It is another reminder that there needs to be far more political collaboration between cities, and the scope of this county’s four local enterprise partnerships could be too piecemeal. Lord Haskins, the former Northern Foods boss and head of the Humber LEP, used these pages recently to call for these bodies to pool their resources and expertise.

And, as National Parks England makes clear today in its own submission to the LEP movement, the current arrangements do little to recognise the potential of the rural economy. It says the national parks have a higher proportion of self-employed people than the country as a whole, a critical point which must not be overlooked by all those politicians and lobby groups, urban and rural, who are striving to create a new generation of jobs for the whole of Britain.

The tenacity of MPs

AS the outgoing Great Grimsby MP Austin Mitchell bemoans the lack of “first-class minds” in politics, it would be remiss not to acknowledge one of this region’s Parliamentarians for his attempt to accelerate the publication of the much-delayed Chilcot report into the 2003 Iraq invasion.

It is thanks to the doggedness of Haltemprice and Howden MP David Davis, and his supporters, that a Commons vote will take place which could force the report’s release prior to the election. He says, rightly, the findings are critical to the shaping of future foreign policy, and Scotland’s political leaders now back the Tory in a very rare show of cross-party unity. Those MPs tenacious in defending the public interest need every encouragement. If only their ranks were not so depleted.