Daily Archives: 9 November 2007

EXCLUSIVE – Nick Clegg on Tax: “er…”

Nick Clegg is going on the GMTV Sunday Programme this Sunday, following Chris Huhne’s appearance last weekend. I’ve been sent a transcript and, well… I kind of get what he’s doing but it’s just so woolly.

He’s very keen to push the Pupil Premiums idea, but worryingly he appears all over the place about how to pay for it:

Nick Clegg: £1.5 billion will come from taking above average families out of the tax credit system altogether. And we’ll take that £1.5 billion out of the tax credit system, or at least we’ll take families on above average income out of the tax credit system, use that money to give to the kids from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. That leaves a gap of a million… of a billion, sorry, and it would be one of the first things I would do as a leader to say to the party that we will have to find that extra billion, so that the total sum of £2.5 billion is a fixed pledge by the time we go to the country in the next general election.

Steve Richards: You’d accept that you’ve got a black hole there. You haven’t found where the money’s going to come from, the other billion.

Nick Clegg: Er, yes, but I mean there are other ideas. For instance there are other ideas, I mean for instance I’ve also this week been floating ideas for how I think we should introduce a 10% tax on the non-domestic earnings of so-called ‘non-doms’. In that particular case that raises about £1 billion. I would like that to go to alleviate the burden of Council Tax on those in Band A and band B properties, those on the lower rung of the property ladder, if you like. But it’s just an example of where we can be creative in trying to find that extra money in order to fulfil that pledge, and I’m absolutely confident that we will under my leadership make that fixed pledge by the next general election.

Steve Richards: By one way or another taxing the better off, presumably. Because it has to come from somewhere.

Nick Clegg: Yes, er well no, hang on, or, sorry…

Steve Richards: You said yes, so tax increase?

Nick Clegg: No, no, let me correct that. I think there is plenty of scope to cut back on some of the waste in government, some of the duplication in government. I think there is a strong case to look at how government expenditure’s been duplicated in many areas. Everybody is familiar with the general degree of waste in public expenditure in the last few years, so I have given you if you like a fluctuating answer precisely because I think that I’m not fixed in my own mind about where that money would come from, but absolutely confident that with political will that money will be found.

On the page it looks awful (much worse than using a word like “Gadarene”), although obviously it might not come across as quite so vacillating on screen. But surely Team Clegg should have got the answer to this basic softball question down pat by now? This is Clegg’s CENTRAL campaign policy. What have I been saying about clarity?

As Chris Huhne said in our bloggers’ interview on Tuesday, nice guys are all very well but if they don’t look like credible potential Prime Ministers, they’re ultimately a waste of time. A potential Prime Minister needs to look credible on economic matters. Clegg doesn’t here.

And while I’ve said nice things about his position on the environment in the past, I’m beginning to wonder if it is beginning to ring hollow:

Steve Richards: … Chris Huhne when he was here last week – you’re in a contest, and maybe in that context it’s understandable – but he was, how can I put it, critical of you for criticising him. In particular, well he was quite specific, he said that you had claimed that the party had not done enough on the environment, and he actually came up with endless statistics to show how much he had personally done on the environment. Was he right to pick up the fact that you were criticising him on this or wrong?

Nick Clegg: My feeling is that many party members in the Liberal Democrats are anxious about why it is that our leadership on policy, on setting out detailed policies about how we protect the environment, how we move to a zero carbon economy, doesn’t seem to be translated into real political leadership on this. Why is it that David Cameron appears to have stolen such a march without any substantive proposals on the environment? Why is it that the green agenda has been hijacked by this very superficial appeal from Cameron? I think that is a very serious political question. It’s certainly not directed personally at Chris. It’s an issue for the party as a whole…

Steve Richards: But he is the environment spokesman for your party, so…

Nick Clegg: Well hang on a minute. It’s a question for the party as a whole. Environmentalism is something integral to my philosophy. It’s something I’ve worked on for years. I’ve written books in the past about how you, for instance, change the world trade system to make sure that it actually boosts environmental protection rather than undermining it, and I think it is quite right for me as a prospective leader to say hang on a minute, we’ve got to make sure that Cameron doesn’t get away with blue murder – or blue-green murder – by pretending that he’s an environmentalist when he isn’t, and I think that what we need to do is be very careful that we don’t berate and hector people on the environment, but inspire and motivate them to make changes and make sure that they know that we are also placing a real obligation on businesses and on government – local and national government – to meet their side of the bargain, so it isn’t just people struggling in their own homes to change their lightbulbs, save more electricity, use less water, that also that we will give them answers as to why it is at the moment they then come home every afternoon with ten tons of plastic from the supermarket, or why is it that the local authority or central government gets away with not meeting their own carbon emission targets. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about – a new language on the environment which motivates, doesn’t berate – I think that’s exactly what our party should do.

It’s true that Cameron has made the environment a big issue over recent months. It’s also true that he’s been made to look a plonker with the chauffeur incident and hugging huskies nonsense. In recent months he’s also made it clear that he is distancing himself from the more deep green policies of Zac Goldsmith.

The wheels have already come off the Green Tory Bandwagon. I have to ask therefore why Team Clegg are so busy helpfully putting them back on again. Chris Huhne has produced polling evidence that suggests Cameron is not doing that well on this issue; what is Clegg’s response to that? Why is he not attacking Cameron’s empty pledges on the environment rather than using him as a stick to beat his opponent with?

No doubt Lib Dem Voice and others will have more about this interview.

UPDATE: The Guardian have picked up on this.

Performing Rights – should everyone be sued?

My office has just had a phone call from the Performing Rights Society (asking for a company that ceased to exist 10 years ago, natch) demanding that we take our a PRS license on the basis that some people in the office listen to personal MP3 players. Sounds like crap to me, but their leaflet is even more vague:

By law under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, if you use copyright music in public (i.e. outside of the home), you must first obtain permission from every writer or composer whose music you intend to play.

Essentially they are asserting that every time you walk out of your front door and put your iPod on you are breaching copyright. I’ve never thought about this before, maybe that is the letter of the law, but in that case isn’t the law an arse?

even less EXCLUSIVE: Chris Huhne talks to Quaequam Blog! (part 2)

I meant to get this finished on Wednesday but I went to a meeting at the Telegraph offices to hear the usual suspects talk about political blogging instead – yet again I was the only Lib Dem in the village. The only one who didn’t seem enamoured with the Power Of The Blog was Alex Hilton who did a good presentation about what a blog through the medium of handing out newspapers in which he basically said that the best bloggers are infectious.

Oh, and before I get any more comments, blog posts or emails, I do now know what the word amanuensis means now. Sheesh! Is my face red. But I digress.

Overcoming the media narrative

My turn at last. After asking a cheeky question about whether herding politicians was closer to herding economists or journalists (answer: I haven’t been given the job yet; ask me after I’ve been elected!), I got onto more weighty matters. Journalists tell stories and the story they seem to have already decided upon if Chris gets elected is of those perfidious Liberal Democrats, having been given a golden opportunity to elect a great messiah in the form of Nick Clegg, out of their perversity instead opted for a greying economist who is unable to communicate. This isn’t my view, but it certainly seems to be the story that certain journalists seem intent on telling, and having seen Ming Campbell try and fail to escape the media preconceptions I’m concerned that Chris won’t be able to either.

Chris’ response was to point out that journalism has an “inbuilt balancing mechanism” – if a lot of people take one point of view then a lot of others will turn around and rubbish it. He cited Jackie Ashley’s column this week arguing against “pretty boys” leading political parties.

He went on to talk about Tony Blair, a politician who was always very good at presentation but incapable at delivery. By contrast, he suggested that what the public want is a party that is more about substance than style and who they can rely upon to deliver.

Alex Wilcock intervened and asked another supplemental, suggesting that another part of the media’s narrative about Chris is that he is rich, a former journalist and a politician from Brussels and this is at odds with his exhortation for the party to be anti-establishment.

Chris’ answer was to state that being anti-establishment (anti-establishmentarian?) is a frame of mind. Being establishment means ultimately being concerned more about running things and not rocking the boat. Looking at it from a business perspective, he argued, all successful businessmen are in one sense “anti-establisment” – Bill Gates taking on IBM being a good example.

Being anti-establishment is ultimately being about wanting change; the Lib Dems must be the little boy who points out that the Emperor has no clothes.

My view: he answered Alex’s question better than mine, and subsequently to a large degree addressed by concerns. He spoke with passion and articulately. Frankly this was the answer I wanted to hear and although I remain concerned that in the short term the party would be pillioried in the press for electing Chris and thus making the “wrong” decision, he has the wherewithal to address that swiftly and effectively.

The Tax Question

Richard asked the simple question: is it time we started saying it’s time to start cutting taxes?

Chris certainly agreed that the time has come to state that taxes should not increase further, and that as things moved on the case for tax cuts may increase. But ultimately, he asserted, this issue is more counter-productive than any other.

The debate which has been waged between Labour and the Tories over tax and spend over the last forty years has been set against a background in which taxation has by and large hovered at around 40%, give or take a bit.

The real debate, Chris argued, is about accountability rather than the level of taxation; that means decentralisation. And it is on this issue that the Lib Dems stand head and shoulders above the other two parties.

My response: a good, clear, succinct answer that turns the question around back onto firm Lib Dem turf. This was clearly a question that Chris has been asked a lot!

Drugs Policy

Jonny asked what, in practical terms, Chris would spell out a Lib Dem policy on drugs.

Chris answered that drugs policy should be based on scientific advice and that the present categorisation system should be reformed. Secondly, he said that we must take a more medical view on people addicted to hard drugs and that they should be able to access treatment rather than being forced to steal. Ultimately however, he didn’t go down the libertarian line of legalising all drugs although he respected that as a legitimate position to take, on the basis that he feels that drug users do fail the “harm principle” – tearing apart families and communities.

Jonny intervened, pointing out that although Chris was saying that policy should be based on medical advice, that would mean politicians following the advice not individuals themselves; how does that square with a commitment to decentralisation? Chris’ response was to reiterate that drug use can harm others, to which Jonny pointed out that the same could be said of alcohol.

Chris’ answer to that was to point out that alcohol has become socially accepted, for better or worse, in the way that the use of other drugs has not. He conceded that we need to rethink our approach to alcohol and ensure that people are aware of the dangers, particularly since the price of alcohol has been dropping as a percentage of real income (an issue that cannot easily be addressed due to how easy it is to avoid excise duties these days), but that ultimately it must be dealt with seperately from other drugs.

My view: a very wishy-washy answer I’m afraid. Didn’t address the issue of cannabis and other soft drugs at all. His justification for treating alcohol differently was completely at odds to his previous statement about basing drugs policy solely on scientific evidence. I’m afraid he didn’t appear to have thought through this answer at all.

Still, if he’d called for ecstasy to be legalised you can bet it would have been splashed all over the newspapers by now. From what I’ve seen, Nick Clegg’s answer would have been no different. This is a third rail issue and until it loses some of its poison (to mix a metaphor), politicians in their position will be wary of engaging with the issue in a meaningful manner. At least his monarchy answer was more robust however.

The EU Reform Treaty

Paul Walter asked whether, assuming the Lib Dems’ proposal for a referendum on EU membership was defeated in the House of Commons, the party should vote against the Conservative amendment calling for a referendum on the Reform Treaty.

Chris’ answer was yes. His argument is that because the UK has been so successful in negotiating opt-outs for itself, blocking the treaty now – and thus depriving the other member states of a treaty they support – would be “totally dishonest”. But he restated the Ming Campbell line of a referendum on EU membership on the basis that this would a ex post facto way of ratifying the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty which had a profoundly greater impact on British sovereignty.

He went on to point out that the party that has real problems over Europe is the Conservatives. David Cameron knows that he daren’t be drawn on the subject of whether he would call a referendum after Lisbon had been ratified because he knows he would either have to go down the messy route of renegotiation or support a referendum on EU membership which will split the Conservative Party top to bottom.

Alex intervened again at the point asking Chris whether he would support a referendum if a million people signed a petition calling for a referendum on the Reform Treaty given Chris’ support for a People’s Veto.

After a digression about the People’s Veto itself (preaching to the choir on this one), Chris’ answer was that if the People’s Veto was in place then such a referendum would have to happen but that his personal position remains to hold a referendum on the wider issue of membership.

My view: While I’ve argued extensively on this blog against this position (although I’m ultimately really not that fussed about the policy for holding a referendum on EU membership), I have to admit that Chris has a really strong argument here. If Ming had given a robust answer like this back in September, there would have been much less fallout. Once again I’m drawn to the fact that on a number of issues Chris has a clearly thought out, consistent answer. I might not wholly go along with it, but I can’t dismiss it. He could even change my mind. That’s a powerful skill.

Raising the Profile of Local Government

Mary asked what Chris would do to raise the profile of local government, particularly within the party.

Chris’ answer was simple: give them more power and control over public services.

He emphasised the number of Lib Dem group leaders that were supporting his campaign, suggesting that they did so because they respected his commitment to local government. He pledged to promote the party’s success in local government and pointed out that the party needed a strong local base to get MPs elected.

My view: not much new or of substance here.

The Elephant Question

Finally Richard asked whether the Bird of Liberty should be replaced by the elephant. After a bit of waffle, Chris answered by asking how the “Elephant of Liberty” managed to become such a preeminent part of the Liberal Democrats when his relatives in the United States are associated with the forces of darkness.

My view: a good ad lib there.

OVERALL: What mainly impressed me was the comprehensiveness and clarity of most of Chris’ answers. He managed to keep the waffle and evasiveness down to a minimum. I didn’t like his drugs answer but that is even less of a decisive factor for me than Trident. By contrast the way he handled the monarchy question and the question about the EU referendum was astute and to the point.

The most significant factor for me about this interview is that it massively reduced my fears about what would happen if we elected the candidate of whom the media did not approve. For all his criticisms for being too cerebral and lacking the popular touch, Chris demonstrated an ability to sell himself in a warm and passionate manner. Voting for him feels like a much less risky thing to do after this interview than it did beforehand.

I regret that we didn’t ask him about the wisdom of making Trident such a central issue, about Nick Clegg’s valid criticisms about the way we approach the environment and about how we can convince the public about the Lib Dem approach to law and order. Hopefully there is still time to have these issues addressed.