Thursday, 25 August 2011

Nick Clegg - grace and resilience under presssure

The Cleggster visited Edinburgh yesterday and I was lucky enough to get a chance to hear him speak.

He started by saying that it has been a tough time for the LibDems since entering coalition government with the Conservatives.  And it has been tough nowhere more than Scotland.

With this in mind it was interesting to see what Clegg had to say and what reception he got from Scottish LibDems.

He got a laugh when he pointed out that the universally inoffensive party has become universally offensive.

Nick said he had often asked himself, "could I have done something different, should I have done something different?"

He concluded no! He pointed out that there were parts of Britain where there was an intense and profound enmity towards the Conservative Party and the LibDem business arrangement with them in this parliament was a real turn-off to voters.  This was true in Scotland but also in wales and may parts of northern England.

The same would be true in reverse with any alliance with the Labour party.  The real tribal hatred of Labour and socialism was deeply ingrained across large swathes of the south of England and parts of the midlands.

Peacetime coalition was a really mind blowing concept for many in our highly polarised political system.

And the LibDems face bile daily from certain newspapers who used to ignore or patronise the LibDems. "We’ve messed up the mental map of both the Guardian and the Daily Mail," he said.

The subtext for the hour Clegg spoke and took questions soon developed.  It was firstly the need to show grace and resilience under pressure; and secondly the need to connect with the day to to day concerns of men and women and not get carried away by political hobby horses.

It was important to remember that everything the LibDems will achieve has to be in coalition with others with just 8% of the MPs in the House of Commons.  "After all we did not win the General Election."  There has to be compromise and pragmatism to get things done.  But Nick has always been an advocate of working with others and pluralism to achieve benefits for the people.

There were some who ranted seeing every compromise as a betrayal but this was not realistic and was often tribal posturing by those stuck in that polarised model of the political process.

Nick argued passionately it was about having a focus on what difference we make to peoples' lives.

The coalition and the cuts

He also reminded the audience that the coalition was formed in the midst of an economic emergency.  We had to start to deal with the deficit because if, as a country, we could not remain masters of our own destiny then very quickly we would have found ourselves subject to enormous uncontrollable international forces that could threaten to destroy our economy.

That was why it was so important to start the programme for government by dealing with the deficit.

There was an argument going around that there was an agenda of public sector cuts being promoted by a right wing ideological faction in government.

He reminded us that the alternative Labour plan involved £14bn of cuts, compared with the coalition plan of £16bn!!  And that the proposed spending cuts would take public sector spending down to 41% of GDP and this was still 5% more than when Tony Blair took over as PM!

On the economic question Nick Clegg was at his most impressive when talking about what he saw as the complete collapse of the way we have been running the UK economy since the mid 1980s.  As an idealised view of financial services relying on city as an engine of growth; complete with very high levels of both government and private debt.

This created an illusion of prosperity.  There is a need now, he argues, to develop a new vision for what the new economy looks like based on green sustainable industries and producing goods and services for which there is a demand.

Rebuilding trust

Someone pointed out to Nick that "we’ve lost the trust of the people" and asked, "how can we rebuild that trust?"

Clegg was very realistic in his answer

1. We can't reconstruct trust overnight

2. We need to explain why we have done what we have done

3. We need to explain what we are trying to do for long term benefit of society and the economy.

4.  We need to deliver on the four priorities the LibDems set at the General Election in 2010.

5.  In this way people can understand the overall purpose of what we are trying to do.

What did he feel the LibDems had delivered in government?

Nick showed confidence and self belief and a wide grasp of his brief.

Firstly, in terms of the four key LibDem priorities he picked out what was being delivered on:

  • Fair taxes that put money back in your pocket. - the raising of the tax threshold to benefit the lower paid
  • A fair chance for every child. - which in England and Wales has meant targeted resources to nursery education and the pupil premium
  • A fair future, creating jobs by making Britain greener. - this has seen enormous progress, the 'Green Deal' which is intended to revolutionise the energy efficiency of British properties and the commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 30%, and our input into the Cancun conference. 
  • A fair deal for you from politicians - the agenda of reform including the House of Lords and role of MPs. 
Secondly, look out for how the Green agenda develops and we take tax reform forward and some important developments to take banking reform forward.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly to Nick Clegg I felt, he picked out three key achievements

  • We have 1/4 million more apprenticeships than under Labour - thanks to Vince Cable
  • We have restored the earnings link with pensions thanks to Steve Webb
  • We have started to reform the income tax threshold.
Indeed Nick picked out Steve Webb, the pensions minister, as an expert in the field who has been winning praise from all sides for what he is doing with pensions!

On Scotland

Nick was effusive in his praise for Willie Rennie, the Scottish LibDem leader.

As well as praising his energy he noted Willie was a brilliant example of the graceful resilience he called for.

Nick said the thing that Willie was doing particularly well in this regard was not to rant, or to be negative but to keep asking questions of the Nationalist administration at Holyrood.  Question how things will work, how they will be implemented, how much they will cost and where the money will come from?

Already there was a sense that when Alex Salmond climbed down from wrapping himself in the Saltire and engaged in the detail of substantive questions that made a difference to men and women there were gaps.  Particularly, in this term there is a need to move the focus away from constitutional questions that delight political obsessives and towards what it will mean for ordinary men and women of Scotland.

A note of optimism

Nick struck a note of optimism towards the end of his talk.

Membership has begun to rise again, albeit slowly.  The LibDems were beginning to win local by-elections again in some parts of the country.  The opinion polls are seeing a slight uplift.

More people are saying quietly on the doorstep that the LibDems are doing the right thing.  Not always of course - there is hostility in a way the LibDems have not been used to but there is an improvement in the air.

The significance of this was that Nick felt some LibDems have been left shell shocked by a tough year but it was time to get back on the front foot.  There would be challenges but there were more open ears than perhaps many realised - to someone who communicates what they are doing and why with grace and resilience.

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