Thursday, December 20, 2007


The Bloggers and Nick: Decision, Diversity, Doughnuts

It’s not every day that you’re both anointed and kicked up the arse, then have to go round looking happy to talk to the world and her wife about it, but it definitely suited Nick Clegg. In his second bloggers’ interview, he was transformed: from candidate to Leader; from wary to incisive; from contemplative to energised. He’d been impressive the first time, but, perhaps aided by a strict time limit between media interviews, or perhaps just galvanised by getting the top job and the shock of so very nearly not getting it, his answers were shorter, sharper and more driven. And not only did he speak more succinctly, but more quickly, as I had to write a lot faster than last time and so may not have caught all of it. But it’s inspired me to write it all up a lot more swiftly, too (but also to get to the finish all in one slow go, unlike the hares)!

There was a slightly smaller bunch of us this time round, at shorter notice than before and slightly more nervous: we were, after all, seeing Nick just hours after he was elected our third Leader in two years or our third in eight, depending on whether you want to be a spin doctor and count from the last day of one Leader and the first day of the next or more honestly compare like with like instead and measure from day one to day one. Come on, come on – remember 1999, when Paddy Ashdown announced he would retire gracefully to hand directly over to the new Leader, without an ‘Acting Leader’ in between? Did we hear hysterical reports of ‘The Liberal Democrats’ second Leader in two minutes!’? And who knows? Our third Leader in forty-two years, if Nick’s a runaway success and stands down at last to tearful crowds thronging the streets at the age of eighty. No, don’t worry; I wish Nick and long and successful reign, but I don’t think he’s planning to pretend to drag himself from the throne in his dotage to wails and sobs. Tony Blair planned that, after all, and look what happened to him.

We arrived rather earlier than Nick did, unsurprisingly; this was a bit of a busy day, with us snatching twenty minutes between a Newsnight hard fight – Clegg over Paxman by three rounds to one, with no submission – and an ITN bout. Equally unsurprisingly, I was the last of the bloggers to reach Cowley Street. Uncannily, I’d been very early for the other interviews, but this time my timing was back to my usual form. In my defence, I’d made a doughnut-related detour…

The Deadly Doughnut

Now, once Nick arrived, there were two bits of business before getting down to the questions. First was the photo-op, with Alex Folkes on hand to snap a few shots of the six-ish of us with Nick and other shots of Nick with the lovely Brian Paddick, who I was delighted to see again. And then there were the doughnuts. Gordon Brown, incidentally, served mince pies at his press conference yesterday morning, and boasted that he paid for them from his own pocket. Well, I’m on about a twentieth of his salary and I bought the doughnuts on Tuesday because Richard was busy (much nicer than mince pies, too), while otherwise Richard gets them every time. Confectionery is for any day people fancy it, not just for Christmas, you grumpy old miser!

Where was I?

Oh yes. Well, Alix has already given a splendid account of Nick And The Doughnut, but to add my take, he asked “Is this a tradition?” – of course it is, but like all traditions it’s one that was invented at some point, and that point was more recent than some – and then first expressed delight at the succulent jamminess of his choice, then after a few bites found it a bit too much. And also started to worry that it was going to ooze all over his shirt and trousers, so apologetically disposed of the end of it. Pictures sailed through my mind of the ITN interviewer eyeing up a sticky Nick and asking, ‘So, Mr Clegg… Despite being the frontrunner, you were widely held to have fought the weaker campaign and just slipped in by a whisker. Aren’t you a jammy sod?’

Before you think this was some sort of devious trap to embarrass our glorious new Leader, you should be aware that most of the doughnuts did not contain jam, and Nick was given first pick (I held my breath in case he went for the most chocolatey one before I could pounce). It was even clear from the outside of the doughnut – to anyone with the merest acquaintance with doughnuts, at least – that this doughnut was going to have jam in it.

It did, though, mean, that throughout the rest of his answers I kept looking not into Nick’s eyes but at the icing sugar generously coating his lower lip. Sadly, being still in Central London when Nick got to his ITN interview (and presuming it was part of the 6.30 programme), I didn’t get to see if the icing sugar was still there for that. Did anyone notice?

How Quickly Do You Need To Act?

Our young elephant Millennium Dome, with a little assistance from Richard, was first in with a question. And has even made a major headline in the Guardian as a result. Sort of. Anyway, “People are talking about what you have to do in your first hundred days,” he lobbed – “Aren’t the next thousand days until the General Election more important?” Well, Nick didn’t fall for it, and was determined that his early momentum will be crucial (as everyone and Vince in particular has advised). While none of the press are on our side, there’s a narrow window of opportunity where he’ll be given both more attention and more of the benefit of the doubt – or at least not constant attack. He even said he was looking forward to Prime Minister’s Questions, as well as that he wants to “get beyond the infantile assumption” that all life is down to half an hour of playground pettiness in the House of Commons each week. He’ll make mistakes, he knew, but he’s in for the long haul, and that means there’ll be ups and downs.

Do You Like and Are You Like David Cameron?

Alix Mortimer asked about the accusations of a possible coalition with the Conservatives, and of Nick being just a “Cameron-lite” (imagine! He’d have to wear lead boots to stay on the ground). Could Nick supply three things to say to shoot those accusations down, she wondered? And before I give Nick’s answer, you really should read Alix’s account of this, because her comparison of Chris Huhne’s elbows to Ava Gardner’s legs made me hoot.

On Mr Cameron and his party, Nick bluntly argued that we shouldn’t take seriously this sudden “progressive consensus” line they’re peddling. It’s just a cynical manoeuvre – they’ve got no idea how to deliver any of it, whether it’s social justice or the environment, and on immigration Mr Cameron is just the same as the Tories have always been, just with nicer verbs. They claim to be internationalist now, but at the same time want to pull up the drawbridge over Europe. They talk about decentralisation, but still try to control all the money from the centre, making decentralisation meaningless. Most of all,
“The Conservative Party is not a progressive party.”
Tip: if they’re still saying it in a month, I’ll be very surprised. The Tories will hate being called “progressive” so much that it’s got to be just a stunt to try and steal a headline from our new Leader, in much the same sort of childish spin that Tony Blair used to try. After all, no-one in the history of the world has ever joined a Conservative Party to be progressive; “conservative” is literally the direct opposite of “progressive,” so something’s a bit whiffy there, don’t you think?

On himself and Mr Cameron personally, Nick said that the differences were more instructive than the similarities: though the two of them were roughly the same age, growing up under Mrs Thatcher, Nick was propelled into politics to fight against the divisive, unpleasant politics of Thatcherism. Mr Cameron, on the other hand, chose to become one of Mrs Thatcher’s footsoldiers. So whatever their ages, their choices were completely different.

And on coalitions, Nick said again that he’s not in the business of leading an annex to the Conservatives or Labour. He’ll set out, instead, why we are the most in tune with the core liberal instincts of people, and on the side of them and not of Westminster politics. The Tories still support the system as it is – they don’t put their money where their mouth is on decentralisation.

Pressed by Alix on challenging Mr Cameron directly, Nick promised there’d be some core challenges on substance coming up to tackle Mr Cameron’s vagueness, whether that attack comes from him or from someone else. But not today – “it’s my day,” Nick pointed out, beaming.

Why Is Our Support Among Gay and Ethnic Minority Voters Slipping?

Just for once, I managed to mangle my own question (which led to a question back from Nick), so I’ll have to be more critical of me than my interviewee this time. Whoops. Anyway, the basis of my question was that at the previous two General Elections, we’d done particularly well among lesbian, gay and bisexual voters, and among ethnic minority voters. Now, with most (though not all) of the legal discrimination on sexual orientation changed, and with the effect of the Iraq War fading somewhat, there’s polling evidence that we’re slipping back. So how would he find a new appeal to those voters?

How I got tangled was in trying to relate the question to issues he’d raised. In his speech that afternoon he talked about “families,” which is sometimes a loaded term (though I was nervous about going too far down that road, as I’d been told James was considering a question on that topic but I didn’t know what it would be); and in his campaign he’d talked about having an “academy” to boost our women and ethnic minority candidates, and while I agreed with that, we’d previously not had good representation yet we attracted votes, so it’s a terrible mistake to think it’s all about who the people are rather than what they say.

What I was trying to get at was that we’d previously done very well with the right message even though we didn’t have the right messengers (we’ve never gone into a General Election with an out gay MP, though we finally gained one last time, and we went into the last General Election with just one visible ethnic minority MP, who sadly lost his seat). The party now keeps agonising about how to get wider representation, but though we should, that’s actually looking inwards at ourselves rather than reaching outward to communicate with other people. In making it all about seeing the right messengers, the Liberal Democrats have lost sight of what the message should be, and that for me is more important. But though I’m not quite sure what I said, it was definitely less clear than that!

Anyway, whatever my question was, Nick’s answer was that he doesn’t think particular groups vote for us just because of a particular issue, or campaign, or law, or even a particular military conflict, but because we represent their values.
“The core of my Liberalism,” he said, “is tolerance, pluralism, diversity.”

People vote for us because they like the ethos of the Party: “contemporary, tolerance, lack of moral prescription about how they lead their lives.”
And, most of all, he said that “I’m a man of my generation. It’s simply not an issue. And the effortless respect that I have, that we have, for difference will attract people across a range and feel rather than just issues would.” He also noted (my having failed to point it out) that at the last election we gained our first out gay MP, Stephen Williams, though interestingly he didn’t mention a fairly impressive “beacon”: the chap he was having his photo taken with when we came in.

That, for me, was a good and a bad answer rolled into one. I agree that if the Liberal Democrats exemplify celebrating diversity, and if he exemplifies that for the lot of us, it’s a strong start. But I don’t think it’s anywhere near enough. I don’t think he’s really thought about it; what he said boils down to ‘We’re nice, and people will recognise it,’ and that’s pretty much been our selling point for the last half-century. It’s an approach that Nick displays impatience with on other issues, and I don’t think it’s up to scratch for these voters, either.

The votes that previously came to us, from groups that traditionally gave heavy support to the Labour Party, seem to me to have things in common. Both felt badly let down by the experience of Labour in power; and the Liberal Democrats really stuck our necks out on controversial issues on which each felt strongly. My worry is that the first reason is receding, and the second has largely stopped happening. On the other hand, James Graham makes an excellent point in his own write-up that “the fact that gay voters are becoming increasingly hard to pigeonhole is in many ways a positive sign,” and that “there is strength in mainstreaming this issue and moving beyond identity politics”. There’s certainly strength in moving society in a more Liberal direction, and making ‘minority issues’ less divisive. I’m as happy to see religious bigots shoved to the extremes where they belong as anyone, for example, but there are still plenty of issues on which we’re nowhere near that yet and bigotry is still pretty ‘mainstream’ (just look at the salience of immigration). Either way, we have a lot more work to do.

How Do We Increase Diversity In Our Representatives?

Linda Jack’s question was linked but with a very different emphasis, asking about increasing diversity in our MPs, and the planned Academy. Nick answered as he had before that our lack of diversity at a Parliamentary level is out of step with what we stand for, and that
“We have to make significant progress by the election after next or I will re-open the issue of short, sharp positive discrimination. The clock is ticking.”
He accepts that he can’t do much for the next election, with most candidates already selected, but he can for the one after. He also plans to use such limited powers of appointment as he has to promote role models and “beacons,” as well as bringing in people “not familiarly associated with the Liberal Democrats”.

Where Do You Look For a Family?

James Graham built on similar themes, confirming just how hot diversity issues are in the party. Having listened to Nick’s acceptance speech a few hours earlier, James seized on the plan to build a network of families to advise him. How would Nick do this, wondered James, and how did he define a “family”?

Nick jumped to settle the definition issue first, pointing to his speech to the IPPR in November (I’ve not had a chance to listen to it yet, but you can download it and a question-and-answer session here), slightly apologetically – clearly not comfortable with ‘I refer the honourable gentleman to the answer I gave earlier’ – but summarising his view as “not a tight definition at all,” with families “of all shapes and sizes,” “elastic, married or not, extended…” He took a swipe at Mr Cameron’s “absurd £20 bribe to stay married,” continuing his theme that politicians have to talk to people where they are, and not where politicians would like them to be. It helps that we’re not prescriptive about how people live their lives, too.

Rather than explaining the mechanics of how he might assemble a network, then, Nick more interestingly went back to where the idea had come from. Not just in the Leadership campaign, but throughout his time racing around the place as a Liberal Democrat MEP and then MP, he’d always been meeting people with strong, fresh, radical views, and became determined to bring them into a politics that currently doesn’t connect with them at all. So just how it’ll work isn’t all fixed yet; he’s not started with the process, but with the aim, that he wants a way to find a number of families that he can keep in constant touch with to find out about what bugs them. It won’t be as easy to set up as a focus group managed by a PR agency, but that’s the point – these families will have a long, ongoing relationship with Nick, and that’ll be much more demanding but much more raw, rather than managed.

And at that point, having miraculously managed to answer all five of us and several subsidiary questions in under twenty minutes, Nick was whisked off to the ITN studios round the corner, to continue his hectic schedule of interviews. And none of us had asked him about his close result (brilliantly answered by Gavin Whenman yesterday), nor his lacklustre campaign, nor combined the two by asking if the traditional Lib Dem cry of ‘It’s too close to call’ might have been more successful in getting his vote out than ‘It’s fine, we’re miles ahead’… And that was, I think, because the campaign’s over now, and while we all wanted to ask probing questions, we wanted to ask ones that mattered – about how he would lead – and not just try and trip him up for the sake of it. And I think we’re looking forward to chasing all those issues up with him in a few months’ time, too, now that we’re all even more excited by just how well he’s hit the ground running. In the meantime: well done, Nick, and the very best of luck.

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