by Stephen Tall on September 19, 2010
Nick Clegg has just taken to the podium to take questions from the floor…
2.52 pm… First up is Linda Jack, who asks, “Can I still trust you with my party?”
Yes of course you can, says Nick. We’ve restored the pensions link, taken 900,000 people out of income tax, imposed a bank levy, addressed capital gains, etc. “There’s nothing fair or socially just about asking our chldren or grandchildren to pay off our debts.”
2.55 pm… Linda comes back: I don’t see enough to deal with young people or poverty or inequality in the Coalition agreement. You can share power with others, and still retain your core values.
Nick comes back — we’re doing much to deal with these issues, for example the ‘pupil premium’, putting more money into schools with disadvantaged pupils. Would not have happened without Lib Dems in government.
2.58 pm… Two questions: (1) why are Lib Dems going to use CPI not RPI to uprate pensions? (Nick: this was a controversial decision, but decided to exclude housing costs as the basket of prices looked at.) (2) why is more money not being invested in further education? (Nick: more money is going in. Also makes important point about artificial, snobbish distinction between vocational and academic education.)
3.03 pm… Qassim Afzal asks about the situation in Pakistan, and how Britain can do more to ease the situation.
Nick refers to his visit there a fortnight ago — says the scale is impossible to imagine. A land area the size of the entire UK covered by water, 20 million people affected: the equivalent of one-third of our population. Nick announces more aid on top of £60m already provided: to fund education for young people displaced; to help farmers whose crops have been destroyed; and further help for the emergency effort in the south. “This is a catastrophe the scale of which we’ve barely ever encountered before.”
3.07 pm… Christine Brett: when is the detention of children for immigration purposes going to end?
Nick says he’s seen some hugely misleading reports, so he re-states the Lib Dem position: it’s going to end, it’s going to be finished.
3.14 pm… Question on the Pope and the issues of paedophilia surrounding the Catholic church.
Nick: “we are above else a liberal and tolderant nation.” But says the government has an absolute duty to welcome the leader of a major Christian group.
3.15 pm… Jill Hope: why are the Lib Dems being blamed for cuts, while the Tories are being praised for policies we brought to the Coalition?
Nick says we are five months into a five-year Parliament: it’s simply too early to judge. Labour has behaved with spectacularly bad grace since losing the election. The government is a compromise between Lib Dem and Conservative policies — it’s a balance and this will become evident over the full term.
Supplementary: asks Lib Dem ministers to say when they don’t like policies they’re having to implement.
Nick re-iterates his point: if you’re going to do Coalition you have to do it properly. Nick says it would be crazy and wrong for him to pick a synthetic row with David Cameron simply to show he’s still a Lib Dem. It would make us feel good for 5 minutes, he says, but would poison the atmosphere. It would not show Coalition politics in a good light, not demonstrate how pluralism can work. Loudest, sustained applause yet.
3.21 pm… Richard Flowers: can Nick be persuaded to agree with Vince Cable that the immigration cap is proving bad for business?
Nick says he always agrees with Vince, full stop. (Vince, unfortunately, is not in the hall to hear this endorsement.) Says Vince is quite right as business secretary to speak out, and if the policy is proven not be working, it will need to be looked at.
3.23 pm… Brian Paddick: says Nick was clear in the election he would work with the party which won most votes and most seats, so how on earth could anyone accuse Nick of betrayal?
Nick thanks Brian for the question, and says he doesn’t think the accusations of betrayal are coming from the party — but from a Labour party which believes only in pluralism when it’s in the driving seat. His answer, he says, is very clear: if people want pure Lib Dem policies, they need to vote for it and secure a Lib Dem majority.
3.25 pm… What plans are there to retain integrity and independence of Lib Dem policy?
Nick says he’s “supremely relaxed” about it because it’s so self-evident the Lib Dems are an independent party, “and always will be”. There will be no attempt to gag Lib Dem debate, and that’s why we’ll produce the most exciting party manifesto in 2015.
3.28 pm… What are we doing as a party to ensure our media team is getting our message out into the news? And how can we help to hold Nick’s feet to the fire?
Nick says we need to repudiate Labour’s ‘betrayal’ myth, the idea that the Coalition is “a kind of Herod slaughtering the first-born”. The Coalition is having to do much of what Labour would have had to have done if they’d been elected; nor is the party (or government) doing this out of ideologocial zeal. There is nothing progressive about debt, says Nick: we need to free our children from this millstone.
3.33 pm… Did The Independent mis-represent his statement that the Lib Dems had no future on the left?
Nick repeats his point: the party is the inheritor of liberal ideology, it’s not a left-wing ghetto. On benefits, Nick unapologetically states that he believes in work — he doesn’t believe in just nudging people over the poverty line as defined by government. That’s not just radical enough, says Nick, the Lib Dems are far, far bigger than that.
3.37 pm… Will the Lib Dems stand candidates in every constituency in 2015?
Yes, says Nick.
The session closes with 100 unasked questions (literally), and Nick leaves the hall to a standing ovation.
(Apologies for any mistranscriptions above, and to those questioners whose names I failed to grab.)