Opinion: a good week for Nick, a good week for the Lib Dems

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There’s a paradox about party leaders’ conference speeches (akin to Prime Minister’s Questions): they are dissected by supporters, opponents and journalists, while in reality the ‘real people’ in the country might perhaps catch a 10-second clip on the news. But speeches remain fundamentally important – not only for the morale of members, but also as probably the only time in the year when serious journalists (not always an oxymoron) will listen for any length of time to a politician expressing their ideas.

Let’s be clear about one thing straight away: Nick’s speech was excellent. Every Lib Dem who heard it will have their favourite section – mine was Nick’s optimistic take on the human condition:

My basic view of human nature is that people are born with goodness in them. Of course, people can be selfish, cruel or violent, but I believe no-one starts that way. Most people, most of the time, will do the right thing; not just for themselves, but for their family, their neighbours, their community. They need to be trusted to make those choices.

There is a terrible pessimism in the way Gordon Brown thinks we should all be organised from above, our every move controlled by the great puppet master in the sky. And there’s pessimism too from David Cameron when he says that if you’re overweight, vulnerable or poor, you’re on your own. It’s condescending. Talking down to us. Talking us down.

This was true liberal stuff. In some ways, in fact, it resembled a more grown-up David Cameron in his early, ‘liberal Conservative’ days, when Dave pleaded to “let sunshine win the day” (perhaps the single most awful line ever delivered by a party leader). Since then, of course, Mr Cameron has reverted to type, echoing the Daily Mail’s miserabilist right-wing ‘Broken Society’ agenda. Nick today was very deliberately appealing to those who don’t believe modern life is rubbish; but recognise it can and should improve.

This optimism was combined with an explicit statement of the liberal case for

Tax cuts for families who are struggling to help them make ends meet, and keep the wheels of the economy turning. The money must go direct to people on low and middle incomes. The very wealthy, the super-rich – should be paying more not less.

I will never support the Tory idea that you cut taxes for millionaires and the benefits somehow trickle down. That’s not what struggling families need. They need their money back.

I rather suspect Tory commentators realise quite what an appealing pledge that is, which probably explains the over-hyped criticism some have indulged in. Indeed, the strongest sections of Nick’s speech were when he spoke, quite deliberately, beyond the hall and beyond the journalists, directly to voters. This is just one of the reasons the Lib Dems are increasingly being recognised by voters as caring about, and being in touch with, the issues facing ordinary people.

Nick has had a terrific week at Bournemouth, visibly more relaxed and at ease as leader. It’s true he slipped up when asked what the value of the state pension was. And, in fairness, if David Cameron had given the wrong answer Lib Dem Voice would have quickly taken him to task.

I’d have been far more worried, though, if Nick had over-estimated how much it was; in fact he under-estimated the weekly pension. To those pensioners who are concerned Nick doesn’t know their state benefit, the question is very simple: do you want a party leader who knows the answer, but won’t cut your taxes; or a leader who’s unsure, but whose party is committed to tax-cuts for poorer and middle-class pensioners?

It’s a mark of Nick’s general increasing confidence, indeed, that he was perfectly at ease sharing the spotlight with his immediate predecessor as leader, promising:

Action to stop unjust repossessions before tens of thousands of families find themselves on the streets, guided by the one man who had the foresight to see these problems coming – with more wisdom and experience than Labour and Conservatives combined – Vince Cable.

I don’t think it’s reading too much into this to see the beginnings of a distinctly American-style joint ticket leadership to spearhead the Lib Dems’ general election campaign, with the perfect combination of youthful passion (Nick) and decisive experience (Vince). It’s a combination that neither of the other parties can currently come close to matching, and those Labour and Tory supporters who are complacently writing the Lib Dems off this week might reflect on that.

The Lib Dem conference has not dominated the headlines this week – though as Charles Kennedy remarked today, “More column inches would have been made available had things gone terribly badly for Nick Clegg” – but this has been a good start by Nick. The right-wing media will, of course, do their best to rubbish him and the party: the more astute of them can see the threat he and the Lib Dems pose to the chances of the Tories winning a majority.

But for ourselves I believe we can take quiet satisfaction from this year’s conference: we have strong, distinctive, upbeat message – of tax-cuts and social justice – which will be presented by a leadership team of Nick and Vince in a way that attracts current and new voters to the party’s cause. Not bad for five days’ work.

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56 Comments

  • Gallup Poll. Lib Dem share drops 5 points. A cracking week for Clegg and the Party. Not even a dead-cat bounce.

  • Hywel Morgan 17th Sep '08 - 7:55pm

    It’s IPSOS/Mori – and the fieldwork was done at the weekend so substantially before the conference.

    That said there’s never a good reason for polling 12%!

  • passing tory 17th Sep '08 - 7:56pm

    I agree the 12% is probably an outlier but it still caused me a wry smile when I saw those poll results and then the self-congratulatory title for this thread. You’ll make your own backs sore if you pat them much harder 🙂

    Now all I have to do is sit and wait for Orangepan to chirp up about what a dire position Cameron is in and how everything is hunky-dory in Lib Dem land and none of the southern seats are under threat because of local effects …

  • PT, always glad to oblige.

    My feeling is that any of this sort of poll news will allow the tory conference to lapse into premature triumphalism.

    If you do show any arrogance it will backfire spectaularly by recontaminating the tory brand in a very public way.

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 17th Sep '08 - 8:50pm

    carrion:
    “don’t know what to say to Tory voters, though, apart from maybe suggesting that voting for tax cuts for ordinary families will send a message to PM Cameron.”

    An inspiring thought: “A vote for the Lib Dems will encourage the Tories to cut public spending in order to fund middle class tax cuts”.

    All those years of delivering leaflets and knocking on doors, and it’s come to this …

  • “don’t know what to say to Tory voters, though, apart from maybe suggesting that voting for tax cuts for ordinary families will send a message to PM Cameron.”

    Why just “families”? Are people who don’t have families trash who don’t count?

  • passing tory 17th Sep '08 - 9:00pm

    Orangepan,

    Given the current economic climate and background problems with society, I don’t think that any party in with a chance of forming a government over the next few years is likely to be triumphalist. Indeed, I doubt there will be time for much other than planning how to get out of the mess that Brown and co have got us into. It is frankly amazing that the Lib Dem were so cozy with that lot that in the 90’s. Nice to see Clegg putting some clear blue water between the parties now.

  • I thought it was a grand speech, but the strangest thing to Nick’s comment about people being born good is that – apart from its welcome optimism – it’s not clear how this affects policy. If you’re planning how to rehabilitate criminals, are the methods different if you’re trying to waken dormant goodness at everyone’s centre, or if you’re trying to overturn the adverse influence of their circumstances? And what are the cost consequences?

    I’m not sure there was time for all this, even in such a long speech! But I hope it’s a comment with some policy backbone – with all those people currently being listed as the Telegraph’s Top 50 LibDems, I wonder if they’ve been wrapping they’re big brains around this sort of thing?

  • Liberal Neil 17th Sep '08 - 10:40pm

    I agree that it has been a good week overall.

    The level of confidence amongst the activists probably doesn’t come across in the media coverage, but there is a real sense that we have a big opportunity to start winning against Labour in their traditional territory and (at least the start of) a strong message to help us do it.

    This was refelected by the large numbers attending training and the various campaign presentations and the evident enthusiasm at them.

    Nick’s speech, along with the PPB, is starting to simplify our message and I think it will be easier from now on for us all to promote it.

  • “the stuff on the Tories was ill informed, untrue and just plain spiteful” and of course you’d never dream of saying anything was ill informed, untrue and just plain spiteful about the Liberal Democrats would you. You Tories, you dish it out, and when you get some back you cry foul.

  • neverapriest 18th Sep '08 - 12:04am

    Dane Clouston should be pointed to the text of Clegg’s answers to Steve Richards in particular before posting his ill-informed tosh.

    The £20bn is not identified (though some bits are – ID cards for one) and the tax cuts are part of a redistributive package focusing on those who really need it.

    Oh and Dane – it was good to see Michael Meadowcroft back on a mainstream platform with a very good speech this morning 🙂

  • Crazy idea to do automated cold-call telephone canvassing.
    Everyone I know here in the US HATES those things
    We’re not going to earn ourselves any favours, methinks

  • Well, I’ve now listened to the speech in full on video. To declare an interest, I’ve been a party member and activist for 14 years, a candidate, even a coalition negotiator in Scotland in 2003, and much more besides. My impression is that the speech was well written, but Clegg still can’t deliver for toffee. He’s wooden and forced, and has to SHOUT when trying to sound passionate. It doesn’t connect.

    The upshot is, a lot of what he’s saying is sensible enough, but I just don’t think he sounds convincing to people who weren’t already supporters. The party has much ability and passion, but Clegg is not conveying that. Since we’re a third party, most people think the Leader IS the the party, so they think we all lack ability and passion … hence the 12% in the MORI poll. It may indeed be an outlier as suggested above, but I’m not wholly convinced, and the trend has been clear in a number of polls – somewhere between 14% and 18%, most of them, and none of them near the 23% of 2005 (which, let’s remember, was regarded as disappointing at the time).

    Clegg has now stated a well-publicised target of doubling our number of MPs in two elections. For me, he absolutely cannot win in the perception stakes: if we make any progress at parliamentary level, it will be despite him; if we fall back, it will be mostly his fault.

  • Oh, and I forgot to mention. The news orgs are all reporting that the main theme of the speech is we’re heading for government. Coupled with the tax-cutting agenda, everyone is writing this up as sucking up to David Cameron. Well, I remember the Tories in Government, and it was hideous. The interests of the public were suborned to the private profits of Government ministers and their pals; the railways were broken up and sold off for a third of their real value; and a deregulation obsession led to BSE and no-one buying beef for eighteen months. The Tories exist simply to lay waste to the State and the public good, however shiny and pastel-coloured they have now become. If Clegg thinks he can drag the party into coalition with that shower of crooks and evildoers to hoover up the blame for their mistakes, he’s got another thing coming.

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 18th Sep '08 - 12:34am

    neverapriest:
    “The £20bn is not identified (though some bits are – ID cards for one) and the tax cuts are part of a redistributive package focusing on those who really need it.”

    Sorry, but that’s simply not the case.

    Clegg has said that the tax cuts would benefit 80-90% of the population. He has also described them as “the most radical package of tax-cutting measures for people on middle incomes”.

    Cable has indicated that the tax cuts would probably be a combination of a reduction in the basic rate of income tax and an increase in personal allowances. Obviously the bulk of the tax cuts will go to the middle class, not to “those who really need it”.

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 18th Sep '08 - 12:43am

    And as for the 12% poll rating, probably it is an outlier. But then again, the 11% poll ratings that helped to seal Ming Campbell’s fate a year ago were probably outliers too.

    The fact remains that the poll shows the Tories have a national lead over the Liberal Democrats of 40 points, compared to about 10 points at the last election. That is a national swing of 15%, and if it were repeated in every constituency we would lose all but a handful of the seats we currently hold.

    Maybe this is a freak result, and maybe the sampling was done too early to be affected by the conference. On the other hand, I think it’s equally likely that “taking an axe” to the public sector is going to lose us more support than it gains us, certainly in traditional Labour areas, and probably in traditional Tory areas too.

  • LB wrote: “The article clearly states that:”

    Er… What the article says is irrelevant. It’s what actually happened that counts.

    Some years ago, a Lib Dem candidate claimed in a leaflet that a Tory MP who was still a councillor had failed to attend X number of council meetings. Well, at least that’s what the register said. Trouble is, the Tory MP/councillor didn’t bother to sign the register. So the Lib Dem candidate (a perfectly admirable man) had to get on his knees and grovel.

  • I’ve only seen the fragments on the TV news, and they look refreshingly good. Except for Nick’s faux pas over the state pension. Even I knew the answer.

    How does one attack Cameron, when the media support him and pump out his propaganda 24 hours a day? We’re not the Obama campaign, who can blitz TV channels with attack ads. We don’t need to go for Brown, of course, because he’s on the floor already. It is Cameron we have to puncture. But how?

    I somehow suspect we won’t be able to rise in the polls until the GE comes along and the media are forced to give us fair coverage.

    Nick Clegg is doing a decent, workmanlike job. He’s not as good as Chris Huhne would have been, but he outshines CK with a better grasp of language (the “in terms of” count) and by staying sober.

    But I have to say, for the humpteenth time, that Nick is not going to convince the sceptical that the Lib Dems are truly the party of civil liberties until he deals with Julia Goldsworthy – and makes it clear that behaviour of that kind will not be tolerated.

    BTW, did any of our leaders, at Conference, allow the name “Gary McKinnnon” to pass their lips?

  • Laurence, you’re sort of right about human nature, although it has to be said that your formula is vague enough to be true for any number of different scenarios. Cultural/societal factors do have a huge impact and the historical record does show periods of history in which there have been dramatic declines in violence (the murder rate in England underwent a sustained decline over the medieval period and into the modern, for example) and we can’t attribute that to the notion that people simply became nicer by nature. The culture simply became more cooperative as the benefits to being a good person increased.

    I think that what matters here may be more than fighting ‘anti-social’ behaviour; we need arrangements that promote ‘pro-social’ behaviour such as trust, cooperation and mutually advantageous trades. A less atomised society where people interact more would promote better behaviour overall and lead to a more pleasant environment for everyone.

    I think Labour’s approach has been counter-productive because it isolates and stigmatises, thus making it harder for individuals to live as cooperative members of society. The whole ASB agenda is predicated on the basis that there are some people who are essentially toxic to the rest of us and they must be isolated and restricted, beginning at a very early age. I’m not ready to give up on people like that, and history does, I believe, show that it is possible over time to build better societies and reduce violence at the same time as increasing prosperity and liberty. I think Nick’s view is basically compatible with mine, so I’m happy for him to have said it.

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 18th Sep '08 - 10:08am

    Alix:
    “So on what are you basing your assertion that the tax cuts would benefit the middle classes (whoever they are – perhaps you could define this term by salary, however ballpark) and *not* the lower earners?”

    Look at what I said:
    “Obviously the bulk of the tax cuts will go to the middle class, not to “those who really need it”.”

    I didn’t say it would _not_ benefit lower earners. I said that the bulk of it would go to the middle class.

    This is literally about the fifth or sixth time you have misrepresented precisely the same point. It has been explained to you time and time again, and still you keep doing it.

    Why are you doing this?

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 18th Sep '08 - 10:29am

    Dane

    It is all meant to be annual. £20bn annual savings, some undisclosed percentage of that annual tax cuts.

  • Clegg's Candid Friend's Candid Friend 18th Sep '08 - 10:59am

    Funny isn’t it that it’s always other people misrepresenting things, not understanding them etc

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 18th Sep '08 - 11:56am

    “Funny isn’t it that it’s always other people misrepresenting things, not understanding them etc”

    No, it’s not funny. It makes a mockery of any attempt at serious discussion.

    You can see for yourself that I did not say what Alix claimed I had said. So why are you pretending it’s somehow my fault?

  • Clegg's Candid Friend's Candid Friend 18th Sep '08 - 12:06pm

    I’m not pretending anything, I’m just pointing out that a lot of the debates you get involved in end up with you alleging that the other person (whoever it may be) is failing to understand or misrepresenting.

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 18th Sep '08 - 12:14pm

    “I’m not pretending anything, I’m just pointing out that a lot of the debates you get involved in end up with you alleging that the other person (whoever it may be) is failing to understand or misrepresenting.”

    Well, there’s nothing at all strange about that – it’s because in a lot of these debates the other person has failed to understand, or has misrepresented what I have said.

    If you think that’s noteworthy, you can’t have read many Internet discussions. Misrepresentation of an opposing argument is one of the oldest and commonest tricks in the book.

  • CCF, you don’t leave much room for reconciliation and redemption if you assume the other participant in your conversation has acted out of deliberate bad faith. That comes very close to jumping to a conclusion.

    If you automatically rule out any responsibility for creating or controlling the situation in which you percieve (rightly or wrongly) your opponents mistakes, then you refuse to consider any possibility of mistakes on your own behalf.

    But we can all make mistakes even when we act in good faith. The road to hell is paved etc…

    So when building a critique of Clegg’s speech it is necessary to define the disputable terms (middle class, aren’t we all middle class now?) before raising questions arising from your judgement of any unfair disproportionality.

    I agree that your interpretation of this tax proposal is possible, but it is clear some clarification is necessary before we can say so with certainty.

    At this point it would be helpful to resort to some sums to work through different examples of what different people understand. We may then finally reach agreement on how best this new approach would best balance the concerns we wish to address, then we can argue over whether we think this is what Clegg actually meant.

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 18th Sep '08 - 3:18pm

    “CCF, you don’t leave much room for reconciliation and redemption if you assume the other participant in your conversation has acted out of deliberate bad faith. That comes very close to jumping to a conclusion.”

    I’m not _assuming_ anything. Alix has repeatedly misrepresented what I and others have said. That must be beyond dispute among people who can read and understand English.

    I don’t know why she keeps doing that. I would like to think it is not deliberate but at the moment I cannot understand how that could be. I have asked her a couple of times why she keep doing it. If she responds things may become clearer.

    As for my “critique” of Clegg’s speech and “unfair disproportionality”, I think you are reading more into my posts than is there.

    Obviously I don’t agree with what is being proposed, but I recognise that people have different political opinions and that there is no “right” answer (no pun intended). If the majority of the party wishes to support this scheme, that is the right of the majority.

    But what I strongly object to is the dishonesty of selling these tax cuts primarily as a means of helping the poor. If the proposal is to combine a reduction in the basic rate of income tax with an increase in personal allowances, as Cable has indicated is likely, then the majority of the money would inevitable go to the middle class, not the poor. That is a matter of simple arithmetic.

    [Memo to Alix, before she does it again. That last bit doesn’t mean that none of the money will go to the poor!]

  • Well CCF, considering that the ‘middle class’ is a much bigger sector of society in terms of population I think it is inaccurate to argue against any sums which put a greater proportion of the money collected from reallocations in the tax burden as unfair.

    Of course the bulk of any savings will go in that direction, but that still doesn’t mean the poorest in society won’t see a greater relative benefit to their finances. Nor does it mean that anyone has misrepresented your claims – perhaps you are misrepresenting yourself in that you may think we should be doing more to help those in greater need without actually disagreeing that the claims made by Clegg are still a good thing.

    Like you say, it is simple arithmatic. In which case these proposals ARE a good thing, but they are only a start and we could still do more.

    Under ‘more’ we are proposing additional help to the poor by equalising access to social justice across all classes by tightening up the tax loopholes available to those with the means to exploit them. Such loopholes are a greater barrier to social mobility than any lack of positive discrimination it is possible to effect through changes in the tax system.

  • Clegg's Candid Friend 18th Sep '08 - 4:52pm

    “Nor does it mean that anyone has misrepresented your claims …”

    Do you never read any of the stuff you hold forth on?

    Alix has claimed (repeatedly) that I and others are saying that the poor will get no benefit from the tax cuts.

    That is the misrepresentation.

    And as for “inaccurate enough to argue against” and so on and so forth, kindly just read the fifth and sixth paragraphs of my post again.

  • Dane, if you wish to exclude others you can hardly be surprised when you find yourself excluded.

  • CCF, yes I do read the comments, and I find the disagreement unsatisfactory.

    All disagreement stems from confusion and all confusion stems from ignorance.

    The ignorance stems in this discussion not from any lack of understanding, but from the implicit understanding of the comments on wither side. If we had each been more explicit in describing our specific criticisms in the first place then I think we would see that we are all arguing at crossed purposes.

    I find it easy to sympathise with the views on each side because they each address different parts of the policies proposed by the party, whereas I think if we looked at the totality of what is being proposed in the round then we find we offer a balanced approach which satisfies all.

    Which is why I return to the dual approach of these ‘tax-cuts’ together with better enforcement of the regulations to prevent distortions prejudiced most against the least wealthy.

    Reducing what was previously described as tax evasion and fraud (though these are now largely grey areas with the volume of new and conflicting regulations which can be applied) is the major means by which the Treasury can boost its income without raising taxes.

    So, simply put, it is possible to balance the books and make society fairer by cutting taxes without necessarily also having to cut spending.

    It is possible to make all of the people happy all of the time, but only if you can corerctly answer all of the correct questions.

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