Saturday, September 19, 2009

Interview with a Leader (part 1)

After yesterday's hot gossip (a sweaty, scantily clad senior MP burst into the Marriott bar, closely followed by a similarly attired young man - all entirely innocent, I'm assured), I was looking for some dirt to dish at the bloggers' interview with Nick Clegg.

Into the room swept a deft politician; youthful, vigorous, smart, sexy. But enough about me. We swiftly dispensed with the news of a fellow blogger's cleavage control problem (apparently it keeps leaping unbidden into people's faces, though not mine, yet - there's still time).

Then the man himself, the Cleggmeister, entered the room.

After a brief fortieth birthday party for yet another blogger (the cake was very tasty, thank you Richard), we got down to work.

A question on MPs' expenses gave Nick the opportunity to push the Lib Dem line: that none of our MPs were found flipping property or playing games with Capital Gains Tax to pocket thousands at the taxpayers' expense. Nick also mentioned that those with more marginal seats are less likely to take the piss: a point many of us have made over the last year or so and Mark Thompson famously backed up with real live research.

On the Lib Dems grasping the media agenda more effectively, Nick was a little less forthright and, I thought, weaker. He acknowledged there's no easy answer and essentially said we have to work our way up, get bigger and so get more media attention.

He has a point, but it all seemed a little defeatist. Parties do manage to punch above their weight when they capture the imagination of journalists or are seen as having something relevant and distinctive to say. UKIP regularly manage it and, though not a political party, the Taxpayers' Alliance, are successful at pushing their stories.

Clearly the Lib Dems' failure to be either right-wing or mad could be a disadvantage; but even so we could be doing better.

I asked Nick about the "savage cuts" business (and, yes, he did use the phrase himself). My question was whether we needed cuts at all, when Britain has, over the last couple of centuries, frequently operated with a higher national debt (as a percentage of GDP) than we have now and done very well thank you. Might it be that the talk of cuts is jumping on the bandwagon and not what the country really needs?

To his credit, I thought Nick answered it pretty well. He pointed out that there are significant differences between the situation today and that of the past. The pound is no longer a reserve currency and the integrated global financial markets make it much quicker and easier for staggeringly large sums of money to be moved about the world at the click of a button.

That, he argued, puts us in a far more precarious position than in the 19th century and makes it far more dangerous to keep a large deficit.

So we do need those savage cuts.

Nick claimed the Lib Dems were well ahead of the other parties both in coming up with concrete proposals for where cuts could be made and clearly saying what would be protected. Here he has a point. Vince's paper earlier in the week may not have garnered much media attention, but it did set out a clear way to save £14 billion. Even better, it didn't just rely on "efficiency savings": a standard political ploy and always easier to talk about in theory than achieve in practice.

I was a little unclear about one aspect, though. Vince has said that the £14 billion is a start and in total we need to find £80 billion (which could be from cutting spending or increasing taxation). And yet Nick was at pains to point out that there are no secret raft of unannounced spending cuts.

Some of that £66 billion gap will come from tax changes, I suspect, and another chunk will remain unfilled; but are there really no more public spending cut proposals to emerge? We shall see.

On the positive side, Nick wanted to make clear that education was a protected area (like all good politicians, Nick thinks of the children). He's keen to see class sizes cut, especially for young ones.

Nick also made clear that he still favours scrapping tuition fees - the policy isn't abandoned; just on hold until the public finances permit it. He promised that the Lib Dems would go into the next General Election with the best deal for students, aiming to get debt down.

Finally, for today, the news that every cloud has a silver lining. Following in the footsteps of marxists everywhere, Nick saw the economic problems as an opportunity for radical change. He didn't advocate overthrowing th bourgeosie (though do keep an eye out for next week's policy annoucements). But he did want the crisis to be a spur for us to examine our basic values as a society and the structure of our economy, such as the balance between financial services and manufacturing, between the north and south and environmental issues.

Next time...find out which blogger confessed to internet piracy (the rest of us lied), why we need to take volunteers more seriously and why Nick released a 92 page pamphlet on history and political philosophy a few days before the conference.


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