An Open Letter to Nick Clegg

Dear Nick,

I thought I would follow up our brief conversation yesterday [Saturday]. I was sorry you were expecting me at your Saturday morning ‘bloggers’ meet’ and were disappointed at not being able to arguing out my ‘trenchant views’ – it is nice to hear you actually read my stuff! Since our chat I have spoken with the organiser, Richard Flowers, and he confirmed that I was not invited (the meeting, he confirmed, was restricted to finallists in the blog awards and I was a judge). If, as you say, you expressly asked for me to be there that wasn’t conveyed to Richard for some reason.

No matter, but if you are so keen for me to interview you, and try to thrash out our differences, I would be happy to work around your busy schedule – let me know when you are next available (although bear in mind that I’ll be at Labour conference all next week).

For the sake of balance, let me emphasise that I’m not wholly negative about your performance as leader – indeed I’m frequently slagged off for defending your record. On public services reform, including your recent announcement about allowing people to pay ‘top ups’ for medical treatment, I’m pretty relaxed. Have you considered how moderate social and economic rights, as argued for by the Joint Committee on Human Rights this summer, might be a useful tool to address some of your critics’ concerns and ensure that the ethos of universal health care might be kept safe? I couldn’t be more happy with your narrative about ‘broken politics’ – it is fundamentally true, deeply resonates with the public (if only we had been saying it in 2005!)and contrasts us clearly from Cameron and his fear-mongering talk about society being broken.

It is that context which explains why I’ve found the debate about tax cuts so infuriating over the past few weeks, and in particular over the last seven days. Part of me enjoys the prospect of a Bloody Big Row, but even if it was your intention this is no ‘Clause 4 moment’ for the simple reason that no-one seems very clear what the argument is actually about. I’ve just read Liberal Vision’s new pamphlet telling us we’re all doomed unless we embrace a much more ambitious tax-cutting agenda which will benefit the wealthiest in society (who apparently we all aspire to be); I’m not convinced of either their psephological analysis or their prescription (which appears predicated on nothing more than a single anything-You-want-Gov opinion poll question commissioned by the Taxpayers’ Alliance over a year ago before the Credit Crunch started to bite). I’ve also been reading Paul Holmes’ various articles claiming that the NHS is as cash strapped as ever and not a penny can be spared – I’m not convinced of that either. Yet somehow this debate has become a deathmatch between Paul and Mark Littlewood, leaving the rest of us out in the cold. That shouldn’t be happening and frankly it is your cock up.

There is a case to be made for cutting unneccessary government spending and passing on some of those savings in the form of tax cuts; I agree with the basic thrust of what you are saying. But this emphasis on words like ‘vast’ and ‘big’ seem to be mistaken on at least three counts:
1) It doesn’t reflect what you’re proposing, which appears to be tax cuts in the region of, at most, £4bn (or £75 for each man, woman and child to use figures that actually mean something).
2) It doesn’t reflect the rhetoric in the Make it Happen paper or the motion (which only talks about big tax cuts to those most in need and says nothing about the overall burden). We aren’t been given an opportunity at this conference to debate this shift in policy, either in principle or in detail.
3) In the current economic climate, talk of ‘vast’ tax cuts sounds brash. What about the PSBR, for one thing? People become small-c conservative at times of recession. Combine that with the fact that for the party this represents a vaulting 180-degree u-turn and it smacks of opportunism. It lacks authenticity, which in turn will make it harder to sell.

It strikes me that we have a perfectly sensible position to sell of prudent, modest tax cuts, focused on the least well off, on top of our existing, fully-funded proposals. A commitment to raising personal allowance still further would be fantastic. But there is little benefit in over-egging it. If – that’s if – Vince Cable manages to find tens of billions of pounds of extra Labour spending we can safely shed, by all means let’s review at a later conference. But if you can only find around £20bn and we have spending plans in the region of £16bn (no-one is seriously disputing that are they?) then your language needs to be held in check.

I have to admit, since we’re on the subject of tax, that your job isn’t helped by the fact that our tax policy is currently over-complex. What is the point in telling people we will drop 4p off the basic rate of income tax (a tangible sum) if we propose piling almost all of it back on in the form of a local income tax? I’m not suggesting you drop our commitment to LIT but perhaps you should consider using it as a way of meeting our goal of increasing the amount local authorities raise themselves (from 25% to 50%) instead of replacing council tax? That would simplifly our message on tax and strengthen our message on localism at the same time; it’s win-win. We could still replace council tax with a fairer tax based on site values in the longer term, which is broadly in line with existing party policy.

Anyway, that’s my tuppence worth.

Trenchantly yours,



  1. Oh dear,

    James, firstly please don’t go blaming Nick for something that could easily be my misunderstanding or a breakdown of communications. But more importantly, you actually were invited to the interview and I wish you’d talked to me properly before saying otherwise.

    Now you and I did exchange a couple of sentences of chat on Saturday afternoon just after I and others had finished interviewing Lembit, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say I had “confirmed” that you were not invited to talk to Nick.

    How it actually worked was that on Monday night after the Blogger of the Year shortlist was announced I contacted the shortlistees, by e-mail or through facebook, to invite them *first*.

    But since Jock could not make it (and, as it turned out neither could Jonathan nor in the end Alix), I widened that invitation to the people who have been along to interviews before (and signed up to the e-mail list that I run to keep bloggers informed – you have a g-mail address on that list, though you may not have checked it).

    My actual words were: “I think that that would be enough even if no more attend so I won’t advertise it further, but if there are any of you who would like to be added to the list that would be splendid”.

    So while you were not specifically and personally invited, and while it’s not completely clear that the offer was open, you DID technically get an invitation, although you may not have read it or interpreted it as an invitation even if you did.

    But that is your failing, and please don’t go using it to go grandstanding.

    Next time you want me to confirm something, please do me the courtesy of *telling* me that you want me to confirm something before you start quoting things I haven’t actually said as though you’re some tabloid hack; it seriously undermines any value that you might have put into the rest of your argument.

    Nick has been very generous with his time and his office put in a lot of work to let ordinary Lib Dem Bloggers get extraordinary access to the top of the Party. I’d rather you didn’t spoil that for everyone else just to score some cheap debating point.

  2. First of all Richard, I’m not blaming anyone for anything. Clearly there was some kind of mixup, but I’m not pointing any fingers at anyone. I merely proposed a way forward.

    Secondly, I asked you a simple question and got a simple answer. I don’t usually work on the assumption that I need to get a simple yes or no in triplicate before confirming it.

    Thirdly, I don’t see how I can be accused of “spoiling [it] for everyone else” for writing a simple letter.

    It looks as if I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t. Invite myself to the interviews and I stop someone else from being able to take part (to be honest they aren’t really my thing – too many interviewees seem to expect uncritical adoration and that isn’t something I do very well). Exclude myself and I get accused of running scared – and then subsequently get accused of being a failure for exercising my right to reply.

    Bottom line: if Nick expressly wanted me there, no-one told me. I’m not blaming anyone for that, but I’m amazed you think it is my fault.

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