by Stephen Tall on September 20, 2009
Nick has rung the changes for this year’s traditional leader’s Q&A in front of the party conference – out goes the usual interview between Nick and a friendly lefty-liberal journo, and in comes the improvised ‘Town Hall’ format of audience questions.
First up, Nick’s asked if the Lib Dems will take part in political programmes if the BNP are invited to take part by the broadcasters. Yes, we will, he says: quite simply it’s too late to ignore the BNP. Look at what happened in Burnley, he notes – once forecast to be the first BNP council, now a prime Lib Dem target because the party took the fascists on. And the Lib Dem he’s asked to step up to the plate for the party, on BBC’s Question Time, at least, is Chris Huhne.
Second question – what will Nick do for the poorest in society, child poverty, and the unemployed? A weaker answer from Nick: plenty of analysis of the problem, the existing inequalities in society, far fewer solutions on offer. He does emphasise the importance of the party’s tax cut pledges, which would take all those earning less than £10k out of income tax, and cut the rate for all standard rate taxpayers. But there’s much less from Nick about targeted support.
Next up, two questions are linked together: why is Nick downgrading the party’s commitment to tuition fees; and why is he prioritising the ‘pupil premium’ instead. The implied dissent from the questioners draws a round of appluase. An unequivocal response from Nick, emphasising his personal commitment to the abolition of tuition fees; but pointing out that the financial times have changed, and he cannot commit the party to £12bn of new public spending over the course of the next Parliament at a time when cuts are absolutely necesary. He then mounts a strong advocacy of the pupil premium as the best way of giving the youngest in society the best chance to succeed. When the questioners come back to make their point more forcefully – that the Lib Dems need the policy to win votes in student cities – Nick says he understands the principle of free edcuation is important, “but so is candour”.
Next up, and it’s Nick’s reference to “savage cuts” which is questioned. Much common sense from Nick here – times have changed, we need to be honest with people. He points out that what we need to look at is why cuts are needed: to enable the Lib Dems to afford our priorities: it’s what he calls, he says, “progressive austerity”. (Not a label that’s going to make it onto many Focus leaflets, I fancy).
Now we’re onto Europe: are we still committed to an in/out referendum? I’m not sure Nick directly answered the question, but he did mount a staunch defence of the European Union, acknowledging its flaws but pointing out that only such international institutions can deal with international issues, from terrorism to climate change.
Another couple of linked questions, essentially asking: how will the Lib Dems deal with the threat from the Tories? Nick’s simple answer: pointing to the Tories’ record, and pointing out that the Tories are not progressives. On David Cameron and George Osborne: “I genuinely don’t know what they believe in, except in their entitlement to run things.” He also uses the question to point out the lesson of the MPs’ expenses scandal: that democracy fails when MPs take their constituents for granted, and that happens when MPs have safe seats. The way to put it right? Electoral reform. And the Tories don’t believe in that, notes Nick.
Next question: Should the Lib Dems consider an electoral deal with the Greens for the sake of the planet? Again a slight dodge/fudge of the question – Nick puts forward the party’s policies and achievements on the environment, calls on all those who care about the planet to vote for the Lib Dems.
Question about the under-representation of women in Parliament. [Sorry, just had a phone call – BBC Radio, dontchaknow – and missed some of Nick’s answer here]. Nick says he finds the House of Commons incredibly old-fashioned and male, uttrely unresponsive to his life as a young father. He points to the successes of those handful of women Lib Dem MPs, but says more should be done to make it easier for women to stand for Parliament.
I missed the next question [still on the phone], but I’m imagining it must have been to do with whether the next election really could present a breakthrough opportunity for the Lib Dems – at least that’s the question Nick’s answering anyway. He casts his mind back to the bright morning of 2nd May 1997, and the – ultimately dashed – hopes so many had for the new New Labour government; and reckons the next election presents the opportunity for Lib Dems to appeal to those progressives who want a party which will stick up for civil liberties, the environment, electoral reform etc.
Final question: what has been the defining moment of Nick’s leadership to date? The most satisfying, says Nick, was the moment the Government capitulated on the Ghurkas – he’s careful to pay tribite to all those involved in the campaign, Lib Dems or not. (Though he notes acidly that “David Cameron jumped on the bandwagon at the last moment”). He describes it as “an uplifing moment”.
And there it ends (with a slight whimper rather than a bang – would have been nice for Nick to end with a rousing passage, but still). The new format worked well, I felt, with none of the controversial issues of the moment – public spending cuts, tuition fees – shunned. Equally, I suspect a journalist would have been able to add more pointed supplementary questions than conference delegates, pressing Nick further on the more difficult issues.