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I attended a lunchtime seminar today at Demos where Nick Clegg was speaking on why he is a Liberal.  The purpose of the session was for the Liberal Democrat leader to set out his party’s political ideology.  In a way it was a simliiar opportunity to that which Demos provided George Osborne in August, when he made a speech about fairness

There were two central ideas at the heart of Nick Clegg’s speech – that liberalism is about the dispersal of power and that policy making should be based upon an optimistic view of human nature.  Given opportunities, most people will make the right decisions, most of the time, he argued. 

Talking about recent cases such as Baby P and the abduction for money of her own child by Karen Matthews, Nick Clegg acknowledged that his optimism in people might be questioned.  However, he suggested society’s reaction to such cases showed that there remained a strong moral sense and that it was important not to get into reactive ‘disaster politics’ on the basis of atypical occurences.

On the subject of the economic downturn, Nick Clegg argued that what had happened was a monumental failure of regulation.  He emphasised the need to get the rules right to provide protection against monopoly interests and unfettered risk-taking.  Such regulation was in accordance, he said with liberal economics.

Nick Clegg suggested that,  ‘our society is deeply unfair.’  He stated that despite relentless state activism, targets and increased expenditure, social mobility was now lower than it had been in the 1950s.  He highlighted ‘caste-like’ differences that exist in the UK, citing differential life expectancies within Sheffield of 14 years. 

 A key Liberal Democrat focus, Nick Clegg said, was early years.  He said that the party would be bringing forward proposals to increase parental leave to 19 months and provide free childcare from 18 months onwards.

On the environment, Nick Clegg emphasised the need for stronger regulation at an international level to drive changes.  He also spoke about the need for an ‘energy revolution’, mentioning the importance of improving energy efficiency in the home.

The Liberal Democrat leader spoke of his concern at public disengagement with the political process.  The first past the post electoral system, he argued, stifles pluralism and contributes to a sense of disenfranchisement.  He suggested that there is a danger that an alienated minority will turn to hate, especially given the recession.  There needs to be, he argued, a radical decentralisation away from Whitehall.

During the discussion that followed Nick Clegg’s presentation, he was asked if there were to be two terms of a Liberal Democrat government, what would be the differences that would be made.  Nick Clegg said there would be a culture of aspiration and mobility, a radical restructuring of government and sustainable economic policies.

One questionnaire suggested an inconsistency in saying that power should be dispersed at the same time as saying national governments should give up power to the EU and international bodies, for example, in tackling climate change.  Nick Clegg responded that this was all about ensuring action is taken at the appropriate level for the particular issue.  Given that climate change is a global issue, global action was necessary.

Nick Clegg was asked what he thought was the best way of encouraging behavioural changes.  He said that the key was to create incentives but did not give any examples.  On the wider issue of political disengagement, he felt part of the problem was the governments have become managerial and that there was a need to increase accountability.

A BBC journalist asked if the Liberal Democrats would be supporting the Government’s welfare to work proposals.  Nick Clegg said welfare should be contingent not unconditional but refused to say whether his party would support the proposals until they’ve had a chance to see the details.

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