I came away from the St Albans hustings reassured and impressed by Nick Clegg, so that I can now vote for him with enthusiasm and confidence.
Unsurprisingly, what clinched it for me was the replies the candidates gave to my own question. This ran something like as follows:
Some Liberal Democrats appear to regard the idea of choice in public services as a stalking horse for neo-Thatcherism. Do we really have to choose between more power for local councils or more power for individuals or can we support both.
The question reflects my own frustration about the party’s internal debate on public services. On the one hand we have Paul Holmes and the Beveridge Group who seem more concerned with defending public sector professionals than articulating a liberal vision (whether social, radical or economic) for improving public services. On the other, the likes of David Laws and Jeremy Browne appear to want to by-pass local democratic structures altogether, advocating an approach that sounds liberating but which will in practice be centralist and unaccountable.
(I didn’t take verbatim notes, am paraphrasing the answers from memory, so apologise in advance if I get any of this wrong.)
Huhne’s answer was to say that although choice should never be a dirty word for Liberal Democrats, there were areas of public service where the market was not appropriate and the idea of choice sometimes an illusion – for example secondary transfer in London in the light of the Greenwich judgment. Once again he praised Denmark and said that although a small country it had decentralised public services. It would then be up to local decision-makers to decide how services would be delivered – for example whether to involve private sector providers.
Clegg said that he wanted to put the word choice to one side, because it had become tainted. He then said that the party must be unambiguously dentralising, devolving decision-making down to local level and there was no doubt about his commitment to that. However, he stressed that we must be on the side of the people accessing the services. For them bureaucrats in town halls can appear much the same as Whitehall bureaucrats, so there was no point in decentralising power unless people felt that something had changed for them, that services were more responsive and people were more in control. He cited the example from Wigan mentioned on Question Time about giving a parent control over their disabled child’s travel to school budget.
For me, while neither response contained anything that I would actually disagree with, Chris’s answer was B+, but Nick’s a straight ‘A’. It showed an awareness that decentralisation is not just about processes, but about outcomes and that fundamentally we must be on the side of the people. It reinforces my view of Nick’s intellectual confidence in Liberalism as an ideology. To be fair to Huhne, starting out as the underdog, he has had to put some ideological distance between himself and Clegg. Although Charles Anglin is right that Huhne’s campaign has at times appeared to ‘pander to every statist hobby horse it could find’, I am sure that Huhne is closer to Clegg than to Paul Holmes. I will be more than happy to support Chris if he wins.
However, it would be perverse if I didn’t vote for the candidate who most clearly articulates my view of Liberalism. I had cause to doubt because of my concern over Nick’s performance on Question Time and disappointment with elements of his campaign. Of course a hustings meeting cannot assuage those particular doubts. But it can and has, especially when considered alongside the bloggers’ breakfast’‘ reports convinced me that Clegg’s political approach, his commitment and passion are simply too good an opportunity to miss. Huhne might in some ways be a safer choice, but Clegg has the potential not just to win more seats for the party but to lead a Liberal political and intellectual renaissance in Britain. How can I not vote for that?