Saturday, May 10, 2008

UPDATED Bloggers' interview with Clegg - the concise version

UPDATE: Apologies to Laurence Boyce - due to my sloppy note-taking, I attributed the phrase "It's a slippery slope" to him in the section on the exchange about ID cards. He didn't say it. So, sorry to Laurence. I have now excised the offending phrase.

The latest bloggers' interview with Nick Clegg had quite a few new faces. In all, it was attended by "Fluffy" Millennium Elephant, Laurence Boyce, Alix Mortimer, Linda Jack, Jo Christie-Smith, Helen Duffett, Gavin Whenman and myself. It was great to meet and re-see all those bloggers. The interview was held in Committee Room 17 in the Houses of Parliament on Wednesday 7th May.

The interview was originally scheduled for before the local elections. In a way, it was nice to have it after them, and see a relaxed and re-invigorated Mr Clegg.

He started by chatting about Prime Minister's questions. Nick said he thought Cameron had got a bit personal in the latter bit of his remarks that day. He said that performing at PMQs was mainly "defence" and making sure you don't offer a "hostage to fortune". We then discussed Vince Cable's "Mr Bean" remark. Nick said that you can't predict the reaction to a "funny line" but that the Mr Bean comment somehow captured the essence of the whole situation with Brown. It was, he said "a penny dropping moment", adding that you can't legislate for the one -off.

I cheerfully offered the view that the "Mr Bean" remark had been pre-scripted whereas the "Trap door" remark by Ming was a spur-of-the-moment retort which showed, I hopefully suggested, that Ming did have quite a comedic talent. At this, Nick stared ahead at me with an expression which was blanker than the Utah salt flats. A tumbleweed moment.

Nick then chatted (he was generally quite chatty) about Sarkozy's state visit and said he was "struck" by the French President. He found him "totally direct" and "unfrench".

The first question was from Richard/Fluffy as to whether Boris Johnson should resign now as MP for Henley. "Yes of course he should" replied Nick. He poured scorn on the "cat and mouse game" which the Tories are playing with this by-election, adding that it will "annoy a lot people".

He said that the idea of a "inverse or reverse family lineage" manoeuvre involving Stanley Johnson as the Tory candidate would "add insult to injury". He said we will be ready for a by-election in Henley, that he grew up just outside the constituency and that we have won before in less demographically promising seats than Henley. Nick said that the Tories can't take the people in Henley for granted for too long.

Alix asked about the 10p tax and why we haven't made more of our proposals for that arena. Nick reckoned that where he campaigned he had seen our plans (remove council tax and cut basic rate by 4 pence) being raised by us as a party ("We really went to town on this in Sheffield).

He said that we should constantly hammer David Cameron about his vacuity on taxation and that there is a strong case for making the most of our proposals in this area in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election.

"Brown hasn't got principles, Cameron hasn't got policies". That is a phrase that Nick has used and he feels we need to keep repeating it.

Laurence Boyce offered quite a few interesting ruminations during the interview. At this stage he said he quite likes Cameron but that the rest of the Conservatives are the problem. Nick said that Cameron is "deeply, deeply Conservative" and "can't deliver on the change needed for this country". On foreign policy he said that Cameron is "in the wrong decade". On the Environment he is "insincere" and on social justice he is, said Nick, "downright hypocritical".

"At the end of the day, ideas will out" said Nick, adding that the Conservative party is far removed from the needs of the 21st century.

Jo Christie-Smith asked: "What is our narrative?". "To make the country more liberal" said Nick, then listing a shedload of things: Power (both public and private - i.e. companies) is unaccountable, hoarded and abused. "There is something caste-like in large sections of Britain". This is "fundamentally illiberal". We should be "overhauling the tax system and economy and acting on climate change".

Jo mentioned that "liberal" doesn't have an emotional pull for most people.

Nick agreed - "for the normal bulk of the human race - no - it doesn't have a pull".

He went into a tactical narrative looking back to the 2001 "totally static general election" and the 2005 "bizarrely static" (given Iraq) election.

He said that the next General election will be more fluid, centering on the economy, fairness or lack of it, the tax burden, the "clapped out" Labour party and a profound sense of lack of direction from Brown/Labour.

Nick said: "The greatest political challenge for our party is to set out a lead as to why change is necessary and why only we can deliver it...the next few months are crucial to expose the hollowness of Cameron and advertise our agenda of change".

Helen quoted back part of Nick's speech from Liverpool, which, in slightly expanded form, is this:
Who seriously believes that the British people, offered so much choice in every aspect of our daily lives, will ever again settle for a two-party system?
If you have two parties, you only ever have two ideas.
Actually that’s on a good day.
Most of the time they can’t even rustle up a single good idea between them.
No wonder people are tired of politics.
Tired of a system that swings like a pendulum between two establishment parties.
Tired of the same old politicians, the same old fake choices, the same old feeling that nothing ever changes.

Nick remarked here that the passage above can be summed up with his motto "Buggin's turn to bugger it up". Nick said that we know what we stand for. It is our job to get that message past the media more than to the media. He said there is a key difference in getting the message "past" the media rather than "to" it. Yes, we need to get into the Daily Mail but we need to be unsentimental about the cost/benefits of using resources to communicate with the national media. It is actually a poor use of resources. It is more cost effective to concentrate on getting the message to people through the local and regional media, the new media and through old-fashioned campaigning. That is why, he said, he shifted extra resources in Cowley street towards focus on the local and regional media and that is why he has concentrated on touring the country and, particularly, holding lots of "Town Hall meetings".

Nick remarked that "something must be getting better" judging from the results outside of the M25 on May 1st and opinion poll ratings. In particular, while Labour's ratings have gone "through the floor", we haven't gone with them. That is extraordinary, said Nick - most psephologists will tell you that when Labour is unpopular, the LibDems are unpopular with them. That hasn't happened this time - a big achievement in itself.

Nick said that the challenge for the media and politicians is to deal with the disaggregation of politics. He described how the political landscape is very different from town to town, from city to city, and between urban and rural areas across the UK. There is a mixture of LibDem v Con, Con v Lab, Lab v LibDem, Con/Lab v LibDem etc etc depending on where you go. When people in these localities open their national papers they see a narrative about a simple monotonous political landscape which is unrecognisable to them when compared to their local situation.

The national media is in crisis, said Nick. The days of inky fingers (from people reading newspapers) are over. The national media can't cope with it. Murdoch is spending squillions on new media. Nick said: "Let's be obsessed about how we get into the post-modern way of communicating" (through the web, local, regional media etc etc). "The mainstream media will listen to us more the bigger we get".

He said Sheffield is the 5th largest city in the UK and there are enormous cities in the north. But they get ignored by the national media, largely, because most of the national print journalists live in London and the South East. Nick opined that if the big northern cities were down south, they would get much wider coverage in the national media.

I asked if Nick would try to persuade the Labour party to resurrect their 1997 manifesto proposal for a referendum on Proportional Representation, now that it is clearly in the Labour party's interests to do so. "No" was his answer. "If Labour arrive at their own conclusion to do it, then fair enough". He said he wasn't going to do anything persuade them to do so. Anyway, he said, "Brown is so weak that if he did it, it would look as though it was born out of weakness".

That's quite a damning verdict on Brown's predicament - he is too weak even to carry out a promise Labour made in 1997.

I asked Nick if he had seen his cartoon self on ITV's Headcases. "No - should I?" was his response. He seemed to be mildly amused when Gavin and I described some of the things his animated alter-ego has got up to.

Linda asked Nick about redistribution of wealth to the less well-off. Nick said that we have a very redistributive policy platform in this area, in particular our proposal "to scrap the most regressive tax in the western world - the council tax".

Nick was asked if there were any of our policies which we should strengthen. "Of course", he said "housing - the link between poor housing and deprivation is staggering...we have a mountain to climb on housing".

Nick said that we have policies in this area which reflect a number of fine principles such as tagetting benefit for childcare and "pushing the boat out on housing". (Sorry- I think my note-taking hand was tiring at this point).

But we need, he said, to keep the middle classes on board when reducing deprivation. "We can't suddenly say: 'Middle classes - Bog off' ".

I do love Nick's occasional foray into down-to-earth phraseology. It helps him pass the "Would you like to share a pint in the pub with this man?" test.

Nick said that he thinks that in London there is a "massive middle class flight from public to private services - on health....on schools etc"

Laurence taxed Nick on ID cards. "Don't you think you shouldn't be breaking the law?"

Nick said he disagreed. ID Cards are not yet the law. He clarified his position specifically as saying he "would defy the government if they moved to put my data on's a step too far to compel us to provide private information to the state on pain of fines or prison."

Laurence asked "Why is that different from other information we provide to the state...why break the law?."

Nick said that things are not as neat as that. Priorities have to be driven by values. As liberals we need to be steadfast and get the balance of powers right between the state and the individual. Nick said he wasn't taking a lawyer's attitude here in terms of the precision of his status as a parlimentarian visa vis defying the government. The point is, he said, that it is right for a politician to say "Look - I disagree with the ID card scheme - the amount of information the government would demand would unalterably change the relationship between the state and the individual when there is no reason to do it".

Laurence was very robust in challenging Nick on that ID card point. More than anything else, I bellieve that Nick's stance on ID cards makes him stand out as a different type of politician from the mainstream ones. A liberal and a campaigner. Someone who can make a stand, in a awkward-squad liberal way, based on strong, well articulated, passionately-held principles. Good for him!

Jo asked about proportional representation and said that we seem better at First past the post than Proportional Representation elections, if you look at our performance on May 1st.

Nick said that he is setting up an internal party review to look at the May 1st results. He mentioned that this is, of course, a politician's way of saying that he doesn't have a clue on this subject. He said that the public are not familiar with the current PR and list systems. "I wonder whether we are asking the right question - It is difficult to fight elections for bodies (such as the LA) which the public don't know or care about". He said that he suspects that if we did PR for a well-known body, we'd do well.

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