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 Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.