Six points I took from Nick Clegg’s Lib Dem conference Q&A

Here are six points that struck me listening to Nick Clegg’s Q&A at the Lib Dem conference today (actually, a few more did, but I haven’t time to cover them all…)

Nick Clegg is more comfortable than his party with positioning the Lib Dems in the centre of British politics

The party’s slogan, ‘Stronger economy, fairer society’, captures Nick Clegg’s message: the Lib Dems can civilise the Tories’ ruthlessness, and we can rein-in Labour’s spending excesses. I’ve written many times before that I think this is the only strategy available to the party given we won’t form the next government on our own. But it grates on many activists, who see the centre as a mushy, split-the-difference, triangulated no man’s land – rather than the radical, liberal, reforming party they want to campaign for. When Clegg speaks of the party “anchoring the government in the centre ground”, many bristle. When he sighs that he’d “love to be Prime Minister” they applaud. Clegg is in many ways a post-Blair politician (it’s largely why the party elected him leader): a good communicator, able to sell liberal policies in a non-scary way.

There were strong words both for Labour and the Tories

The initial part of the Q&A focused on immigration and Europe. Clegg was scathing about both Labour and the Tories. The Tories’ approach he branded “anti-business”, while he was withering about Labour’s silence: “They have completely lost the courage of their convictions and they have lost touch with some of their finest traditions. It’s dismal day for Labour.”

But he’s most annoyed with the Tories

He accused the Tories of dishonesty in seeking to pretend that tax-cuts for low-earners are a Conservative success: “I don’t think anyone believes the Conservatives say when they claim now, latterly and somewhat belatedly, that they wanted this allowance increased all along. I know for a fact they didn’t.” And he branded their policy of marriage tax breaks “the unmarried tax penalty”.

Clegg will continue to push for tax-cuts for the low-paid

The Lib Dem policy of continue to raise the personal tax allowance stays, despite criticism from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, CentreForum, and people like me that it’s not the best way to help the poorest in society: “To suggest to someone on £12,500, who under our plans would be £700 better off, that they don’t deserve a tax break is just a ludicrous thing to say. Someone on £12,500 doesn’t feel rich. We should be proud of the fact we are helping people on low and middle incomes, millions and millions of whom desperately need help, rather than, it seems to me, potentially snatching defeat from the jaws of victory by saying we should be doing something completely different.” Clegg is right about the politics of it even if he’s wrong about the economics.

The party has broadly accepted the Coalition’s tuition fees policy is an improvement on what it replaced

One of the more surprising moments came when Clegg talked about tuition fees – “revisited the scene of the crime”, as put it – and mounted a passionate defence of the Coalition reforms, highlighting that “All graduates are paying less per month than under Labour’s system” (albeit for longer). That’s not surprising. What was surprising was that his words were met with applause around the hall. Time’s a great healer, of course; and it’s also true that many of those most angry at the party’s U-turn have quit. But it was strikingly warm reception for a policy that infuriated so much of the party little more than three years ago.

He wants to make a patriotic case for British membership of the EU

“We’re not in Europe for Europe’s sake, we’re in it for Britain’s sake.” That was Nick Clegg’s message as he limbers up to take on Nigel Farage. There were a few grudging dissenters around me – those liberals who feel we are in it for Europe’s sake as well – but it’s clear the party is signed-up to Nick’s passionate defence of British membership. The threat of Ukip’s isolationism has become real, and many Lib Dems are geed-up for the fight. Which is exactly what the party needs in the weeks leading up to the 22nd May elections.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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32 Comments

  • “To suggest to someone on £12,500, who under our plans would be £700 better off, that they don’t deserve a tax break is just a ludicrous thing to say.”

    Of course, it’s ludicrous – and dishonest – of Clegg to suggest that anyone is saying that.

    The criticism is not that people on £12,500 would get a tax cut. It’s that all basic rate traxpayers – including people on well above average earnings – would get a tax cut, and that it’s therefore a hugely expensive policy, and an extremely inefficient way of helping those on low incomes.

  • Stephen, you could easily say the “politics of any tax cut are right” (ie popular). Most people don’t think things through very well or clearly. In hindsight, perhaps that might explain any popularity Clegg may have – he doesn’t think things through either.

    It is, of course, arguable that the party did not elect him, and it was certainly marginal, as although Huhne’s socio-economic background and approach may have been similar, Chris’s approach to others, the media etc is a lot more hard-edged and combative.

  • James thompson 8th Mar '14 - 9:29pm

    Love listening to the LD talking to themselves because no one else is listening.

  • I do not understand why UKIP is a threat. Surely, we had a referendum in 1975 and voted overwhelmingly for an ever-closer union with Europe. I do not think Nick Clegg needs to take the threat from UKIP very seriously.

  • “I don’t think anyone believes [what] the Conservatives say when they claim now, latterly and somewhat belatedly, that they wanted this allowance increased all along. I know for a fact they didn’t.”

    Does Nick think “anyone” can be bothered to enter into this argument? Won’t most of us note the change (small and slow though it has been) and set it against other changes in tax and benefits, plus of course the burgeoning costs of basic necessities? For the poor there are probably monolithic attackers – utilities, food costs, “the government”… For the better off the occasional moment may be put aside to notice the level of allowance.

    The really poor – including those in work – have never been touched by this policy anyway, which is why the criticism mounts against a blind obsession with continuing to raise the allowance.

  • Theresa-1
    An “ever-closer union with Europe” may have been in the documents in 1975. It may even have featured in one or two speeches. But it certainly has not entered into folk memory. It is not part of the current truth against which Nick’n’Nigel and the actual European vote will take place.

  • Malcolm Todd 8th Mar '14 - 11:08pm

    Apparently you are, James.

  • Ed Wilson The rewritten “truth”, you mean?

  • Regardless of how much people agree or disagree with Clegg, his positioning of the Lib dems in the ‘centre’ has been devastating for their support. Rightly or wrongly, it’s not where lib dem voters want the party to be.

  • I am seriously concerned by this statement by Nick Clegg: “We’re not in Europe for Europe’s sake, we’re in it for Britain’s sake.”

    In what way does this make him any better than Nigel Farage? In what way does it make him different from Farage? Now Farage will absolutely slaughter Clegg in the debates. Does not Clegg understand that? Having acknowledged that he is only interested in our selfish national interest, Clegg has no more arguments left other than to argue the extent of our withdrawal from the EU. The reality, with this statement is that he has conceded the core argument to Farage already.

    The whole point of the EU for me is that we are a brotherhood of countries. The weaker are supported by the stronger, the wealthy give to the poor. A community spirit where we help each other, and that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Not the selfish and self-seeking “we’re in it for Britain’s sake.” I know that Fascism is a dirty word now, but the original meaning that individual twigs can easily be broken, whereas a bundle of twigs tightly bound together in a Union cannot be broken is still very much true and always will be.

    I have said it before and no doubt there will be occasion to say it again: can somebody seriously take Nick Clegg in hand and make sure that he does not say anything else that is seriously mistaken? He is a loose cannon, and unfortunately is well on the way to destroying our party.

  • Clegg is right about the politics of it even if he’s wrong about the economics.

    Fine , but then let’s also agree not to have any hypocritical speeches at elections about this being the party of evidence based approaches, floating pure above the messy politics of the other big beasts etc etc etc

  • Stephen Tall thinks — ” many Lib Dems are geed-up for the fight. Which is exactly what the party needs in the weeks leading up to the 22nd May elections.”. Or was he quoting Nick Clegg? It is sometimes difficult to discern which is Clegg and which is Tall.

    The evidence of the failure of local Liberal Democrat parties to put up candidates in by-elections over the last six months seems to indicate the opposite. The evidence of the number of MPs standing down at next year’s general election also seems to point the other way. I have no doubt that there are some excellent local council candidates and MEPs who will slog away for the next two months and I hope they are successful. But nothing I read in LDV or hear from other sources makes me feel that I belong to a party that is “greed-up for the fight”. There is a grim determination to carry on regardless in the hope that despite the experience of the last six years something might turn up. There is a grim determination by some to do well locally and hope that Clegg and co at the nationa level do not mess it up for them.

    Some people are hanging on in there in the hope that if he does not go before the general election he will be got rid of immediately after it, but that should not be misread as an endorsement of Clegg and what he has done or failed to do in six years as party leader. Some people who have left the party, or have ceased to be active will return if he goes. In the meantime, if only 8 or 9% of voters are attracted to Cleggism, it does not really matter how “geed-up” the remaining members of the party are.

  • Nick Collins 9th Mar '14 - 11:07am

    Cleg’g’s theme song for the 2014 and 2015 elections: “In The Middle of Nowhere”.

  • paul barker 9th Mar '14 - 11:09am

    I cant disagree with anything in the article but I would point out that both our major rivals are very badly split & that those divisions could break out into the open at any time. In fact Labours Youth & Student organisations have seen splits over Millibands Reforms in the last week but thats not the sort of thing that attracts publicity.
    2015 is still a long way off & we should not assume that new opportunities for us wont open up.

  • Tony Dawson 9th Mar '14 - 11:09am

    @Chris:

    “The criticism is not that people on £12,500 would get a tax cut. It’s that all basic rate traxpayers – including people on well above average earnings – would get a tax cut, and that it’s therefore a hugely expensive policy, and an extremely inefficient way of helping those on low incomes.”

    Actually, because it’s done by PAYE, it is an incredibly efficient way of getting money into the pockets of people on fairly low incomes. And benefits to the wealthier people can be negated by other simple means additional to the tax threshold change.

  • Joe King And the thing is, he tries so hard not to be a loose cannon, but because he has fundamental naivete, and lack of understanding of a lot of basic politics (and we should add, his privileged background, and early exposure to the neoliberal economics of the Brittan brothers and all it implied about a connection to thatcherism) he struggles to understand either the history, or the possible trajectory of modern politics. He has thrown away 50 odd years of Liberal history, already sacrificed countless councillors, and after May, pretty well all our carefully nurtured local government base, and threatened the entire future of the party.

  • There is hardly any point increasing tax allowances if VAT also increases. As happened last time. There is not very much to crow about.

    The other problem is that people who have more than one National Insurance number can then do several part time jobs and not pay any tax at all. It would be better for everybody if this loophole could be addressed, rather than making the incentive to cheat even more tempting.

    Why not leave the allowance alone, and reduce VAT back down to say 5%, or even abolish it altogether. This would help poorer people the most, and indeed would boost the whole economy. If VAT could be got rid of entirely that would be one whole burden taken away from businesses. We should look to streamline the economy for growth and efficiency, not keep adding to the huge tomes of tax rules and regulations.

  • ‘No important new policy can be decided in Brussels or anywhere else without the consent of a British Minister answerable to a British Government and British Parliament.’

    That statement is true, we have a veto.

  • Errr… Jedi, do you think that UKIP are correct then? I am all for the brotherhood of countries, give and take, pulling together etc. If Nick Clegg is abandoning that ideal, why are we the party of ‘in’, if it is going to seriously set back our financial centre in the City of London?

    I am going to have to think about it….

    Meanwhile the sun is shining and I have a cool beer in the fridge.

  • Actually, because it’s done by PAYE, it is an incredibly efficient way of getting money into the pockets of people on fairly low incomes. And benefits to the wealthier people can be negated by other simple means additional to the tax threshold change.

    No, Tony. Giving a flat-rate tax cut to all basic rate taxpayers is not by any stretch of the imagination an efficient way of getting money to people on low incomes, whatever the mechanism.

    It wouldn’t be an efficient way of doing it, even if you did take away the money again from those on middle and higher incomes. And you’re not proposing to do that in any case.

    Please just read what the IFS had to say about this. And reflect that when you’re rejecting what the IFS suggests in favour of something less progressive, then alarm bells should be ringing very loudly indeed.

  • jedibeeftrix 9th Mar '14 - 2:14pm

    ukip believe it is past demonstrated that britain cannot remain an independent nation within the EU .’. they seek to leave

    i believe it is yet to be demonstrated that britain cannot remain an independent nation within the EU .’. I seek first to ensure that we can remain within

  • Joe King 7.22am
    “The whole point of the EU for me is that we are a brotherhood of countries. The weaker are supported by the stronger, the wealthy give to the poor. A community spirit where we help each other, and that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Not the selfish and self-seeking “we’re in it for Britain’s sake.”

    Well said.

  • “We’re not in Europe for Europe’s sake, we’re in it for Britain’s sake.”

    That’s a remarkable basis on which to view any kind of partnership. One wonders how Miriam would react to a declaration by her husband that he was “in this marriage for Nick Clegg’s sake”!

    But I suspect it is at least a candid statement about the way he views the world – and applies as much to his relationship with his party as to any other of his relationships.

  • Michael Parsons 9th Mar '14 - 3:49pm

    If controlling your own economic policy is the bedrock of an independent country then UK cannot be independent inside the EU, because of the basic EU structure: free movement of people, trade, finance and industry. The matter is so obvious it is hardly worth the discussion. Worse, the EU gives big international business the whip hand over jobs and government and tax-collection since they can shift production and workers about in search of cheap labour, tax-avoidance (see Ireland, and tax- havens like the “Rock” etc.) and destroy social welfare arrangements, and product-advertising and safety measures regardless of government opposition.
    Indeed the advocates of “free trade” argued it would inter-lock economies to the point where they could not make independent decisions, and supposedly prevent war – a view blown out if the water in 1914, but not before it had left GB incapable of feeding itself, making aero- engine magnetos, or tank racks, and owing royalties to Germany on every howitzer shell it fired. After which of course we became the Austria of the 20th century – a little country with an overlarge capital city clinging to the coat-tails of Big Brother.. Hardly a retained independence, more of a national and social catastrophe. Anyone arguing EU free-trade and integration strengthens out economy or independence must be truly reactionary, hearkening back to the hallowed days pre-1914.

  • Frank Booth 9th Mar '14 - 5:40pm

    How can Lib Dems be in favour of major redistribution within the EU when they aren’t in favour of it in the UK? Britain is as unequal now as it’s been in the last 100 years. There’s no great Lib Dem plan to change that. A mansion tax here, raising a threshold there. Also unless there is a common approach throughout Europe on say benefits and pensions, you’ll just end up with a system where rich countries pay for other countries more generous welfare systems. There’s no sense in that. Unless you go down the road of a single fiscal policy that idea is doomed. Maybe we’ll see that as a result of the Euro crisis.

    Clegg is right to emphasise why being in Europe is specifically good for Britain. Pro-Europeans will never win the argument just going on about why it’s good for Europe. That’s not how the French would do it. They would sell it to their people as being in the French interest. The CAP is just that.

  • @jedibeeftrix “The Minister representing Britain can veto any proposal for a new law or a new tax if he considers it to be against British interests. Ministers from the other Governments have the same right to veto.”

    I still have the utmost confidence in our policies, I am certain our government would never give up our right of veto and I still believe UKIP is not to be trusted.

  • jedibeeftrix 9th Mar '14 - 6:00pm

    Theresa, there is a reason why I linked to the article about QMV and the tobin tax; time has moved on and those assurances have not been kept.

  • @jedibeeftrix “Theresa, there is a reason why I linked to the article about QMV and the tobin tax; time has moved on and those assurances have not been kept”.

    There must be some mistake. How did that happen? I still have the utmost confidence in our policies and I still believe UKIP is not to be trusted.

  • “To suggest to someone on £12,500, who under our plans would be £700 better off, that they don’t deserve a tax break is just a ludicrous thing to say.”

    How far the party has fallen. I remember when the Lib Dems were the only party willing to argue that it was worth paying higher taxes to get better services. The “penny on income tax” party I started voting for all those years ago is truly dead.

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