Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Newsnight: Head-to-head with Clegg and Huhne

One of the downsides of being married is that one is never the first person to post about a recent event. (There are fringe benefits, however). So I imagine that the LibDemosphere is already awash with accounts of tonight’s Newsnight, however, where Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne battled it out in a leadership special.

It began pretty painfully. Having shunted us to second billing after Alistair Darling lost the personal and bank details of half the British population, we were then met by the two contenders failing to agree on who should start, so that Jeremy Paxman was obliged to ostentatiously “toss the Euro” to see who should begin.

Chris won, and began with his one minute speech in which he stressed the need to be radical, to give away power, to decentralise, to be “Fairer and Greener” (remember that one!), and stressed his ability to get our message across. He appeared a little hurried; a little tense. Nick was calmer and better prepared, and began by explaining that he did not want to be leader because it was an end in itself, but because he wanted to be part of a liberal society, “to make politics less boring” and to “speak like a human being.” Oh, and make Britain “fairer and greener”. I feel they rested my earlier case!

On the question (so oft repeated) as to whether anybody should care, Chris pointed out quite fairly that his background in economics is extremely germane; we are undoubtedly entering into a period of economic stability where are leader with a sound understanding of economics will be needed. Nick, on the other hand, emphasised the need to reach out to the non-voting 40 per cent, a plea that carries much emotional but little practical weight (remember, three quarters of them weren’t voting 30 years ago, either).

Paxman then resorted to his favourite leadership head-to-head tactic (and one I actually enjoy) which was to ask for straight answers to straight questions: the “yes or no” round. I preferred Nick’s answers for the same reason that I preferred Alan Johnson’s in Labour’s deputy leadership: he gave the succinct answers requested. Nick categorically ruled out in one word adopting school vouchers (the fool!), while both agreed to rule in Trident “right now”, but Huhne waffled whereas Nick was succinct. On tax, Chris stressed the desire to see “broader shoulders bearing more of the burden” (which one assumes is not-very-complex code for more “progressive” taxation) while Nick emphasised the reduction of taxes on income and the shift onto environmental taxation (which some might argue was Huhne’s home ground).

On immigration, however, Nick put a ball firmly in the back of my net and that of many Liberal Democrats: asked whether there had been “too much immigration into Britain” he stated categorically no. He is of course correct. But I was very disappointed by Chris’s answer, that while immigration had been good overall, some communities had suffered from too much, too quickly. It was particularly worrying that he cited workers in his Eastleigh constituency that had had to deal with increased competition, as though they should be protected from outsiders coming into their town to compete with them for business. This had the whiff of protectionism about it, and contrasted with Nick’s explanation that the problem with immigration was that resources were not provided to local authorities by government (which is too slow to recognise population shifts in towns and districts), that they were not required to learn English, and that a lack of exit controls meant that we had a distorted image of who was in our country.

On the Euro, both agreed that Britain should not be a member now – which is orthodox Lib Dem policy – and neither wanted to get dragged into discussing future coalitions. Chris suggested that electoral reform would lead to a more sensible approach to partnership politics, while Nick got a little shirty with Paxman (which I quite enjoyed).

To conclude, both said that they liked each other personally and, when pressed, Nick said that the “Calamity Clegg” dossier was mean but that he could put it behind him, while Chris said that he took full responsibility, that he apologised, but that it had been drafted by a junior member of his team. Both promised a place in the future shadow-cabinet to his opponent.

While not hugely informative on substance (a couple of issues aside) it nonetheless was clear who won on style. This was summed up best by Mrs. Polemic – so far a Huhne fan – who was fairly frank towards the end in recognising that “Clegg’s wiped the floor with Huhne, hasn’t he?” The question was rhetorical, and justifiably so. I don’t know if this performance alone will have swayed her, but it may have swayed some. I’m looking forward to the hustings more and more.


Peter Welch said...

Well I'm married and got my piece up quicker - but then I didn't write so much.

I reached the same conclusion as you and Mrs Polemic though, and sleeping on it has firmed up my opinion on this. Chris Huhne found it hard to stay on message on his own issues (tax, missiles and immigration).

I didn't think that either came out with a Lib Dem USP, but Clegg at least came out with a few SPs.

Tom Papworth said...

writing too much is, sadly, my curse. You wrote much the same as me but with greater bevity.

One of my objections to trying to play the "social justice" card is that this is (rightly or wrongly) seen as Labour's territory: we are left arguing that we can do it better than them.

By comparrison, neither Labour nor the Tories are liberal, which I why I think that freedom should be our USP.

But then, freedom to choose one's school, for example, has become the third rail of liberal politics during this contest.

Peter Welch said...

I don't like the phrase "social justice", and I share some of your reservations on trying to useit as our USP.

But I think Labour "want" working class people to stay "working class". And that our programme should cease on this weakness.

Sorry this is obscure, but my curse is brevity.

Tom Papworth said...

Actually, I utterly agree with that. Look how they opposed Right to Buy, and struggle to mainatain the manufacturing sector rather than re-skilling people for the service economy.

The last thing Labour wants is for the working classes to better themselves and stop thinking of themselves as a marginalised group to which Labour can sell its socialist clap-trap.

Peter Welch said...

Should have been "seize" of course (how do these things come about?)

I'm glad we agree. Fancy a beer after the London hustings to discuss the good and the bad of affordable housing?

Tom Papworth said...

That's an excellent idea.

Perhaps we should organise one through LD drinks.

Julian H said...

Pass my regards to Mrs Polemic; I too began this contest on Huhne's side, but am now almost certain to vote Clegg. As much as I'd love to offer an explanation for this, I'm off to drink lots of dark beer.

Tom Papworth said...

Talking of which, Julian...

And picking up from my discussion with Peter...

...might I suggest drinks following the hustings on Tuesday?