|The Last Supper – redux. L-R: Linda Jack, James Graham, Richard Flowers, Millennium Dome, Alix Mortimer, Alex Wilcock (photo: Alex Folkes)|
Once again, the well connected Millennium has organised a meeting of bloggers with a senior party figure. This time the face is somewhat familiar as up until earlier this afternoon he was a candidate for the leadership election. Now he’s the leader while Vince Cable has vacated the seat to trip the light fantastic elsewhere, and so we got a second bite of the cherry.
We only had 20 minutes with him – not that I’m complaining as he was dashing from interview to interview and we probably had more time with him than a lot of senior political correspondents.
I’m not going to try summarising the whole interview, partly because I’m falling asleep at my keyboard and partly because I don’t think it would be particularly interesting. Instead I will pick out what for me were the highlights.
On comparisons with Cameron
Alix Mortimer asked him how he intended to deal with the comparisons that are constantly being made between him and David Cameron. Nick has the perfect answer to this: the differences between he and Cameron are more instructive than the similarities. In particular he notes how it was that when they were both younger men while Clegg was repelled by the excesses of Thatcherism, Cameron felt compelled to become a footsoldier for the Conservative Party.
In terms of Cameron’s specific calls for a “progressive alliance” on decentralisation, Clegg made the extremely strong point that while the Lib Dems have clear policy on decentralising spending – where it really matters – the Conservatives have no such policy. I think this is absolutely crucial, and a point that needs to be pressed home time and again. The closest Cameron has come to dealing with the fiscal issues related to local government is his batty scheme for replacing central government caps with a system of referendums – triggered if a local authority attempts to raise council tax above, um, a central government cap.
Millennium suggested issuing Cameron with a series of challenges to “prove” if he is a liberal. Clegg suggested that he had something like that in mind but that he personally wouldn’t do it. My own personal view is that if such a challenge is issued it should be issued to both the other main parties. We saw what happened earlier this year with Ming Campbell’s challenges to Brown at Harrogate Conference and how they were seen as overtures to cooperation.
Diversity and families
The questions of Alex Wilcock, Linda Jack and myself sort of slotted together. Alex talked about what we have to say to BME voters now that, among other things, the furore over the Iraq war is dying down and what to say to LGBT voters now that the fight for queer rights has been largely won. Linda pushed him on his Academy idea. I asked him to go into a little more detail about his plans to regularly consult a “network of real families” from across the country. His answer to Linda’s question was much the same as his answer to mine at our last interview with him.
Clegg’s answer to Alex’s question was to emphasise that we are the party of not merely tolerance but of celebrating diversity. He talked about how most people of his generation are largely blind to people’s sexuality. I think this is all very true, but would add two caveats. First of all, the fact that gay voters are becoming increasingly hard to pigeonhole is in many ways a positive sign. However fond people like myself may be of reminding people that the Tory Parliamentary Party seem to only mildly less homophobic than they were two decades ago, there is strength in mainstreaming this issue and moving beyond identity politics. The second point though, is that the picture is not as rosy as all that might suggest. Nick is kidding himself if he thinks that all people of his generation – as opposed to just the middle class ones – are equally relaxed about sexuality. There remains a challenge in mainstreaming tolerance of sexuality across society and I think we have a way to go.
On my question about this idea of having a network of families, I’m happy to say that Clegg assuaged some of my potential concerns quickly by emphasising that he is “not attempting to define family tightly at all” and that he views families as coming in “all shapes and sizes”. After some prompting from Alix he even suggested this might be extended out to people who have what they regard as a “family of friends.”
Once again, cue another dig at David Cameron and his plan to offer a Â£20 a week tax incentive for people to get married. He referred to his speech to the IPPR a few weeks ago on this topic which I can’t find a text version of but is available to listen to on their website.
The idea behind this has been borne out of a feeling from Clegg that forming an ongoing relationship with a series of families from across the country would be a positive way of ensuring his leadership remains relevant and brimming with new ideas. His emphasis seems to be on ongoing relationships and in that regard it appears to contrast slightly with Paddy Ashdown’s old Beyond Westminster project (which I assumed he was referencing at first) which seemed to be more about touring the country than building ongoing relationships. Nonetheless, he could do worse than to turn the project into a book at some point.
Overall, how do I feel about the prospects of our new leader after this interview, his speech and the other TV interviews I’ve picked up on? In broad terms I think he’s got the right idea about where to go from here. I’m still anxious about the apparent lack of sharp elbows however and his speech today lacked the real killer punch I was hoping for. If he wants to make an impact over the next few weeks, he needs to start pulling rabbits out of hats; ideally we should have had one today. Please let’s have one soon.
Clegg’s acceptance speech continued to give me the concerns I have had about him throughout. It was a politician’s speech, saying the sort of things politicians say, using the slogans that the activists like to hear, but not really having that “oomph” which takes it beyond that and makes those who aren’t interested in politics sit up and listen. As a speech from a young wannabe-PPC on his first hustings, it would be great. From the party leader it’s “oh, is that it?”.
From now on I shall observe a period of silence on Mr Clegg. If I don’t, please remind me of this pledge. I hope to be pleasantly surprised by him and his leadership and I feel my over-critical instincts towards him will not help him develop towards giving me that pleasant surprise if brought out and used.