Liberal Democrat News 16th September 2011
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats
"I detect a very real change in mood"
NICK CLEGG, Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat Leader, talks exclusively to Adrian Slade
Finding an interview slot in a Deputy Prime Minister's schedule is a touch like applying for Olympic tickets. You wait a long time and have no idea what, if anything, you are going to get. Eventually I was lucky. I got the chance to go on the Clegg family school run, or walk actually, and then grab 30 minutes with Nick on the way to Whitehall in his Ministerial car.
Nick, his wife Miriam, sons Antonio and Alberto, his minder and I had taken the short walk to the boys' school where, in what seemed to be a rather charming ritual, the parents all wait for a few moments to wave goodbye to their offspring in the playground as each class queue enters the school doors. "We like to do this as often as we can" said Nick.
Being much smarter
He has had a very busy and much interrupted summer politically, although he self-deprecatingly brushed away my suggestion that Prime Ministers appear to get more holiday than their Deputies. So then down to the realpolitik. What exactly had he meant a few weeks ago when I heard him say that the party had been in the wrong place politically between September last and this May but was now being much smarter?
"Autumn to May was a gruelling and unforgiving period where we were being vilified and blamed for everything unpopular, not credited with anything popular and aggressively targeted by our opponents, generally and personally. I always knew we would be attacked from left and right but it was remorseless, and particularly painful over the tuition fees issue. After May I decided to step back, look and learn. And I have gone round the country talking with hundreds of members. We have always fought our corner in government but I think we are now being smarter in that we are letting that show a bit more."
In retrospect what would he have done differently over the tuition fees issue?
"We should have taken more time. Remember that politically we were completely isolated as a party. Both the other parties wanted to raise fees. Also the other alternatives would have meant taking money away from, perhaps, pensioners, the pupil premium or early years education. If you believe in social mobility it is important that you invest in younger children and a fair distribution for the graduate. I think we are doing both but we would have been in a better position to explain that to the country if we had first taken more time to explain what the dilemma was."
Had the drastic drop in support since the tuition fee protests in December done irreparable damage to the party and to Nick's reputation as a leader? Nick agreed about the damage but not that it was irreparable.
"Irreparable? I think it depends very heavily on how things look in a few years' time. On three things, particularly. I believe that, first, more rather than fewer disadvantaged children will be seen to be going to university; secondly, that people will not have actually been charged £9,000 because of what we are doing to keep fees down; and, thirdly, that there will not have been a dramatic drop in the number of students going to university. I think if we can show all these things, people will understand why we had to make the painful decision we did."
Earlier this year Nick had had to face a party outcry over the Coalition's Bill for the reform of the NHS. Again with the benefit of hindsight, what would he have said or done to forestall that?
On this too he believed the government should have taken more time.
"The principles of the reform are ones that any Liberal Democrat would recognise - less centralisation, greater say for local communities and about how money in the system is used and, along the way, a far, far clearer playing field for public, voluntary and private providers in the NHS, ending the Labour's scandalous practice of 'sweetheart' deals with the private sector. But where we got some things wrong was in the detail. I think it shows some political maturity that we were able to stop the clock, listen and learn and then get so much of what we discussed at Sheffield into the Bill."
Shirley Williams, among others, has recently expressed further concerns about the Bill, particularly the accountability of the Secretary of State. Nick had had a meeting and a number of conversations with Shirley about the points raised and had 'immersed' himself in NHS legislation over the previous week. His conclusions on the accountability issue were very firm.
"I am now totally convinced
that this notion that the Secretary of State can or will wash his hands of responsibility for the NHS in
any way simply is unfounded. Paul Burstow, Andrew Lansley and I
will nevertheless make sure that
on the floor of the House the detailed provisions of the Bill do confirm this."
Riots and reform
In his response to the recent riots and looting, David Cameron had talked of a broken society, possibly depriving families involved of their benefits and council housing, more punitive sentencing, greater use of tags and curfews and zero tolerance policing. As a Liberal Democrat which of these views, if any, did Nick subscribe to?
"There isn't one simple solution and it is important that we don't all rush to impose our own political prejudices on a complex set of circumstances. The big difference between these riots and the '80s, is that the '80s riots really challenged people and sparked a national soul-searching debate. This time, politicians of all shades have done exactly the reverse and rushed to invoke the riots as confirmation of what they have thought all along. That's why I, and a panel we have set up, have been sounding out views all around the country. My early view is that what we saw was a nihilistic outburst of crude, consumerist looting. People only do that if they have nothing to lose in society. Of course we need to punish crime, but crucially we must then make sure that we also rehabilitate. We have to continue to ask ourselves how we make sure that they have a foot on the first rung of the ladder of society."
In a recent Guardian article, Nick had expressed a strong note of caution about tampering with civil liberties and the Human Rights Act. He dismissed any notion that events had put Ken Clarke and Tom McNally's programme of penal and legal reform at risk.
"Exactly the reverse. I think they have strongly reinforced it. When you find that nearly three quarters of the adults in court after the riots have previous criminal records, it is yet another dramatic example of the revolving door of crime. For all the tough talk, if you don't change offending behaviour as well as punish, crime is going to go on. It's hopeless to bang people up if we don't try to change their behaviour. I am equally determined that we see more community sentences."
Nick remains convinced that the Conservative Party can be persuaded of this view.
The economic tightrope
Nick, Vince Cable and indeed the whole Cabinet have invested a lot
of political capital in economic recovery. Given the current economic climate, weren't his hopes in very real danger of biting the dust?
"There is no doubt that things have deteriorated," Nick admitted immediately, "in Europe and the world, and it's having an unforgiving effect on us here too. But I do not think that fiddling around with the fiscal measures and cuts one way or the other will create growth by next Tuesday and I don't know one economist who does.
"That is not to say we are powerless. There are things we can do and are doing, for example, to make it easier for people to grow businesses and employ people. And then there is investment for the long term - rail transport, renewable energy and the extra borrowing we are allowing local authorities to boost house building. But it does not do it all by next week."
50p tax commitment
Were he and Vince Cable ever going to get their way over bankers' bonuses and executive pay and was the 50p tax rate going to be abolished and replaced by a mansion or wider wealth tax?
"We have already imposed a levy on the banks. We have a commitment from them [Merlin] that they are going spend less on remuneration…" "Was that actually working in practice?", I interjected. "To be honest, it's patchy. We need to make sure there is no jiggery-pokery in the way it operates. And then of course there is the Vickers Commission, whose recommendations we all broadly accept. Would that be happening without Liberal Democrats in government? I doubt it.
"On the 50p rate I take a simple approach. You need a tax system that enjoys popular support and is patently fair. That is why one of the policies we put on the front page of our manifesto was raising the personal tax allowance to £10,000. As a result, this government has cut tax for millions of low and middle earners. We've already lifted a million people out of paying tax altogether and we will lift more as we continue to make progress towards that £10,000 mark. I could not be clearer - at a time when millions of people on average incomes are struggling to pay their a heating and shopping bills - our priority is cutting taxes for these people, not for people at the top."
Party and Conference
Most party members, I suggested, were still feeling pretty battered after 16 months of Coalition. When did he see himself, and therefore the party, starting to recover from almost the lowest levels of support ever recorded in the opinion polls?
"I don't follow polls carefully but I believe there was one recently showing us at around 17 per cent [there was but the poll average remains 10 per cent - AS] but anyway I don't entirely accept your characterisation. We are beginning to win local by-elections again - for example in Somerset; in - and I love this - Eton; and in Warrington. And in July there was slight lift in membership numbers.
"I like to get out and talk to people and I think I remain quite attuned to the way people react to me and to us. I detect a very real change of mood. Not euphoria but lots of questions and now a willingness to listen rather than the previous unwillingness and vitriol. Perhaps the reality of Coalition is becoming better understood. Even the BBC has done an objective analysis showing that 75 per cent of the party's manifesto is now being delivered in government."
What would he most like to see coming out of next week's Conference?
"First, for us as a party, that we enjoy each other's company. As you say, it has been a battering year. Let us spend time with people we have campaigned with for years, compare notes, bandage some wounds, learn lessons but let's do it together. Secondly, for the outside world, however much we may have been criticised, we are just trying to do the right thing by the country. Our Liberal instincts remain wholly intact and are influencing government."
As we approached Whitehall, Nick's minder asked me "Will you be going into Downing St, sir?" 'Not today thank you' I wanted to say. 'No thanks' was my actual reply. At 9.30 AM precisely I was politely dropped by Westminster Station.