...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Day 2641: Millennium Elephant meets Ron the Dinosaur (oh, and Mr Danny Alexander and some other people)


This week we WERE going to be interviewing Mr Clogg to find out if he still wanted to be Liberal Leader after 100 days in the job.

Unfortunately, when we got to the Leader's Office in Mrs the Queen's Palace of Westminster (yes, I FINALLY got my fluffy feet behind the Leader's Desk… it felt very natural, actually) we got there only to discover that Mr Clogg had been KIDNAPPED by LIBERAL YOOF, the new paramilitary wing of the Girl Guides.

Fortunately, Mr Clogg had left Mr Danny Alexander in charge and we were delighted to talk to him!

Soft Toys Storm Leader's Office!
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Joining me today, along with Daddy Richard and Daddy Alex, were two NEW people: Ms Jo Crispy-Strips, a winner of the Gender Balancing Act Awards Bloggers of the Year; and Ms Helen Duffitt and Ron, her dinosaur. Neither Ms Helen nor Ron HAVE a blog yet (UPDATE: oh yes she does!), but we are all keen to encourage more people to start and so Ms Helen will be writing our interview up for Lib Dem Voice!

(And speaking of encouragement – don't forget that these Interviews are open to EVERYONE: you don't need a special invitation, just look out for the announcements on the Voice! More news soon!)

Mr Danny has FIVE important jobs: as well as being MP for the Scottish constituency of Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey (only Mr John Deadwood has a more REMOTE constituency, and that is because HE is from VULCAN ROMULUS which is in OUTER SPACE!), Mr Danny is also the Liberal Democrats' Work and Pensions spokesperson, and new Vice-Chair of the FPC, and Mr Clogg's Chief-of-Staff AND he is now in charge of writing our next General Election Manifesto.

So, (once Daddy Alex had handed round the Easter Eggs) I started off by asking him how long he thought he'd got to write it!

It's really not clear, he said, and the Labour aren't helping any. Only recently there has been briefing in the newspapers suggesting that Mr Frown might still be thinking of going to the country next year, say May 2009. But really, judging from the deepening of the economic crisis, the scale of which is only just becoming clear, AND the deepening of the GLOOM that has settled over the mood of most of the Labour's MPs, we may well be in for "the long haul" to 2010.

But that's not to say that Mr Danny is going to let himself TAKE all that time, he's keen to press on, and even though it's at an early stage has already outlined his plans for the manifesto process.

There was, of course, a lot of work done last September for the "election that never was" and, even if it was done in a hurry, it's a good solid foundation for the manifesto. Then there are the themes that Mr Clogg has been developing over the course of his first 100 days: in particular, the ideas that politics is "broken" and that Liberal Democrats are the "anti-establishment" Party.

I was keen for us to play up the COSY CONSENSUS between the Blue Labour and the Conservatories, for example in the way the Budget was handled with both sides sticking to the line of "sorry, nothing WE can do, guv."

Not just "nothing can be done," said Mr Danny, but also "not our fault". They were QUICK to take the credit for success when the World Economy was FAVOURABLE, but now they can't blame everyone else fast enough.

But how well does that anti-establishment label play, Daddy Alex wanted to know, when we have Mr Harvey Nicks popping up on behalf of Mr Speaker as the "voice of the establishment" not telling anyone what Mr Balloon's expenses are?

Mr Danny smoothly avoided that, talking instead about how the evidence was showing that Mr Clogg was taking some quite difficult positions, like his conference speech, like the walking out of Parliament – and there's been a certain amount of criticism; Mr Danny's even read some on some BLOGS! (no, never!) – but that people are accepting that, embracing it even.

And if that sort of thing is what it takes, then we can expect to see more of it.

Returning to the manifesto, Ms Jo wanted to know what we are doing about developing a NARRATIVE.

Mr Danny explained his slight reluctance to answer: basically, the AIM of the manifesto process that he's just starting is to end up with the "NARRATIVE" in our Pre-Manifesto that will go to Federal Conference in the Autumn. The intention is for that document to be much more about "narrative" than ever before, rather than our "traditional" big barrel of policies. So, clearly, he doesn't want to go treading on fluffy toes and pre-announcing anything that hasn't been thought about QUITE CAREFULLY yet.

That said, it will obviously be development of the themes that Nick has been setting out as already mentioned.

Mr Balloon fond of referring to a "broken society" (with precious little by way of how to heal it) but for Mr Danny the breakdown comes from a SYSTEM that is incapable of listening to or responding to the needs of people.

So much is driven instead by the needs of VESTED INTERESTS, in politics, yes, but also, for example, in the City as evidenced by the recent banking crisis.

Mr Danny's Liberalism is about challenging concentrations of power (I could have cheered!): from MPs' allowances to how parties are funded to opening up quangos to scrutinizing the goings-on in the City

Ms Jo pressed him for an answer: what I'm looking for, she asked, is the feel of the thing, what's the pot of gold? Mmm, yes, says Mr Danny, handing round the Easter Egg.

Daddy Alex asked a long question for a short answer, not – he insists – because he waffles on… which he doesn't… ever… stop looking at me funny, Daddy!… but in fact because he wanted to DIFFERENTIATE what he was asking from Mr Jo's question. In summary, though, Ms Jo asked about the story; Daddy asked about the headline: in a sentence why are we different?

Mr Danny able summarised the preceding discussion of narrative, précising it down to: "People's lives are controlled by vested interests; Liberal Democrats exist to put power back into people's hands."

Daddy thought that this was a good answer (and, for the record, did NOT name anyone who might have given him a BAD answer to the same question. And, also for the record, nobody guffawed).

However Daddy wasn't going to let anyone get away with as short an answer as that, no matter HOW satisfactory! So he broadened the question out by asking about Scotland and Wales where the Nationalists have many policy positions that are similar to ours, (and, annoyingly, are more popular so people vote for them over us): how do we spell out that we are different there?

Mr Danny reminded Daddy of something which Daddy had praised him for when he first said it: Nationalists are about building barriers; Liberals are about tearing them down.

But then he grew thoughtful. Speaking as a Highlander and MP for one of the most Northerly constituencies in the UK, even power in the Scottish Holyrood Parliament is remote for his constituents.

For him it is clear that the SNP with their "one Scotland" policy are NOT interested in letting Mr Danny's constituents make the decisions about their own lives. They are just like the Labour and Conservatories: a CENTRALIZING force.

Ms Jo wanted to know how we are going to use the manifesto to market ourselves to lady voters. She said that she's been watching the American elections with interest, particularly the developing role of women in the nonimation process. BUT the Conservatories have clearly been watching TOO, and Mr Balloon did an impressive turn on Women's Hour recently. Ms Jo was concerned that we are up to eighteen months behind in our thinking on these issues.

In a similar vein, Daddy Alex would ask about minorities, saying how in the last couple of elections we've done disproportionately better amongst gay voters and ethnic minorities, largely due to our support for KEY ISSUES, namely EQUALITY legislation (that the Labour has – often with gritted teeth – now largely passed, or been forced to pass by the European Courts) and, of course, Iraq (which, even with the fifth anniversary, is clearly becoming less of a "hot button" issue). How, in that case, do we maintain our position with these important groups?

Addressing Ms Jo, Mr Danny said that our first concern ought to be getting our own gender balance right, and we know that Mr Clogg has made plans for a special effort to deal with this.

In policy terms he felt that women are, in practice, just as concerned as men about the "bread-and-butter" issues: rising cost of food, of fuel, education, health care.

But then he also said that perhaps there was room to sharpen our focus on "family friendly" policies, perhaps looking at how to improve the workplace and people's experience of work, and taking account of the lack of affordable childcare as the biggest barrier to women returning to work.

Ms Helen was prompted to interject about pregnancy care, and wondered if there was a chance that we might look at the reintroduction of funding for anti-natal classes. Mr Balloon, she said, has gained a lot of good coverage with his talk of having (unfunded) care-workers visit every mother AFTER their new child is born, but almost more important is proper preparation for birth and it is now very difficult in many areas to get access to classes.

In honesty, said Mr Danny, he didn't know. It was a matter for consideration by the Health team in their development of policy. He DID use it as an excuse to segue seamlessly into discussion of the importance of early years support, and how at the moment – as Mr Clogg says – a bright but poor kid is overtaken at school by a dumber but richer one by the age of six.

His reply to Daddy was less CERTAIN. We have strong representative groups within the party, he said, and we will be talking to them and getting their input into the early stages of the manifesto process, but beyond that it's too early to say.

He spoke again of talking to the groups within the party when Daddy probed about PRACTICAL methods to open up the manifesto progress. He suggested making more use of wibbly wobbly web to engage with people and gather ideas, like the Party website that had received a very positive response in the run up to the Autumn non-election, but which has fallen a little FALLOW over the course of the leadership election.

He was also keen to gather opinions from OUTSIDE the Party, which is a GOOD idea really otherwise we'll not be serving up the policies that people want.

Obviously it IS early in the process – certainly since Mr Danny came on board – so I hope that he sees this as a TWO-WAY conversation and takes into account Daddy's and Ms Jo's concerns.

Moving on from manifesto business, I asked question suggested by Mr Lord Deputy Stephen: how does he see the role of "Chief of Staff"; is it like being Leo McGarry from the West Wing?

Mr Danny laughed, and stated flatly that the Liberal Democrats have a staff that he thinks are BETTER than the ones in the West Wing (no, we didn't ask them to prove they could do a walk-and-talk around Mrs the Queen's Palace of Westminster).

The essence of the role as he sees it is in making sure that the leader's office is doing the "right sort of things". It's too easy to get blown off course by the day-to-day tussle of politics, he thought, and he's got to see that we keep on course for the long-term goals. Basically, he has to make sure that Nick's decisions actually happen; on top of that, he's got to administrate and offer advice.

e.g. today he'd been coordinating with some party members who are also influential City economists to make sure that the Party's policy for dealing with the unfolding economic crisis remains, forgive me, on the money.

Actually that DOES all sound like Leo McGarry!

Ms Helen asked if Liberal Democrats could pick up the votes from the "Stay-at-home Party".

She'd earlier asked how serious the Labour are about voting reforms, but (again) Mr Danny found it impossible to say what they were thinking. At the moment there's not more to go on than a few kites being flown by some VERY junior minister. We need to wait as see what – if anything – Mr Jack Man O'Straw comes up with by way of real proposals.

It may be that they are actually watching US, for some clue as to what their best strategy is for a possible future where they cannot get a majority under First Pass the Port. It would hardly be the first time that we've done all the work preparing policy only for the government to go and nick it!

But on reaching out to the "stay-at-home" voter, you'll not be surprised to hear that Mr Danny said that he agreed with Mr Clogg that there IS a Liberal majority in our country… they just don't come out to vote for the Liberal Democrats.

On the other fluffy foot, he reminded us of the statistic that in 1952, only 2% of people voted for a Party that WASN'T the Labour or the Conservatories; by 2005 that was 32% voting for a better answer. Or sometimes a worse one. But mostly better.

The idea of ENGAGEMENT is clearly very BIG in the Leader's office, and Mr Danny was passionate in his support and admiration for Mr Clogg's "Town Hall" meetings, how he is being incredible in reaching out and making himself available to people, not just in the Party but in the wider community to make the reconnect to politics.

Touching on his OTHER other job, Ms Helen (showing she'd done her homework) also asked about PENSIONS. With the launch of Liberal Yoof, weren't young people more concerned with getting a foot on the property ladder or just paying the rent than starting a pension?

The government, said Mr Danny, has managed to grasp ONE of our key ideas: automatic enrolment. INERTIA is very powerful, he said, and by making it that people have to CHOOSE to opt OUT rather than choose to opt IN we put that power on the side of making sure that more people do start a pension, rather than being a force holding them back from getting on with it.

BUT the Labour have MISSED the other key idea: people who save need to feel the actual benefit of their saving. All of Mr Frown's obsession with means-testing benefits means that if you HAVE saved up, those savings mean you lose some of the benefits – it's a real disincentive. Hence our policy of a citizen's pension for EVERYONE and at a higher level so that ALL the money that you save goes to you rather than to cutting Mr Frown's Pension Tax Credit bill.

And the other other key point missed by the government is that there is a generally low level of financial literacy…

"The Chancellor has a low level of financial literacy," mutters Ms Helen. "You many very well say that…" says Danny "…and it's quite good so you might hear me say it too!"

Speaking more speculatively, Mr Danny thought about developing a national network, starting from the sort of work already done by Citizens' Advice Bureaus, for helping people make the BEST financial decisions for them. Finance can seem very complicated – mainly because it IS very complicated – and you get BOMBARDED by "advice" in the form of ADVERTS… like the ones trying to convince you to consolidate all of your debts with one loan shark. Having a genuinely independent source of advice would be a GOOD way to help people cut through all the muddle and confusion and put their finances on a less wobbly footing.

My last question was – and I did admit it at the time – the really OBVIOUS one: what's gone well for Mr Clogg in his first hundred days… and what (not including that Europe thing) has gone badly?

By now, I do not think it will come as a shock that Mr Danny concentrated on answering the first part of my question. The Liberal Democrats have, as a Party, really united behind Mr Clogg, for example in the way there has been strong, enthusiastic support for his conference speech, even the more "challenging" parts of it.

Mr Danny says he's been really inspired by the way people have grasped Mr Clogg's setting out a goal of more than doubling our number of seats in Parliament to 150 seats – people are really starting to think what a DIFFERENCE having a Liberal presence like that would make (and, thinks I, isn't it amazing that it's CREDIBLE: no one is ridiculing this idea, which tells you a lot about how ACHIEVABLE it is… namely that it really, really IS achievable!)

I DID press him on "the Europe thing", saying that (even if it WAS the best choice from a bad lot) a whipped abstention still looked, er, a little bit silly. The thing is, it's important to know that this wasn't some whim imposed by the Leadership. Whether it was easy or difficult, it was a decision taken by the Parliamentary Party.

And now is a time when we will HAVE to be disciplined and united, in Parliament and as a Party. The two Blue Parties are now looking at us with FEAR! Yes it's true – you can tell from the increased VITRIOL of their attacks on us and on Mr Clogg in particular. And you can tell from the "lovebombing" of Liberal voters that both Mr Frown and Mr Balloon are engaged in. They realise that the cosy consensus of their tired old status quo is being challenged by a revitalised Liberal message from a revitalised Liberal Democrats.

The biggest positive from the first hundred days, thinks Mr Danny, is that we have a sense of direction.

We had a really good interview with Mr Danny, he is a charming and friendly guy who is, and I mean this in a really good way, not yet turned into a total politician – ironically while this means he's still willing to admit to gaps in his knowledge or it being too early to say something, it also means that he sticks like glue to the party line. Still, gee, that IS his job. But he's not a ROBOT: he talked to us about his new daughter; he shared his Easter Eggs with us; he reminisced about watching "Star Trek" with his Dad. (And he mentioned that he somehow STILL finds time to enjoy watching "Torchwood" – I hope he reads all Daddy Richard's reviews!)

Maybe in six months or so we will come back and talk to him more about how that Pre-Manifesto and narrative worked out!

In the meantime, we have managed to raise the RANSOM demanded by Liberal Yoof ("Grand Theft Auto" for the PS3 and a crate of alcopops, since you ask) and bought back Mr Clogg. We've sent him off to campaign for the local elections, but well be interviewing him next time (fluffy feet crossed) on May 7th.

And don't forget: you CAN get involved too!

1 comment:

Helen Duffett said...

Yes, it all had quite a young feel, did it not?

A serious message, festooned with kites, choccy, babies, Liberal Yoof and a flash mob of cuddly toys!

And no, the last two are not the same thing...