Leading article: Back to the grassroots

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The Independent Online

When national politicians do not perpetually put themselves about in the modern way – announcing daily initiatives against telegenic backdrops; volunteering to debate on the BBC's Today programme; offering up some segment of their domestic lives via a webcam – they lay themselves open to criticism for not doing their job. Such is the presumed importance of taking a high media profile in this day and age.

As we report today, however, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, has spent his first 14 months in office taking a more softly-softly, more old-style political approach. Less visible on the national stage than Gordon Brown and David Cameron – which perhaps has as much to do with the preference of most media for a duelling style of politics as with any absence from the front line – he has been assiduously tending to the grassroots.

In only a little more than a year, he has held no fewer than 30 town hall meetings all over the country – an average of two a month – and he travels to them by train, second-class. The audiences consist of local people; they are not packed with party loyalists, nor are participants vetted.

Of course, the fact that someone takes the trouble to attend suggests a degree of political engagement and interest, but it does not necessarily imply sympathy towards the Liberal Democrats. In places where the party holds power, such as Sheffield, Mr Clegg's own city, or Newcastle people may come to criticise as much as to support.

Unsung these gatherings may be. But they are surely the very stuff of politics, and Mr Clegg could be making a shrewd calculation here. As Liberal Democrat leader, he will now have gained as good an appreciation of the mood and views up and down the country as any senior politician in the land. And while the national media offer audiences running into millions, personal experience and word of mouth are invaluable, too. As Mr Clegg says he has learnt, all politics is personal as well as local. In these days of austerity, authenticity and straight-talking have the edge on showmanship and spin. Remember John Major and his soap-box.