Monday, October 06, 2014


Liberal Mondays 9: Nick Clegg on Today (Today) #LibDemValues

I’m not at Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference in Glasgow this week. It’s the first I’ve missed in about twenty years, and I am missing it – Richard and I would love to be there, but we’re getting married in twenty days’ time and just don’t have the time or the money. Following it on TV, one person who you can’t miss in Glasgow is Nick Clegg. This morning he was interrupted – I can’t say interviewed – on the Today Programme, so his latest answer on what the Lib Dems stand for is the latest of my Liberal Mondays quotations…

The Limits of the “Centre” and the Bigger Limitations of the “Interviewer”

Some of the random shouting by the random talentless hack from their researchers’ random shouting points and the Labour Party’s random propaganda points on Today this morning involved sneering at “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society” and shouting at Nick Clegg,
“Where is your core identity? What is it that the Lib Dems stand for?”
Obviously, none of the random shouting involved listening or engaging with the answer – yawn, he’s answering the question, bored now, time to hear my own voice again – but I’ve managed to piece together what Nick was allowed to get a word in edgeways with in his latest short summary of what the Liberal Democrats stand for.

Earlier in the interview, Nick summed us up in part with a line that doesn’t appeal to me at all, but here goes:
“The Liberal centre ground is where we’ve always been anchored, and where we’ve sought to anchor the government.”
I love the word “Liberal” – but I suspect those who aren’t tribal Liberals, which would be probably in excess of 99% of the population, don’t really respond to a tribal label. Only a minority, too, might respond to a concept, like “Freedom”, but it’ll be a lot more than those that identify with the label. Instead, the concept is “Centre” – which is meant to sound like ‘at the centre of things’ (if only one centre among, er, several in the same place?), but just sounds to me (and I suspect to almost everyone) like a statement that we don’t stand for anything of our own, splitting the difference between the others, neither one thing nor the other but somewhere… Quite a long way behind these days.

To be fair, there are advantages to the “centre” message. It lets you say your opponents are extreme and that only you are reasonable (isn’t really true but which might persuade) or that only you can rein them in (which is really true but which no-one believes). Nick came through with this strongly when contrasting the LiberaTory Coalition with what the Tories are gagging to do if they get “in power on their own” without us to tell them “No”: he focused on last week’s Tory Conference ‘Osborne bombshell’, where the Chancellor wants to abandon taxing the rich more (such as by the Liberal Democrats getting Capital Gains Tax raised above the previous Labour Government’s rich-bribing low level) and through eye-watering cuts alone
“only ask the working age poor to pick up the tab for the mistakes made by the bankers and the black hole in the public finances”.
What you might call the Tories’ “No-tax bombshell”.

The weakness in the “centre” came when Nick tried to attack Labour in the same way, claiming that “Labour move rapidly to the Left”. I don’t think they’re moving anywhere. They’re just a frightened vacuum. And though Nick drew attention to Mr Miliband’s cowardly and incompetent inability even to mention the massive deficit left by Labour, that cowardice and incompetence isn’t red-blooded Leftism. It’s the biggest symptom of an inability to make up their minds about anything at all in the face of a terrifying reality that would tear them apart. But that doesn’t fit with us being ‘somewhere in between’. Nick wanted people to give us credit for “holding firm”, I suppose in a rebuttal of “the centre cannot hold” – but that only opened him up to the interviewer’s sole moment of demonstration that she wasn’t merely a non-Turing-compliant iDevice programmed to shout a limited number of dumb phrases on repeat:
“Holding firm is not an ideology.”
Though I wait for any Today presenter ever to ask what either of the other two stand for and cut them off when their only answer is ‘Labour would tax you more and be nice to poor people and immigrants’ (the latter two points of which, unfortunately, aren’t even true) or ‘We’re shit, and we know we are, but oooooh! The Tories! Scary!’ (which is all true, but still gives me no reason to touch them with a barge pole and has nearly killed Labour in Scotland).

Nick Clegg’s Answer To “Where is your core identity? What is it that the Lib Dems stand for?”

“I’ll tell you exactly where we stand, and I feel this has always been the case.

“On the Left you’ve got socialism, the Labour Party, which is all about the state telling people what’s good for them; you’ve got the Right, the Conservative Party, that basically wants to keep the pecking order as it is.

“What has always distinguished British Liberalism, and I feel this very strongly, is an absolute, a huge emphasis on opportunity – that what everybody in politics should be about is trying to spread opportunity, such that everyone can get ahead in life, can live out their dreams, can use their talents to the greatest possible extent.

“And that’s why if you look at the signature tune things that we’ve done – I mean, don’t listen to the words, what we’ve done, our actions, judge us by our actions – whether it’s the massive expansion in apprenticeships, the huge transformation of the tax system so people on low pay keep more money as they work, or the very heavy emphasis on early years education, childcare, putting money into schools that cater for disadvantaged children.

“All of that is about opportunity.”

That is much better, and I’m glad Nick got to say most of it.

It feels recognisably Liberal in spirit as well as in label.

It’s something that Nick clearly believes, and is right at his heart, and that always helps when a politician says what they believe.

Though he didn’t say “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society” after the sneering, it chimes right in with that while sounding much more positive and definite than “Centre”.

And it links all that to our priorities in government.

It’s in many ways the same sort of thing I’ve been trying to do with my What the Liberal Democrats Stand For series, unifying ideology with our record in practice (latest version here; version with explanations here).

Any Liberal Democrat could say it themselves or stick it on a leaflet and not feel, ‘Oh, well, if I really have to.’

It isn’t perfect. In my own What the Liberal Democrats Stand For series, I’ve made a point of saying what we stand for – and Nick had already done his knocking copy, and been told not to talk about the others, but us. So starting with another attack on them was a mistake. It was a mistake because it made the statement about them.

Nick, next time you do this, if you must waste positive time being negative, take a tip from the “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeahhhh!” pre-chorus that propelled She Loves You irresistibly to Number One. If you stick otherwise to exactly the same words, then at least let your opening be “The Liberal Democrats are about opportunity for everyone.” People listen to your first line. Make it the most important and the most appealing.

And though your actual one-line sum-ups of the Labour and Conservative Parties were both fine, your first words about them were Centre-propagandist dumb:
“On the Left you’ve got socialism, the Labour Party…”
No, Nick. You haven’t. Leave the word behind. Labour left it behind more than twenty years ago. People so terrified that Ed Miliband is a revolutionary socialist coming to chop their heads down to size will not be voting for us anyway. The vast majority simply will not recognise that as reality, just as Mr Miliband is too frightened to recognise reality. He is not a socialist. He is not anything. He is a pitiful vacuum.

I nod to “trying to spread opportunity, such that everyone can get ahead in life, can live out their dreams, can use their talents to the greatest possible extent.” That’s my inspiration too. I recognise the issue that’s been closest to your heart since before you became Leader in talking with such passion about opportunity and about early years education. I just wish that for all the investment, the passion and the genuine commitment, you could say the word “education” without having cut the ground out under you biggest priority by everyone else hearing “tuition fees”. And you were cut off, so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you would have got round to mentioning the environment after criticising Mr Cameron for not talking about it any more.

And it’s a shame that the “interviewer” gave one of her many parroted lines from the Labour Party press office in ruling out any examples of what we’ve done in office connecting to what we believe by saying as ‘fact’ that it’s just a Conservative Government with our support. Too many people believe that. The BBC presenting a stupid Labour lie as a fact doesn’t help. But though you won’t convince everyone – or, I fear, anything like enough people – by saying ‘here are our values, and here’s how we’ve put them into practice in government’, you need to keep at it. Because only saying either without the other will give far fewer people even than that a reason to vote for us.

Possibly wise to find a better phrase than “don’t listen to the words,” though.

How Nick Today Was Better Than Nick On Other Days

It’s not what I would have said. But it’s in tune with what I would have said, and recognisably from the same sort of ideological place. And while it has its own weaknesses, it’s much better than some of Nick’s (and others’) previous statements of what we stand for. I’ll be kind and not repeat what he said in his second debate against Nigel Farage – focus-grouped to death, palpably making him uncomfortable, and the least Liberal ‘statement of principles’ I’ve ever seen from a British Liberal Leader – but it compares very well with the messaged-to-death message at the last General Election, for example. That brought everything down to one word: “Fairness”.

Now, I’d say that Fairness is certainly among Liberalism’s crucial concepts, but on its own it’s just not the one thing we’re about. Fairness should be in the service of something else. Nick says “Opportunity”. I can go with that. I’d say “Freedom” – and it’s always depressing and also a bit bizarre when I’m the only Liberal who seems to be saying that. But it wasn’t just that “Fairness” was only our number one in 2010 because it was what the focus groups said: it was, like several other things in that Election, a hostage to fortune that sounded good during the election but killed us afterwards. It’s absolutely true that throughout the LiberaTory Coalition Government the Liberal Democrats have made the cuts and hard choices fairer than the Tories wanted. But without a Tory Government to measure that against, nobody sees it. It’s absolutely true that the gap between rich and poor – which the previous Labour Government made wider and wider with their doubling tax on the poor and bungs to the rich – has fallen under the LiberaTory Coalition Government, fallen sharply, for the first time since I was at primary school. But when that proof of fairness comes not in the happy way – by lifting everyone up, but those at the bottom most – but in the painful way, by everyone suffering but taking most from the rich and protecting the poor, then nobody feels that it’s “fair”. Because no-one who suffers ever thinks it is fair for them to suffer. It’s a risk to say the one thing you stand for is Fairness even if you’re awash with money, because no effing voter is ever grateful. But to say the one thing you stand for is Fairness when you know that the most you can do is make everybody hurt in the fairest way is pretty close to suicidal.

Where you’ll find the closest relative of Nick’s Today statement today is, unsurprisingly, in the Liberal Democrats’ new Pre-Manifesto, and in Nick’s Introduction to it. As is usually the case, the section on what we stand for is relegated to a ‘personal view’ by the Leader, as if presenting it as actual philosophy or, worse, ideology for a party would send readers screaming to the hills. As is always the case, this is written in part by Nick, in part literally by a committee (the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee, if you want to tell them what you think of it), partly by staff and partly by another committee whose names you’ll find at the back of the booklet. But of course it’s Nick’s every word, officially. Comparing what Nick says in the booklet in these three pages with what he said on the radio in three paragraphs gives you an idea of what’s really closest to his heart.

For me, the Introduction to the 2014 Pre-Manifesto is one of the best that the party has produced. I think – after usually complaining that they’re far too short – that it should really have a short version, probably on the front or back cover. Here’s one I prepared earlier. But it’s persuasive, it’s distinctively Liberal, and the middle one of the three pages gives our policy priorities for the future in a way that fits seamlessly into what we’re about. But without a summary or a short version, it’s not quite clear that there’s one word that motivates it – which is probably quite right, as complex politics don’t usually reduce to just one word. Mine is “Freedom” and, hurrah! for the first time in ages, that appears there quite a lot. Nick’s is “Opportunity”. So does that. Yet though Freedom would be my one word, I’ve more often summed us up with three: “Freedom, Fairness, Future”. Between those, I can pull out most of our policies, as well as thinking they work as a buzzword condensed Liberalism (and, yes, I’m a sucker for alliteration too). So it’s notable that “Future” starts out as the main buzzword in this Introduction, repeated three times in the first line alone. Then, on the middle page, it becomes “the next generation”, repeated in six of the seven priorities and, though in different words, what the seventh is all about – as were most of Nick’s examples in his interview. Then “free”, “Liberal” and “opportunity” all stand out several times, the latter prominent but noticeably less than in Nick’s speeches, but the meaning of all three driving the first and third pages just as the next generation drives the priorities. By contrast, Fairness doesn’t actually appear on its own as a positive noun, instead standing at the back as a few slightly embarrassed adjectives. I hope to get time to write about the Pre-Manifesto in more detail, but if I can’t, it’s interesting that I’ve gone from unusually critical of the centrality of Fairness to the Liberal Democrat message to making it unusually prominent, just by staying still. I suspect Nick is more comfortable using the word closest to his heart this time round.

Today Is So Yesterday

It’ll still be on the iPlayer for a bit, but I wouldn’t bother listening to the whole ‘interview’. And not because of Nick.

Some journalists – by which I mean presenters, not journalists, as they neither write anything nor ever find anything out – want nothing other than to be the next Jeremy Paxman. This is a crapulent ambition, as the old Jeremy Paxman had been an unwatchable panto caricature for decades before he retired to spend time with his many-times-larger-than-any-politician-public-salary millions. Unfortunately, one of the worst examples of this disease is the Today Programme, once a flagship for holding politicians to account and now an unlistenable presenters’ masturbation demonstration with no interest in presenting or prying out information. The ‘big beast’ interviewers, or interrupters, have spent decades now doing nothing but making up their minds about some tiny fiddling point and then constantly repeating it until either the interviewee ‘admits’ to it – which lets them crow – or gets fed up and asks why they’re obsessed with some tiny fiddling point that no listener gives a toss about – which lets them say no-one answers their questions. Or they just talk over people so they never get a chance to answer a question because, oh, anyone else but their own voice is so boring, right?

Evan Davis had been a breath of fresh air: a journalist who knew what he was talking about and who used that to listen to answers and engage intelligently with them, which made him able to genuinely interrogate his subjects and inform his listeners. He’s been recruited to replace Mr Paxman, which suggests Newsnight is acting on a long-buried desire to become a critical news programme again instead of a long-running ‘argument’ sketch that shows why Monty Python were so wise to do a limited run. I’d like to hope that Mr Davis becomes a great success and a household name, making other presenters wish to be the next Evan Davis instead. It’s not a very confident hope, though, because to know what you’re talking about requires both talent and a lot of hard work. It’s far easier to just shout random things your researchers have told you and not let people finish the answers that you’re too stupid to understand anyway. Who does that inform, exactly?

This morning some talentless hack ‘interviewed’ Nick Clegg. I can’t remember her name. I doubt anyone else can. She may as well have come from the same mould as so many ambitious but lazy men and women who want to be Jeremy Paxman. Her equally lazy researchers had given her several stupidly untrue statements to shout and then shout again when Nick contradicted her with something boring like facts. And she got bored when he started answering her questions and decided it was time we heard her voice again. It’s all part of the Today Programme’s inevitable transmogrification into Thought For the Day, the part of the programme I always turn the volume off for and put on a music track instead. Before long they’ll decide that politicians, alternative views and tedious facts only get in the way of not just three minutes of semi-religious inanity but the far more important three hours of presenters’ egos. Someone with very ill-thought-out opinions says something bland and obvious in a monologue for which no-one can hold them to account: bishops today, Today presenters tomorrow. A radio shouting in a human ear, forever.

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