Yesterday (Saturday) saw Nick Clegg visit the Sage, Gateshead in the latest in his ongoing series of ‘Town Hall’ events to meet the people. Fortunately, both my wife (a floating voter) and I were free so, along with many others, we went to hear what he had to say.
As might be expected it was a generally confident performance. He was comfortable and in command with questions dealing with civil liberties in any way and was wonderfully dismissive of Labour and Tory posturing. However, on a few questions his answers were not as crisp or well worked out as they really need to be if the Lib Dems are seriously to challenge for power. I have set these out below as well as I can from memory (giving them purely arbitrary numbers for convenience) along with my comments in italics.
Q1: A woman asked a confused question about immigration and Europe made doubly confusing because she kept interrupting Nick as he tried to answer. It wasn’t clear to me exactly what her concern was; I suspect she didn’t really know herself but has been reading too much of the Murdoch press. Nick’s answer, dealt mainly on the economic benefit of ‘good immigration’ pointing out that all parties in Scotland want more. Only at the end did he briefly get onto Europe explaining that it was crucial for our exports and fighting crime – mentioning a case where pan-European co-operation had been vital in smashing a paedophile ring. We need a grown-up debate on immigration. Too many of the economic advantages claimed exist only because we so utterly fail to develop domestic talent at all levels of society leaving us dependent on ‘imports’ amidst continuing unemployment. The fact is that recent levels have been wildly unsustainable putting the Party’s ‘free trade’ wing on a potentially different course to its green wing. This needs creative resolution. Europe should be a strength for the Lib Dems but policy driven by internationalist sentiment has made it a problem. Nick does not appear to recognise that the mess served up by the EU’s undemocratic establishment is not the only option; we could instead devise and argue for a different – liberal – vision. Supporting the status quo leaves him supporting, if only by default, what should be attacked at every turn. I’m thinking the democratic deficit, the CAP and the fisheries policies for instance.
Q2: A man made the point that Gateshead is blighted by a long-running dispute between a supermarket and that many other town centres have been devastated by their arrival. Nick identified with this problem very strongly on the basis of experience in his own constituency and elsewhere where supermarkets have deployed armies of legal experts against councils. He was very clear that planning law needs to be reformed to include a competition test to prevent abuse. Hmmm. Wrong answer. It is perverse to use planning law to prevent anti-competitive practices; we should use competition law for this! (Planning law does need overhauling but that’s another story). The difficulty is that we have remarkably poor competition law in this country made all the more useless by a received wisdom in recent years that regulation should be ‘light-touch’ – meaning to those charged with enforcing it ‘actually none - it’s only for show’. Around three years ago the ‘All Party Parliamentary Small Shops Group’ documented startling abuses that ought to have had a fair few directors going to jail in any country with an aspiration to fairness. The enforcement result: nothing, the moral hazard: extreme.
Q3: Someone asked about tax rises and efficiency savings and how the numbers add up. Nick quite adroitly managed to explain that of the much publicised £167 billion deficit around £100 bn was cyclical and would sort itself out as the economy recovered leaving about £60-£70 that was ‘structural’ and had to be found from tax rises and savings. This is the conventional view and I really, really hope it’s right. The difficulty is that it derives is from the same economists who so signally failed to see the crisis coming because the neoclassical school of economics (to which the overwhelming majority of government and academic economists subscribe) has within it no coherent theory of money or credit; transactions are regarded as essentially barter; although money and credit are obviously involved they cancel out. Not very helpful in a credit crunch! This is not a regular recession it is a depression and it is quite possible that there is little or no cyclical element, that the economy has stalled. That’s a scary thought. (Going beyond the meeting itself I am hearing that both Labour and Conservatives are thinking in terms of getting increased efficiencies from further development of larger back offices, this is a really bad plan that will fail for sure. For what they need to do see my last post before this one).
Q4: A girl expressed her concern – based apparently on what her friends working in the NHS tell her – about the growing number of managers and so on. Nick agreed strongly saying the number of managers and administrators now exceeds the number of beds but that nurse numbers were little changed. He agreed with the questioner that this was a worry and should change. His one specific idea was that the Strategic Health Authorities could be abolished although I was unclear whether this was policy or just something to think about. I have no doubt that there are huge savings to be made – my friends also tell me absolutely hair-raising stories of lax management but this was very worrying; merely agreeing that there is a problem is hardly a vote-winner. What would the Lib Dems do? We need to be specific about how we would change the management to be more effective and that means getting down and dirty in the detail where the devil is. I don’t expect to see the details of this paraded as ‘policy’ but I do want to get a sense that someone knows what to do rather than just presiding over an ongoing disaster. The Country is looking for leadership.
Q5: A man expressed extreme concern about the lack of wealth creation in Britain, in particular the bad state of manufacturing. Many components have to be imported and vital skills are being lost or are at risk. Nick agreed this is a worry. He strongly attacked RBS for financing Kraft’s takeover of Cadbury and strongly critizised the banks for not making adequate loans – the ‘lifeblood of industry’ – available on affordable terms. Beyond that he had little to say. What he said amounted to the more or less conventional platitudes of the recent past and I was left feeling that Nick and his advisors don’t really understand the question. To be fair it’s an immense and multi-faceted problem, one that has eluded UK governments for over 100 years as we have gradually declined as an industrial power – but it’s not insoluble.
Nick’s overall performance was very creditable; if the selection above suggests otherwise it is because it picks out where he was weakest. And if he is a bit weak on these points then Labour and the Conservatives are even weaker. Unfortunately, the Country needs leadership on a Churchillian scale at this time. To lift his score from a ‘B’ to an ‘A+’ he needs to learn to identify which things are really important and then to find people inside or outside the Party who can tell him (and us) how to tackle them.
My wife remains a floating voter.