...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, May 12, 2008

Day 2684: A Hundred (and-forty-one) Days of Mr Clogg


Time makes tragedies for all of us. I had MEANT to ask Mr Clogg if he would like to say a few nice words about Ms Ray Michie and Mr Lord Holme.

AND we should've congratulated him for taking control of Sheffield Council.

I am afraid I didn't; I asked a piece of fluff about Mr Boris instead. I'm sorry!

I like to open with a nice easy question and close with something a bit funny and oddball. This is because I am a FLUFFY TOY. Well mainly. But also to set the ball rolling in a friendly fashion.

Lib Dem Bloggers feel the heat; Mr Clogg keeps his cool
Photo credit: Mr Laurence
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I will come to Mr Clogg's answers in a minute, but as it was, the QUESTIONS did seem to flow rather well from one into another, sparking a jolly good debate.

I asked about Mr Boris, and whether he should keep his promise to resign his MPs seat in Henley, wanting to give Mr Clogg the opportunity to say of course he should.

"Of course he should," said Mr Clogg. So that was a good start!

This led, of course, into discussion of BY-ELECTIONS, particularly Henley – we will be ready – and of course Crewe and Nantwich, where Mr Balloon has decided to make the 10p tax debacle the centrepiece of his campaign.

From this followed Citizen Alix's question about campaigning on the 10p tax and why she hadn't seen more Liberal Democrats pushing the fact that we have got a shiny tax policy to entirely deal with this very case: we would NOT bring back the 10p rate because we already HAVE a plan to make the tax system fairer for people on low and middle incomes (and pay for it by closing loopholes, switching to green taxes, and redistributing wealth in that way).

What, I think, Mr Clogg had to SHY AWAY from was saying that we have had to CHANGE our policy. We did USED to have a policy of raising allowances so as to make the 10p band into a NOp band – and I suspect that this is the policy that Ms Alix is remembering; it is certainly what I have been thinking about as a solution to the 10p tax dilemma. Unfortunately there have been DEVELOPMENTS since we had that policy: specifically first Mr Frown went and DOUBLED the 10p tax band, making it TWICE as EXPENSIVE to abolish it again, and second he also snaffled some of our ideas for raising the tax to pay for it and spent all the money.

Mr Vince had to make a DIFFICULT CHOICE between raising allowances OR cutting the basic rate by 4p as part of a package with Abolishing the Council Tax and making the Green Tax switch. But at least we HAVE a policy. Unlike Mr Balloon.

Mr Laurence then wanted to know if we couldn't UNMASK the real Conservatories who hide behind the façade of Mr Balloon. Mr Balloon is quite NICE he said… (are you MAD, Mr Laurence!!!) but the real Conservatories are still scary and NUTS. Ms Jo Chrispy-Strips then broadened the policy debate out to a more general question (as she had asked of Mr Danny) about our NARRATIVE, and whether just the word "Liberal" is enough to convey all that we mean. And it was logical to follow that with Ms Helen's question (with props!) about why the media only see things through their special RED/BLUE goggles, and how we can get INTO or PAST the mainstream media.

After this, Mr Paul Burblings asked… well FIRST he asked if Mr Clogg had seen his "Headcases" puppet – Mr Clogg hadn't – and THEN Mr Paul asked whether there was any advantage in pressing Mr Frown for PR at Westminster, and at the end Ms Jo quickly asked why it was that, for a party so in favour of FAIR VOTES, we seem to be a bit RUBBISH at fighting PR elections.

In between, Mr Gavin When-will-i-be-famous-man had asked if there was one piece of legislation Mr Clogg could repeal, what would it be – Mr Clogg chose I.D.iot cards (which got a little cheer) and that was followed up (after a question about redistribution from Ms Linda) by Mr Laurence again, challenging Mr Clogg over his saying that he'd break the law rather than give up his information to the Government for an I.D.iot card.

And then the hour beat us, so Mr Clogg was sparred having to answer Daddy Alex's VERY GOOD write-in question on CANNABIS. (I mean it was ABOUT cannabis, not that it was written ON cannabis… it was writing on an e-mail… I'll shut up).

"The Labour want to lock up more people for possession of Cannabis, and for longer, in our prisons that are already so full that violent offenders are said to be being moved to open prisons. Will the Liberal Democrats vote to keep Cannabis classification in line with the evidence-based independent scientific advice?"

But in return WE were spared Mr Clogg getting to go on for AGES about the Dohar round of the world trade talks and whether they're about to collapse and then the new President in America (who will almost certainly be MORE protectionist than the Monkey-in-Chief) will have half a year GETTING elected and then another year getting their trade secretary approved by congress and it'll put the mockers on it entirely…

But my LAST question was… had he read the interviews that we did with Mr Danny when Mr Clogg had stood us up last time. HE hadn't. Boo… no, sorry, never mind, Mr Clogg is a busy man and had more important things to do. Probably.

(I bet Mr Danny read them!)

Anyway, that's what WE had to say, but really you're not interested in US, you want to know what Mr Clogg said!

Well, OBVIOUSLY Mr Boris should get on and resign as an MP. In fact it's a little bit OUTRAGEOUS – and will annoy quite a lot of people – that he and the Conservatories seem to think that how long he can have a dual mandate is somehow in their GIFT.

Actually, that isn't the MOST bizarre thing: that is the "reverse dynastic" suggestion that Mr Boris might be succeeded by his DAD! As if it wasn't bad enough, the Labour throwing Ms Gwyneth Dunwoody's DAUGHTER at the by-election in Crewe and Nantwich in the hope of getting a SYMPATHY VOTE out.

But we WILL be ready. In fact, Mr Clogg himself knows the area well, having been brought up just outside the constituency and been there on "thousands of shopping trips with his mum". And he knows that there will be many people receptive to a Liberal message there. The demographics – said Mr Clogg – are very interesting… as indeed they are in Crewe and Nantwich. It would be ridiculous to make predictions at this early stage, but he would say that if we campaign hard then there's everything to play for… and we have pulled off more SPECTACULAR things in the past.

(So if you've not been to Crewe yet, get yourself ready for a trip to Henley!)

Mr Balloon has said that an announcement will be "soon" by which he means not yet). Very much with no insider knowledge at all, Mr Clogg suspected that there may be a "tug-o-war" going on between central office and the local party, and that's what's holding them up. Plus of course, they want to throw their kitchen sink at Crewe.

He did think that Mr Balloon had put himself in a very vulnerable position – in fact he called it "farcical" – racing up to Crewe and saying that he would take on the Government on the 10p tax and then admitting that he had absolutely no solution.

Mr Clogg felt that we really should push the fact that, agree with us or not, we have at least GOT a thought-through plan – to abolish the Council Tax, the most regressive tax in Western Europe, Mr Clogg called it, and to lower Basic Rate tax by 4p. It's a plan that is aimed at creating greater social justice.

He felt that they really went to town on this in Sheffield (he didn't need to say look at the results), although they were greatly helped by one of the local MPs being the Ms Anglepoise Smith who said she would resign on principle and then lost her spine in the course of a thirty-second transatlantic telephone call. But, he said, if people like Ms Alix don’t feel that we put that case across strongly enough in the local elections, then we have a chance to really push it hard now!

And particularly since the Conservatories literally have no answer.

Mr Clogg repeated the line he had used in Prime Monster's Questions – to Daddy Richard's approval – "Mr Frown has no PRINCIPLES; Mr Balloon has no POLICIES!"

And he wants to keep reiterating this idea that if Mr Frown is a man who had principles once, then they seem to have gone AWOL; while Mr Balloon, most extraordinarily, seems to think that he can go on the ATTACK on an area where he has no policy AT ALL!

This brought on Mr Laurence's moment of madness admission that he quite likes Mr Balloon; it's the rest of the Conservatories that HE can't stand.

Mr Clogg admitted he did not share Mr Laurence's feelings.

"You mean you don't like him?"

"I don't think 'like' comes into it. Do I believe that he's the kind of politician who can deliver the change that I believe passionately that this country is crying out for? No I don't."

Citizen Alix has extensively quoted Mr Clogg's FORENSIC dissection of Mr Balloon's character.

But I don't see why I shouldn't do it again!

On foreign policy he's in the wrong decade – the Nineteen FIFTIES, to be precise; on Civil Liberties he's Janus-faced – talking of opposing I.D.iot cards but also wanting to bin the Human Rights Act; on the Environment he's insincere; on Social Justice he's downright hypocritical; "…at the end of the day, I'm not impressed."

Where Mr Clogg DID agree with Mr Laurence was that if Mr Balloon is FLAWED parts of his party are still LOOP-THE-LOOP, something he feels will come out in the wash… when things go bad (as they did LAST summer) or worse when they go really well.

In fact the wins in the local may be too much too soon, as they may convince a party that is currently so "hungry for power" as to docilely support the Balloonster, that it doesn't REALLY need to change.

One thing that Mr Clogg WOULD admit to Mr Balloon having was the "presentation". This gave Ms Jo her opening to ask about "narrative".

"Our narrative," said Mr Clogg, "is to make the country more Liberal." He did later admit that he was tailoring his answer to us as a group OF Liberals, and that obviously it's important to develop the right VOCABULARY. But to us, Mr Clogg's manifesto was quite CLEAR:

"It's a LOT to do with power: power is over-concentrated; it is unaccountable; it is abused; it is secretive; it is hoarded; it is centralised – and not just in politics but in the private sector too. The redistribution, the dispersal, the accountability of power, the empowerment of people and families and communities is ABSOLUTELY CRUCIAL to making Britain more Liberal than it is at the moment.

"And I also think that a Liberal Britain is not possible without the empowerment that comes from social mobility… it is a GROTESQUELY ILLIBERAL thing if children's life chances are determined by the circumstances of their birth."

What Ms Jo wanted to know was: does "Liberalism" as an idea have the purchase to get people to buy into a story?

As a word – to people outside of our little Liberal interview bubble – it doesn't, so what is important is to be about DEFINING CHANGE, and on our own terms. The next general election WILL be about change in a way that one hasn't been since Lord Blairimort arrived and the Conservatories DEPARTED in 1997. Because of the economy, mainly, and the feeling that the tax burden has risen without delivering the promised results, and the passage of time, the profound sense of a Government increasingly governing without purpose or direction.

Our greatest challenge as a Party, says Mr Clogg, is to set a LEAD in defining what change is necessary and why only we can deliver it.

Mr Balloon is capturing the market for the LANGUAGE of change without any of the SUBSTANCE of it. We now have crucial months ahead in which to expose the hollowness of his position and advocate our agenda as being authentic in answering people's needs.

This was where Ms Helen drew out her SPECIAL GLASSES. At first Mr Clogg thought that they were 3-D spectacles, but then he realised that the red on the left and blue on the right meant that they were MEDIA GOGGLES. As Ms Helen put it: they give you a distorted view of the world and the newspapers give a free pair away every day.

Just see how the coverage of the London Mayoral contest descended into Mr Ken versus Mr Boris, for example.

We HAVE our message, we KNOW what we stand for, but how do we get that past the media, into the media?

"Well your question asks two TOTALLY different things," says Mr Clogg, "'Past' the media or 'into' the media. And 'past' the media is a more interesting question."

He went on to explain: we CAN devote a great deal of time and human resources in getting an extra centimetre or two of coverage from a paper like the Daily Hate Mail, but we need to be unsentimental and hard-headed about the fact that, when the national media are as blinkered as Ms Helen suggested, it's almost certainly a waste of effort.

Instead, Mr Clogg has redirected the press team to devote much more time to LOCAL media, why he spends a lot of his time going around the country, holding town-hall meetings, very specifically targeting local media "footprints".

And with all modesty he suggests that if you look at the results – particularly outside the orbit of the London Evil Standard M25 – then you can see that we must be doing SOMETHING right.

Basically, Mr Clogg has the same idea as the Liberals did in the late Sixties and early Seventies: 'people aren't printing our stuff; we have to tell them direct.' But, after four decades of community politics, the Party is BIG and IMPORTANT enough at a local level (4,700 councillors rather than about 300) that at least the local papers take us more seriously. So Mr Clogg's got a 'They may not have listened at the time I was born, but maybe let's give them another try' strategy.

So we must continue to use local media, NEW media (ooh, ooh, that's BLOGGERS!) and old-fashioned campaigning (FOCUS!) to bypass the outdated national papers.

Yes, outdated: Mr Clogg told us of a RANT that he had at the editorial team of a national paper. Holding up their copy, he said: "the way you cover politics is literally incomprehensible to my constituents."

In Sheffield, you see, there IS a "ding-dong two-party battle" going on; it's between the Labour and the LIBERAL DEMOCRATS.

What the papers have FAILED to pick up on is the way that politics is becoming MORE local, not less, how what happens in one city doesn't reflect what happens in another, or in a rural area or in the suburbs. The assumption that globalisation would make everything the SAME is QUITE WRONG; in fact it's made people demand MORE of their local politician.

It means the political map is more fragmented than ever and makes a nonsense of the "national swing" graphics that the BBC show on election night: Jeremy Vine might as well scribble things on his tummy for all the meaning it has.

"Don't say that!" cries Daddy Richard, "or he'll do it next time!"

But it all means that the days of the nation reading the same news from the same papers are numbered. Mr Clogg sees a future where we are all taking a more "magpie" approach to our news, reading a couple of websites, downloading news clipping to out Blackberries and Apples; the might of the Murdoch media is waning and they know it, which is why they are investing "squillions" in new media themselves.

But there's no point in complaining. The national media will only talk more about us the more we grow bigger and the more we matter.

Sheffield is the fifth largest city in the country. And it's controlled by Liberal Democrats. We now control Sheffield and Liverpool and Burnley and Newcastle and Hull and the list goes on. If these were cities in the South East the media would absolutely be talking about us. They don't because they don’t live there.

But it's only a mater of time.

Moving on to Mr Paul's question about trying to wangle PR out of Mr Frown, Mr Clogs answer was a simple and direct "no".

"I am not going to start try to persuade the Labour Party, because they are weak, to deliver something they should have delivered ten years ago. There's very little merit in playing footsie with either of the other parties on any level."

He also thinks that Mr Frown is now SO weak that anything that if the Labour TRIED to do anything about voting reform, it would look like an act of desperation and actually DAMAGE the cause of a fairer voting system.

Mr Gavin's question about repealing just ONE piece of legislation proved more of a poser… because there are so MANY to choose from! As I mentioned above, Mr Clogg settled on the I.D.iot cards

"…because of the TOTEMIC value: it says a LOT about the balance between the state and the individual."

Next up was Ms Linda's question based on a conference that apparently both she and Mr Clogg had been at just the week before. What Mr Clogg had missed, said Ms Linda, was Ms Lisa Harker, co-director of the IPPR, taking us to task about the redistribution of wealth.

Well, as someone very much part of the New Labour Project, she WOULD say that wouldn't she, said Mr Clogg. But precisely one of the CRISES for the Labour is that while there HAS been a certain amount of redistribution, particularly to tackle child poverty and pensioner poverty, it HASN'T had the galvanising effect on social mobility and equality.

(We should't actually be SURPRISED about that. This is a Government that likes to keep doing FOR people the things it thinks they deserve, rather than making it easier for people to decide to do the things that they need for themselves.)

We Liberal Democrats have a very strong story to tell on redistribution, not just our tax policy, outlined previously, but also an emerging education policy, to be fleshed out as we approach the General Election, that will redistribute resources to the most needy children. At the moment, if you are not a working family you don't get the support for structured education. That needs to be paid for, and it can be done by removing ABOVE-average earning families from the tax credit system.

But greater redistribution on its own won't lead to the "sunny uplands of a Scandinavian Utopia".

It's much more COMPLICATED: to do with how "social capital" is distributed, to do with family patterns, employment patterns, urban design, to do with housing – the Scandinavian handling of housing stock is UNRECOGNISABLE to us here, and we, as a country, have a mountain to climb to sort out our housing needs.

Brilliant! To be more equal, we need to build mountains so we'll be more like Scandinavia! I have got that right, haven't I?

But as Liberal Democrats, continues Mr Clogg, we shouldn't beat ourselves up for not doing EVEN more: we have policies to make the tax system fairer, to improve opportunity through education, to begin to tackle the housing crisis. We're actually PRETTY GOOD.

Mr Clogg, though, also wanted to address something that he thought was underlying Ms Linda's question: the idea, prevalent in the Labour, that it's somehow "okay" to go after those on middle incomes to give more to tackle poverty. If you want to redistribute effectively, to create greater social mobility and greater social justice, says Mr Clogg, you've got to carry the Middle Classes along with you. You've got to get them to BUY IN to the system in which they think they have a stake and where they can see a collective benefit; you can't just summarily say Middle Classes: "Bog off" or the whole system collapses. There is already, in London, massive middle-class flight at the transition into secondary education, and massive flight into private health care. If that were to be the future for the country as a whole, we'd be in real trouble as it FRACTURES the social fabric of the country.

And speaking of "social fractures", Mr Laurence wasn't keen on Mr Clogg's implication that he'd defy the law if I.D.iot cards were made compulsory.

Mr Clogg was clear that he felt that if the Government's I.D.iot card scheme was to work, and objective observers agree, they would have to COMPEL us to give up personal and private information, and that that would be a step TOO FAR.

But we already give up information, to the tax man, for example, said Mr Laurence.

Well, we agree to give up SOME information, but it is proportional and it is for a purpose.

But why break the law? Isn't THAT step too far?

Mr Clogg said that it's not as neat a moral universe as that.

We have got to be STEADFAST and if necessary DIRECT in the actions that we take to get the right balance between the powers of the state and the privacy and the rights of the individual. And that's in the PROUD traditions of our Party.

It would unalterably change the relationship between the State and the individual to give the State the power to extract information from the private citizen when there is no need to do it. THAT is the difference from giving up information to the Criminal Justice system or the Tax Office.

Now Mr Laurence isn't the only person to have said to Mr Clogg that he shouldn't be saying this, but he felt that for him this would be an encroachment on his freedom as an individual that he would find it impossible to abide by. And he doesn't feel he is alone in that.

(He's RIGHT – me and my Daddies are with you, Mr Clogg!)

In fact, he suspects that this is why the Government are now resorting to SALAMI TACTICS to try and get the I.D.iot cards through by STEALTH.

With the clock almost beating us, Mr Clogg said he could answer us one more question and Ms Jo dived in to ask how can WE be so RUBBISH at PR elections?

Well, he said, first he's setting up a review internally to look precisely at this question, but – and he acknowledged that that was a "politician's answer" when he didn't have an answer himself – but second he asked a question of his own back: noting that the elections that ARE done by PR, notably the London Assembly and the European Elections are ones with which the public is not familiar, so he asked: should the question be is it difficult to contest elections, particularly as the third party, when you're contesting elections for bodies that people don't know about or, frankly, don’t care about?

He campaigned a lot in London and the vast majority of people who he met had no idea that there even WAS an assembly; when he was first elected in 1999 to the European Parliament he was driving home and he had to stop when he was struck by a thought: he'd been elected by just, what was it, 4% of his new constituents; it was very depressing – what sort of mandate was that?

His hunch is that if you have a fair votes system for a body that people care about passionately THEN it will be possible for us to get stuck in there.

And with that – and a hurried apology to Mr Danny for not having read the interview we did with him – he had to be WHISKED AWAY and no time even for our usual group photo, just leaving me to try to hand out the remaining STICKY BUNS!

But finally finally, before he could get away, I pinned him down and got him to promise that next time we will definitely be in SHEFFIELD, so that more people who are not Londoners will find it easier to come along and have a go. Watch out for more news in Lib Dem Voice when we have arranged a date!

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