Opinion: a good week for Nick, a good week for the Lib Dems

by Stephen Tall on September 17, 2008

There’s a paradox about party leaders’ conference speeches (akin to Prime Minister’s Questions): they are dissected by supporters, opponents and journalists, while in reality the ‘real people’ in the country might perhaps catch a 10-second clip on the news. But speeches remain fundamentally important – not only for the morale of members, but also as probably the only time in the year when serious journalists (not always an oxymoron) will listen for any length of time to a politician expressing their ideas.

Let’s be clear about one thing straight away: Nick’s speech was excellent. Every Lib Dem who heard it will have their favourite section – mine was Nick’s optimistic take on the human condition:

My basic view of human nature is that people are born with goodness in them. Of course, people can be selfish, cruel or violent, but I believe no-one starts that way. Most people, most of the time, will do the right thing; not just for themselves, but for their family, their neighbours, their community. They need to be trusted to make those choices.

There is a terrible pessimism in the way Gordon Brown thinks we should all be organised from above, our every move controlled by the great puppet master in the sky. And there’s pessimism too from David Cameron when he says that if you’re overweight, vulnerable or poor, you’re on your own. It’s condescending. Talking down to us. Talking us down.

This was true liberal stuff. In some ways, in fact, it resembled a more grown-up David Cameron in his early, ‘liberal Conservative’ days, when Dave pleaded to “let sunshine win the day” (perhaps the single most awful line ever delivered by a party leader). Since then, of course, Mr Cameron has reverted to type, echoing the Daily Mail’s miserabilist right-wing ‘Broken Society’ agenda. Nick today was very deliberately appealing to those who don’t believe modern life is rubbish; but recognise it can and should improve.

This optimism was combined with an explicit statement of the liberal case for

Tax cuts for families who are struggling to help them make ends meet, and keep the wheels of the economy turning. The money must go direct to people on low and middle incomes. The very wealthy, the super-rich – should be paying more not less.

I will never support the Tory idea that you cut taxes for millionaires and the benefits somehow trickle down. That’s not what struggling families need. They need their money back.

I rather suspect Tory commentators realise quite what an appealing pledge that is, which probably explains the over-hyped criticism some have indulged in. Indeed, the strongest sections of Nick’s speech were when he spoke, quite deliberately, beyond the hall and beyond the journalists, directly to voters. This is just one of the reasons the Lib Dems are increasingly being recognised by voters as caring about, and being in touch with, the issues facing ordinary people.

Nick has had a terrific week at Bournemouth, visibly more relaxed and at ease as leader. It’s true he slipped up when asked what the value of the state pension was. And, in fairness, if David Cameron had given the wrong answer Lib Dem Voice would have quickly taken him to task.

I’d have been far more worried, though, if Nick had over-estimated how much it was; in fact he under-estimated the weekly pension. To those pensioners who are concerned Nick doesn’t know their state benefit, the question is very simple: do you want a party leader who knows the answer, but won’t cut your taxes; or a leader who’s unsure, but whose party is committed to tax-cuts for poorer and middle-class pensioners?

It’s a mark of Nick’s general increasing confidence, indeed, that he was perfectly at ease sharing the spotlight with his immediate predecessor as leader, promising:

Action to stop unjust repossessions before tens of thousands of families find themselves on the streets, guided by the one man who had the foresight to see these problems coming – with more wisdom and experience than Labour and Conservatives combined – Vince Cable.

I don’t think it’s reading too much into this to see the beginnings of a distinctly American-style joint ticket leadership to spearhead the Lib Dems’ general election campaign, with the perfect combination of youthful passion (Nick) and decisive experience (Vince). It’s a combination that neither of the other parties can currently come close to matching, and those Labour and Tory supporters who are complacently writing the Lib Dems off this week might reflect on that.

The Lib Dem conference has not dominated the headlines this week – though as Charles Kennedy remarked today, “More column inches would have been made available had things gone terribly badly for Nick Clegg” – but this has been a good start by Nick. The right-wing media will, of course, do their best to rubbish him and the party: the more astute of them can see the threat he and the Lib Dems pose to the chances of the Tories winning a majority.

But for ourselves I believe we can take quiet satisfaction from this year’s conference: we have strong, distinctive, upbeat message – of tax-cuts and social justice – which will be presented by a leadership team of Nick and Vince in a way that attracts current and new voters to the party’s cause. Not bad for five days’ work.