Sunday, 19 September 2010
Clegg looks across Mersey to a Promised Land
William Hesketh Lever, Lord Leverhulme, philanthropist, industrialist, Liberal. He set up Port Sunlight as a social experiment.
Yesterday in Port Sunlight they celebrated the birthday of Lord Leverhulme, the 20th century industrialist who tried to build a utopia on the banks of the Mersey.
His model village for workers producing Lux and Lifebuoy in the Sunlight soap factory was an early experiment in a new kind of social and political system.
This afternoon, on the other side of the river in the Liverpool Echo Arena, Nick Clegg will have to work hard to persuade sceptical Lib Dems that his political experiment in powersharing with the Tories has been a good idea.
His leader’s speech - the first of this conference season in a completely altered political landscape - is going to be a balance between pride and persuasion.
He will thank delegates for holding their nerve during the coalition talks, he will plead with his followers to keep the faith, and urge them to keep their eyes on the far horizon.
In other words, it will be the usual Moses and the Promised Land stuff that party leaders lean on when they know they are facing a long journey through an electoral desert.
Clegg sees the coalition deal as a long game and holds out the prospect of rewards for his party if they see through the cuts agenda, wipe out the deficit and take the British economy to the sunny uplands by 2015.
He will argue that the Lib Dems were right to go into power with the Tories as voters would not take them seriously if they had turned down the opportunity. There is, he will tell his party, no other direction to go in except to march with the Tories into this valley of unpopularity and through to the other side. In fact there are several forks in the road on this long march.
One of the big waypoints will come with the election of a new Labour leader in Manchester this Saturday. It will be the political fulcrum on which the conference season and the rest of the political year will swing on. Depending on who the Opposition leader is Lib Dems will be offered an alternative prospectus, perhaps even a tempting offer, to walk on the other side.
Next May will be the all-important referendum on AV voting, which is Nick Clegg's to lose given that many of his coalition allies and large elements of the Labour party will be campaigning against a yes vote. It will also be the beginning of a new financial year of stringency not seen before in peacetime Britain.
The cuts process may have picked off some stragglers by then but next year will mark the point of no return, when the Lib Dems know there can be no retreat, that their fate is bound to the Tories.
It will also be the first litmus test of coalition politics with the Scottish Lib Dems facing the voters in the Holyrood elections, just as the cuts start to bite. Some of the long marchers may be lost then too, although I suspect the Lib Dem MSPs are quite resilient.
So it will be next year, not after today's speech, or this week's conference that we’ll know if Clegg’s high risk experiment with his party is working.
William Hesketh Lever, Lord Leverhulme, a lifelong Liberal, might have been impressed with Clegg's the bold move. There may even be a lesson from across the Mersey.
After all, when Lever built Port Sunlight he merged with another company to form Unilever, the modern multinational that is still selling us soap today.