Both candidates for the Leadership of the Liberal Democrats have kindly agreed to an interview with a panel of Liberal Democrat diarists*.
Today was the turn of Shadow Home Secretary and MP for Sheffield, Mr Nick Clogg and once again your TOP Liberal Democrat elephant was there to ask the questions!
In many ways this was the Mr Clogg that we have been WAITING TO SEE ever since the campaign began: relaxed, fluent, comfortable to talk knowledgeably and wide-rangingly around the issues, and with answers based in clear Liberal Philosophy. And, and this was a REAL winner, he actually ANSWERED the questions!
Perhaps the most TELLING moment was when, about halfway in, Mr Clogg confessed the WE made HIM nervous, maybe MORE nervous than an interview with a journalist, because while ostensibly ON SIDE we're also on the INSIDE, with different knowledge, understandings and agenda. It was charming and disarming, and finally I think I understand what people say about Mr Clogg being a "HUMAN BEING".
His answers also showed a good bit of the PASSION which we wanted to see as well as depth and breadth of understanding. Perhaps TOO MUCH breadth, in fact, as – for those who are counting – we probably got fewer questions in.
I think that the KEY to understanding Mr Clogg's campaign is that it isn't "strategy WHAT" but "strategy HOW". The SPECIFICS of policy are that we already HAVE the right policies, but – as he said – if it was just about POLICIES we would have won every election since World War Part II. What we need is JOINED UP THINKING on how we put across what we want to talk about, but ALSO – and in fact even MORE importantly – a recognition of what it is that the general public want us to be talking about.
My own first question was a good example of the MISUNDERSTANDING of this agenda. I said that he began the campaign saying we needed to move beyond our comfort zone – which is GOOD – but that his first announcement was his willingness to go to prison rather than surrender his data to the I.Diot card computer – ALSO GOOD, but hardly not tickling the Party's comfort zone.
Mr Paul Burblings also hopped in, foregoing his prepared question on the economy, wanting to pin Mr Clogg down on two policy examples that would be outside the comfort zone.
BUT, Mr Clogg's idea of moving out of that "comfort zone" is not about adopting this or that POLICY – the "strategy WHAT" approach – but about changing our STATE OF MIND, and rediscovering the ability to talk to people about the issues that matter to THEM not just the ones that are important to us.
When he was a teenager, politics was all about macroeconomics and nothing else – the only choice, crudely categorised as left or right, was "are you an economic illiterate with a social conscience or financially competent with a heart of stone". That old order has TOTALLY COLLAPSED… though the other two Parties seem not to have noticed it!
Mr Clogg, though, wants to look to the future, to the five issues that he thinks will come to dominate the politics of the next decades:
- social stagnation
- the politics of fear
- the environment, and why it is only the most important issue for 6% of people
Although that seemed like a long digression, in fact it was amazing to hear him spell out the philosophical underpinning to his thinking.
(If ANYONE still thinks there's a comparison between Mr Clogg and Mr Balloon, just try to imagine Mr Balloon HAVING a philosophical underpinning to his thinking. Or even imagine Mr Balloon just THINKING!)
But then he continued with how he wants to take that thinking and go forward with it.
At the risk of upsetting his colleagues, he suggested that the Party in Parliament has become too obsessed with playing the Westminster GAME: sitting on Green Benches, working in committees, getting that perfect bon mot for a speech at quarter-to-midnight with four other people in the chamber.
What we SHOULD be, says Mr Clogg, is an outward-facing, CAMPAIGNING organisation. At a LOCAL level, we are BRILLIANT at this. We find the things that matter to people, the things that they need or that they need saving and we organise a campaign to get things done. Somehow, at a national level it all falls apart.
Too often, it seems that efforts get focussed on getting a policy passed by conference. Quickly Mr Clogg emphasised that this was NOT a hint that he might want to change the policy-making process; indeed he was proud of and valued the democratic institutions of the party. But it should NOT be the end of the process – get to conference, convince the reps, hooray! – but the BEGINNING.
Equally there is too much COMPARTMENTALISING of responsibilities and TERRITORIALISM: too much not saying anything for fear of treading on toes.
In the most mild criticism of Sir Mr the Merciless, Mr Clogg suggests that he was, in actual fact, NOT MERCILESS ENOUGH! Sir M was too much of a GENTLEMAN to tread on anybody's toes and, in his time – nor in Mr Charles' time either – Mr Clogg does not remember a single time when an instruction came from the Leader's Office saying "this week we are going all guns blazing" on health or on the economy or on policing or anything else. Neither was there ever a time when he was told to really ramp up an issue that he had initiated.
Clearly what is needed is for everyone to all pull together instead of all pulling apart.
As a quick example of what we SHOULD do, Mr Clogg talked MEDIA. We all know that the national media are a bunch of… gentlemen and ladies who don't talk about us. But the LOCAL media – radio, newspapers, local TV – are a much more direct way to get through to people and one where the local MP will have an established strong relationship. What we need is, sometimes, to coordinate our communications – have 64 MPs all pushing the SAME agenda all across the country in the same week and we can start to build up a head of steam. Goodness, the disinterested nationals might even take notice!
(In fact, we know that Mr Frown has tried an end run around the local media but without any actual local action, because Mr David "I am the" Laws spotted him "at it"!)
To return to Mr Paul's question, he did pick out policies: we should have moved EARLIER and more FORCEFULLY on HOUSING, he said, and – coming back at the end – he also said that IMMIGRATION is an area that we MUST talk about. It may be UNcomfortable for US, but all the polling shows that it is up at the TOP of most people's concerns. We do not need to have the SAME answers as the Tweedle-Tory Parties just because we have to address the same questions.
But we DO need to be aware of the map of people's opinions and that it is – often – different from ours. It is not good enough to be winning the debate on the Environment – even though we should and we do! – when it is sixteenth on people's list of concerns and everyone is talking about Immigration.
Speaking of DIFFERENT OPINIONS we could hardly NOT mention the little CONTRETEMPS that occurred on the BBC's Polly-tricks Show.
Mr James asked if Mr Clogg now felt that his "Opportunism Knocks" article for the Grauniad had been justified. Also with us was Ms Linda Jack: Daddy Alex assured us all that as she was here in person this was NICE Ms Linda, as opposed to her FEARSOME online alter ego – sort of a Ms Linda Jack-yl and Blogger Hyde! Ms Linda offered Mr Clogg the opportunity finally to draw a line under the questions of schools vouchers and health insurance. Mr Clogg sighed.
Answering Mr James first, he said that he was not interested in disinterring the past. There is, he said, no point in a Leadership based on winning an argument that is wholly unintelligible to the public. He accepted that there has to be a balance between the inward-looking and the outward-looking in any internal election, but also said that a semantic debate about words he never said anyway was a waste of everybody's time.
Speaking about schools, he talked of what he WAS interested in discussing: finding the two-and-a-half billion pounds RIGHT NOW, not in a couple of years, to really make that investment in education for the poorest.
The premium goes to the SCHOOL, not the pupil or their mummies and daddies. It's not portable so it's not a "voucher".
(Look, this is as boring for you as it was for him, but so that there is no mistake, he DID first made it clear – probably, for him, for the umpteenth time – that he only ever referred to the Pupil Premium, which is Party Policy, and it was the journalist who used the term "vouchers" and has since agreed that Mr Clogg never said the word.)
On insurance, he wanted to be clear that his priority is getting the best outcome, and that he doesn't see why British people should put up with a second best service compared to Europe. For that reason, he remains open-minded about the way that Europe delivers. But that doesn't mean just translating OUTCOMES.
He was wary of any simple answers, and for him JUST saying let's localise power to the Town Hall WAS a simple answer. We need to prove that handing power back to the council actually EMPOWERS people, not just puts a different bunch of bureaucrats in charge. He called for the URGENT transfer to a democratic body the functions of primary care trusts, speaking of his experiences in Sheffield of the ARROGANCE of bureaucrats, deciding whether or not his constituents get health care they need.
This happened to tie in nicely with the next question which was from Ms Mary. She asked – as she had with Mr Huhney-Monster – how Liberal Democrat councils could create a distinctive Liberal Democrat approach.
Our best councils lead the way, he said confidently, citing INNOVATIVE Liberal Democrat councils like Liverpool using IT to improve services to their constituents; providing an all-day telephone service so that the council remains in touch to answer questions.
But he also talked about being the party that REALLY believes in devolution, devolving power further from the Town Hall to people. He spoke appreciatively of Mr Charlie (not a relation of Margo) Leadbeater who has written about user participation in public services.
There is no place, said Mr Clogg, for another party defending the status quo. The agenda of personal empowerment should be and has to be a Liberal agenda.
Daddy Alex threatened to ask two "comfort zone" questions that most leaders find UNcomfortable.
First, with it being Mrs the Queen's Sixtieth Wedding Anniversary (Gawdblesseww Ma'am!) he asked if, in Britain's Liberal Future, the top job should only be open to one family.
Mr Clogg said he would agree IF he thought that it was the top job. But while it remains powerfully SYMBOLIC, the monarchy has EVOLVED over the years and is by now GUTTED of all meaningful political authority.
There is an argument that this makes Mrs the Queen no more than a billionaire bauble, but your idea of value for money may vary.
There would be no merit, that Mr Clogg saw, in launching a broadside against an institution that is now "mostly harmless".
Daddy's second question was perhaps more IMPORTANT, going to the heart of Liberalism.
"We have a habit of paying lip-service to freedom, and then as soon as something comes up saying 'ew, how horrid; let's ban it!' What would you ban and what would you unban and would you follow party policy and work long term to unbanning cannabis?"
"Whoopee!" replied Mr Clogg.
Okay, after giving it some thought, he decided that there WAS something he would ban. He has young children and they watch a television channel called Teeny Pops (or something). He is repeatedly ASTONISHED and REALLY UNSETTLED by his three-year-old remembering the ADVERTS more than the programmes and asking him for some plastic present or other. He feels – and fears – that their innocence is being encroached upon by an insidious campaign. Admitting that it was a difficult debate, he decided that he would give advertising to children the Room 101 treatment.
Unbanning, was more a question of not knowing where to start, and he said he would want to fetch his list of things in the Freedom Bill, rattling off protesting outside Parliament, rights to a fair trial, detention without charge and I.Diot cards straight away. Actually, I think he means he would ban not unban I.D.iot cards and detention without trial, but I am sure that you get his meaning: he is determined to roll back the Labour's anti-civil rights laws.
With a SMALL reminder, he also answered the cannabis question. He began by saying that it's not a debate that can be had in the same terms as a few years ago, because of the established link between new powerful "skunk" cannabis and CRIME.
This is different from the claims that "skunk" is more powerful than used to be, and he is aware that some people are saying that the police raise FALSE FEARS about this, but equally the once pro-legalisation "Independent on Sunday" newspaper has changed their position.
(See also Dr Ben and the Bad Science for some more questions about the validity of this.)
Mr Clogg's answer was that as a party we need to radically reinvent the categorisation of drugs, both illegal AND legal – such as alcohol and nicotine. We need to put the categorisation in the hands of an authority with greater power and independence, and with a statutory obligation to REDUCE HARM.
We should step back and let them examine all the evidence and draw their conclusions.
Daddy Alex pressed him: if they recommended moving a currently legal drug to illegal, or a currently illegal drug to legal, would he legislate? Yes, said Mr Clogg, you would have to follow through the logic of the recommendation.
For further further reading, Mr Clogg suggested the report of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee into drug classification.
By the end of this, Daddy was urgently waving a NOTE at me to say I should suggest SHORTER ANSWERS. Unfortunately I did not see him before I asked about foreign policy, triggering another seventeen minute discursion!
On the other fluffy foot, I am still GLAD that I did. Not only would it have seemed inappropriate not to on a day when all of us were thinking about the DEVASTATING cyclone in Bangladesh, but also because Mr Clogg seemed to relish the opportunity to get his teeth into a subject that clearly FASCINATES him. No doubt it is the legacy of Sir Mr the Merciless reputation in this area, but I feel very DUMB for forgetting Mr Clogg's long experience in Europe and in negotiation with Russia and beyond.
With the Iraq war fading as an issue, I wanted to know how Mr Clogg would define a Liberal Democratic foreign policy in future, also taking the opportunity to mention – even though she sort of works for the other feller – Ms Lynne Featherweight's discovery of Mr Douglas-Fir's secret slashing of a billion pounds from the overseas aid budget.
Mr Clogg identified A NUMBER of developing AXES in our foreign relations. He mentioned the rise of China and of India and reminded us not to forget regional powers like Brazil. But in particular, he talked about the TENSION between Atlanticism, which he identified as ENDEMIC in the British "establishment", crossing both the other Parties, and the actual and pressing geopolitical situation in which we find ourselves.
If it short-changed us in the past – I wonder to which Middle Eastern war he could have been referring? – it is now in danger of completely undermining us.
The idea is TOTALLY FALSE that all we need for a foreign policy is the LIMPET-LIKE strategy of being a… (Daddy Richard suggests "airstrip") …VASSAL STATE (finished Mr Clogg, and I think that might even be WORSE!)
The CONCEIT that we can be a "bridge" between Europe and America is just NOT TRUE.
And it leads to such STUPID policies as going along with the Monkey-in-Chief's "Son of Star Wars" plan to put anti-missile-missiles in Britain to protect America. It is STUPID because it signs us up to a technologically unproven system that destabilises regional and global politics.
Mr President Putin of Russia is – forgive the pun, it was Mr Clogg's too! – going BALLISTIC!
And STUPIDLY the Labour tried to slip out the announcement without scrutiny in a written reply to the Commons' library. Mr Clogg promised that – if there's been no scrutiny before then – he'll challenge Mr Frown about it in Prime Monster's Questionable Time.
He also talked warmly of the SUCCESS of the European Union in exporting liberal and democratic principles to Eastern Europe, and how we should go further. I said that I HAVE talked about this in my diary, but he said that we do not talk about this ENOUGH!
We should be looking at how we take this to the next level, doing properly what Mr Millipede only half-heartedly hinted at, and looking at North Africa and the Middle East and to Russia too. It shouldn't be all about MEMBERSHIP, he said, we're not IMPOSING ideology like Lord Blairimort tried (and failed) to do, but PROJECTING our ideals.
And, he added, Mr Balloon is completely flaky on foreign affairs – just look at the mess he's got himself into over Europe, making silly promises to his Europhobic Conservatories for short-term advantage and now trying to get out of it by cosying up to Ms Angular Merecat for more photo opportunities.
Mr James got in with another question, this time about DIVERSITY and the idea of an Academy to give the best chances to candidates from minority and female backgrounds. How are we going to pay for it and how are we going to make sure that it gets done.
Well, Mr Clogg admitted, we REALLY need to get this right, because if we don't then pretty soon the advocates for quotas – and he doesn't believe in quotas – are going to have a pretty UNANSWERABLE case. Because if we want to represent the country we really HAVE to be representative of the Country. He said that, as leader, he would be willing to "roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty" to make sure that this works. He said he's lined up one-and-a-half MAJOR donors already who are willing, indeed KEEN, that their funding be specifically earmarked for the Academy, and there is a physical location – at least for three or four days a week (I THINK that this means time-share, and not that it is in BRIGADOON!) – where the Academy can provide training courses.
But then we were told that it was time to STOP because it was two minutes until we bumped the Independent.
But Mr Clogg still made time for our group photo and I slipped in my LAST question about JAMES BOND: which James Bond are you, Mr Clogg, I wanted to know, Mr Sean, Mr Daniel… or Mr George Lazenby? Well he chose, and he admitted that it would be the conventional answer, to be Mr Sean – though he did ask why no Mr Roger in my list (to be fair, because I wanted a PUNCHY "rule of three") and someone else suggested that he should be "Housewife's Favourite Mr Pierce"!
Mr Clogg left us all on a terrific high. (Subject to taking expert evidence for reclassification: I'll have to see what the other diarists make of it!) Yesterday's FUSS and NONSENSE had left us feeling DOWN about the Leadership Contest, and he managed to restore our POSITIVE ATTITUDE. I think that my Daddies and I had had some QUESTIONS about Mr Clogg's performance in the campaign to date – all that PROMISE and yet never quite delivering… until now. Today he MORE THAN SUCCEEDED in answering those questions.
Of course, this ACTUALLY makes it much MORE difficult for us. BOTH candidates are completely excellent (minor tiff overlooked) and EITHER would do really jolly well as Leader of the Liberal Democrats. What would be MOST ideal is to have a combination of BOTH of them – Mr Huhney-Monster has the ability to pick the right ways to make some noise and get noticed; Mr Clogg has the ability to reach out and connect to people. BOTH of them have strategy – and philosophy – to take the Party forwards.
But really that is HAPPY-MAKING isn't it. Whoever WINS it will be a WIN for the Liberal Democrats.
*The invited diarists were the five people short-listed in the Liberal Democrat Blogger of the Year together with double winner Ms Mary Reid whose diary was both Best Blog by an Elected Liberal Democrat and Best Designed Blog. Mr Jonny, Winner of the Best New Blog award could not be with us today but instead we were joined by Ms Linda Jack, 'cos she asked.