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.

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57 comments

CCF, you don’t leave much room for reconciliation and redemption if you assume the other participant in your conversation has acted out of deliberate bad faith. That comes very close to jumping to a conclusion.

If you automatically rule out any responsibility for creating or controlling the situation in which you percieve (rightly or wrongly) your opponents mistakes, then you refuse to consider any possibility of mistakes on your own behalf.

But we can all make mistakes even when we act in good faith. The road to hell is paved etc…

So when building a critique of Clegg’s speech it is necessary to define the disputable terms (middle class, aren’t we all middle class now?) before raising questions arising from your judgement of any unfair disproportionality.

I agree that your interpretation of this tax proposal is possible, but it is clear some clarification is necessary before we can say so with certainty.

At this point it would be helpful to resort to some sums to work through different examples of what different people understand. We may then finally reach agreement on how best this new approach would best balance the concerns we wish to address, then we can argue over whether we think this is what Clegg actually meant.

by Oranjepan on September 18, 2008 at 2:52 pm. Reply #

“CCF, you don’t leave much room for reconciliation and redemption if you assume the other participant in your conversation has acted out of deliberate bad faith. That comes very close to jumping to a conclusion.”

I’m not _assuming_ anything. Alix has repeatedly misrepresented what I and others have said. That must be beyond dispute among people who can read and understand English.

I don’t know why she keeps doing that. I would like to think it is not deliberate but at the moment I cannot understand how that could be. I have asked her a couple of times why she keep doing it. If she responds things may become clearer.

As for my “critique” of Clegg’s speech and “unfair disproportionality”, I think you are reading more into my posts than is there.

Obviously I don’t agree with what is being proposed, but I recognise that people have different political opinions and that there is no “right” answer (no pun intended). If the majority of the party wishes to support this scheme, that is the right of the majority.

But what I strongly object to is the dishonesty of selling these tax cuts primarily as a means of helping the poor. If the proposal is to combine a reduction in the basic rate of income tax with an increase in personal allowances, as Cable has indicated is likely, then the majority of the money would inevitable go to the middle class, not the poor. That is a matter of simple arithmetic.

[Memo to Alix, before she does it again. That last bit doesn’t mean that none of the money will go to the poor!]

by Clegg's Candid Friend on September 18, 2008 at 3:18 pm. Reply #

Well CCF, considering that the ‘middle class’ is a much bigger sector of society in terms of population I think it is inaccurate to argue against any sums which put a greater proportion of the money collected from reallocations in the tax burden as unfair.

Of course the bulk of any savings will go in that direction, but that still doesn’t mean the poorest in society won’t see a greater relative benefit to their finances. Nor does it mean that anyone has misrepresented your claims – perhaps you are misrepresenting yourself in that you may think we should be doing more to help those in greater need without actually disagreeing that the claims made by Clegg are still a good thing.

Like you say, it is simple arithmatic. In which case these proposals ARE a good thing, but they are only a start and we could still do more.

Under ‘more’ we are proposing additional help to the poor by equalising access to social justice across all classes by tightening up the tax loopholes available to those with the means to exploit them. Such loopholes are a greater barrier to social mobility than any lack of positive discrimination it is possible to effect through changes in the tax system.

by Oranjepan on September 18, 2008 at 4:35 pm. Reply #

“Nor does it mean that anyone has misrepresented your claims …”

Do you never read any of the stuff you hold forth on?

Alix has claimed (repeatedly) that I and others are saying that the poor will get no benefit from the tax cuts.

That is the misrepresentation.

And as for “inaccurate enough to argue against” and so on and so forth, kindly just read the fifth and sixth paragraphs of my post again.

by Clegg's Candid Friend on September 18, 2008 at 4:52 pm. Reply #

I would like to ask again, why are the Liberal Democrats in favour of taxing ordinary people so that Gerald Grosvenor and Charles Windsor can be paid by the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy around £300,000 and £500,000 respectively – every single year – for the privilege of owning land that they have inherited free of tax?

If the Liberal Democrats are truly keen to redistribute income, they could always help us to leave the EU and the CAP.

At least they talk of redistributing income. I don’t seem to hear much about redistributing wealth, though, except when wealth gets muddled up with income.

Why do Liberal Democrats never talk of the need to redistribute the inheritance of wealth and the receipt of capital gifts in each new generation?

How come Liberal Democrats still go on as if vast differences of inheritance – from zero to billions – make no difference to social mobility and equality of opportunity?

Presumably it must have something to do with the make up of the party, with people not wishing to see the obvious for some reason.

Dane Clouston

by Dane Clouston on September 18, 2008 at 5:02 pm. Reply #

Dane, if you wish to exclude others you can hardly be surprised when you find yourself excluded.

by Oranjepan on September 18, 2008 at 5:09 pm. Reply #

CCF, yes I do read the comments, and I find the disagreement unsatisfactory.

All disagreement stems from confusion and all confusion stems from ignorance.

The ignorance stems in this discussion not from any lack of understanding, but from the implicit understanding of the comments on wither side. If we had each been more explicit in describing our specific criticisms in the first place then I think we would see that we are all arguing at crossed purposes.

I find it easy to sympathise with the views on each side because they each address different parts of the policies proposed by the party, whereas I think if we looked at the totality of what is being proposed in the round then we find we offer a balanced approach which satisfies all.

Which is why I return to the dual approach of these ‘tax-cuts’ together with better enforcement of the regulations to prevent distortions prejudiced most against the least wealthy.

Reducing what was previously described as tax evasion and fraud (though these are now largely grey areas with the volume of new and conflicting regulations which can be applied) is the major means by which the Treasury can boost its income without raising taxes.

So, simply put, it is possible to balance the books and make society fairer by cutting taxes without necessarily also having to cut spending.

It is possible to make all of the people happy all of the time, but only if you can corerctly answer all of the correct questions.

by Oranjepan on September 18, 2008 at 5:27 pm. Reply #

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