Thanks to everyone who voted for me and supported me throughout this campaign. The full result was:
|Ed Vaizey (Con)||31,092||53.3%|
|Stephen Webb (Lab)||9,343||16.0%|
|Alex Meredith (LD)||7,611||13.1%|
|Lee Upcraft (UKIP)||7,288||12.5%|
|Kate Prendergast (Grn)||2,986||5.1%|
It was a disappointing result for me and my party, but I am very proud of the campaign we fought. In particular I have tried to highlight key local issues, and focus on core liberal values of tolerance, unity and protection of the environment as well as offering the continued stability we have delivered over five years in government.
It has been a great inspiration and a privilege to stand for the wonderful communities of Wantage constituency as your candidate. Here is my video message:
You can join the fightback by joining the Lib Dems here: http://www.libdems.org.uk/joining
Thank you once again for all your support and encouragement.
On the eve of the poll, here’s my video message – vote Lib Dem for localism, the environment, education and a government rooted in the radical centre ground:
We’re almost there.
It has been a great honour to pound the pavements and porches of Wantage constituency over the past months as your candidate. I know from the uplifting conversations that I’ve had on the doorstep that thousands of people want to install a dynamic local campaigner as their MP on May 8th. I am going to keep fighting right up to 10pm on Thursday to make sure you get just that.
I don’t have an 8ft tablet of stone, but one issue has been etched on my conscience by this campaign. We need planning reform and infrastructure investment in this constituency.
That would be my first priority as your MP.
There are planning reforms set out in the Liberal Democrat Manifesto to prioritise garden cities, release brownfield sites and give communities a right of appeal against bad planning decisions. That is the package I will start work to deliver on May 8th.
My main challenger in this constituency is Conservative Ed Vaizey who sneaked back in in 2010 on a promise not to ‘dump houses on local communities’. Ed is a fan of the housing policies in the Liberal Democrat manifesto (as he has quoted them at every major hustings), he is a committed pro-European and even spoke in favour of electoral reform at the last meeting. But even with the Conservatives drifting to the right, Ed’s defection to the Lib Dems in the next parliament is by no means guaranteed.
Therefore if you want the Liberal Democrats’ package of reform proposals on planning and a local champion who can deliver the infrastructure investment that we need, please vote Liberal Democrat on Thursday.
But I also want to encourage you to vote Liberal Democrat with a view to the sort of Britain you want for you and your family at the end of this coming parliament in 2020.
Will you, like me, have children or grandchildren in school in 2020? The Liberal Democrats launched our manifesto with a headline commitment to fund education properly from nursery to 19.
Will you and your family, like mine, be relying on the NHS or are elderly relatives likely to need support in 2020? The Liberal Democrats have a fully costed plan to give the NHS the funding it needs to maintain the service that we all cherish, to enhance mental health services and to integrate social care and the NHS.
Do you, like me, care about the environment, and want to see the green economy leading our growth in 2020? The Liberal Democrats have five green laws on the front page of our manifesto and continue to support investment in the green economy protecting thousands of green jobs in Oxfordshire.
These are some of the red lines for coalition negotiations for Lib Dems and reasons why I think the Liberal Democrats have the best 2020 vision for this country.
And there is one more thing.
I want a united, stable and tolerant Britain in 2020. A country that punches above its weight on the world stage, helps resolves conflict and humanitarian disasters abroad and treats those that come here to work with respect and decency. With a strong group of Liberal Democrat MPs (including one for Wantage) I am confident we can achieve that too.
But we should not be complacent about the threat posed by nationalists.
The rise of the SNP in Scotland has been well documented and there is no doubt that a Labour-SNP stich up will threaten our United Kingdom. But there is an equal threat of a Conservative-UKIP alliance turning our country inwards and backwards.
Such an arrangement would be designed to drive the UK into a divisive referendum on Europe that would put our fragile recovery in jeopardy, harm community relations and is unlikely (as we have seen in Scotland) to resolve the fundamental question definitively.
Liberal Democrats will fight tirelessly for Britain’s national interest and we will make the case for staying in Europe if a referendum is called. We just don’t think it’s the top priority until further powers are transferred to Brussels.
Our economy is growing, we have record employment and interest rates and inflation are at rock bottom. Those conditions will allow us to balance the books by 2018 and invest in our public services for the long term. That is the Liberal Democrat plan.
Nationalists and their sympathisers within Labour and Conservative parties threaten that long-term plan, either by breaking up the UK and borrowing more money or crashing the economy into an unnecessary referendum.
Only a strong Liberal Democrat influence on government can keep us on the stable, united course. That is why the Financial Times, the Economist and The Independent are all backing Lib Dem candidates in seats, like Wantage, where they have a chance of winning.
A vote for me on Thursday is a vote for a local champion and an environmentalist who will protect our countryside through planning reform. It is also a vote for a strong, stable economy with a commitment to public services and a tolerant liberal perspective.
I am offering a bright, sustainable 2020 vision for Wantage constituency and for Britain. I hope you can support me to help make it a reality on Thursday.
We are into the last week and the sun is shining!
I’ll be pulling out all the stops this week to ensure you get a dedicated local champion as your MP on May 8th.
If you can help this week or on polling day itself please get in touch – 07592447794 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
The feedback I have received is that there are many people undecided or tempted to vote for a change in this constituency. We need to reach them one last time to reinforce the message that we can deliver a fresh liberal approach in the next parliament.
Get in touch to be part of the most exciting election for many years!
Being an election candidate is a wonderful privilege, but at times it’s frustrating. Whether on the doorstep, or at a hustings or in a leaflet, it’s difficult to get the full message across. I’ve found that in relation to planning reform, so I thought I’d elaborate here.
There is no doubt that the failure of the planning system is the number one issue coming up on the doorstep.
I agree that the planning system is not working in Oxfordshire. Too many large developments have been approved for grand family homes which do not meet the need for affordable housing and concrete large parts of the countryside.
Yet many people assume changing planning is a District Council issue. It is not.
If we are going to get back control of the planning of our communities, we must change the national policy. That means changes to legislation and policy – changes that can only be achieved through our members of parliament.
The Lib Dems have a deliverable plan to reform the planning system for the future – prioritising brownfield building and garden cities, giving local authorities the ability to borrow to build affordable housing and giving communities the right to appeal against development that is against an emerging local plan. I am committed to those policies as well as the reforms of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) set out by Lib Dem MP Greg Mulholland in his Manifesto on Planning Reform.
My view on this is clear – the current system is not working, so let’s set about fixing it by implementing the Lib Dem plans, starting on the 8th May. Change will be fought by lots of vested interests, but we need leadership and determination to deliver what constituents are telling me they want. I will provide that leadership.
Ed Vaizey used to offer something similar. In 2010 he made planning a key priority for his reelection. In fact it was his second most important priority behind the NHS. His commitment (published on his leaflets) was as follows:
“Too much development: Conservatives will get rid of top-down plans from Whitehall leading to houses being dumped on local areas. We will give people a say in how many and where local homes are needed”. Full leaflet is here
Now, I’ve not spoken to everyone in the constituency, but on the canvassing I’ve done, I’ve a feeling that most people believe that this commitment has not been fulfilled. A broken promise, you might say.
I’ve pushed Ed on this at hustings to find out whether he will join me in calling for reform of planning.
His response thus far has been to quote the Lib Dem manifesto, and occasionally to throw in a few lines from Nick Clegg. This is very flattering, but perhaps takes coalition a stage too far. Ed should understand that although we worked together for the last parliament, the deal was that the Conservatives were supposed to come up with their own policies for this election, not just talk about the Lib Dems’ ideas.
Unfortunately, instead of working on ways to deliver his 2010 pledge to reform planning, Ed and his Oxfordshire chums (Nicola ‘Bankrolled by Developers’ Blackwood and John ‘Architect of the NPPF’ Howell) have managed to concoct a way to make the housing crisis even worse for those needing housing and better, strangely, for developers, through the extension of the right to buy.
This beggar’s belief. Having failed so spectacularly on planning in this parliament, Conservatives plan to sell off more housing to put more demand into the system in the next parliament.
Unsurprisingly, Ed doesn’t really talk about this policy much when it comes up at hustings. One thing Ed does say is that the reason for the planning free-for-all that the Conservatives have supervised, is because the Lib Dems controlled the Vale’s local government 5 years ago. This is a rather pathetic position. It’s very sad to see an MP with a decade in parliament and ministerial clout claim he can’t take forward the national reforms he was so passionate about in 2010 because of a Lib Dem local council which left office in 2011.
In fact, the Lib Dems left the VOWH DC with a draft local plan that could have been delivered within a year of the Conservatives taking control. The fact that it has taken four years and we are probably still eighteen months away (regardless of the outcome of the election) is an indictment of the Conservatives alone. They should apologise for this abject failure to deliver a plan rather than trying to blame a previous administration.
So this is the frustration. Planning is the big issue in Wantage. I want to get into the detail of which candidate and party is best equipped to deal with it. Lib Dems have set out our plans on planning reform and are determined to fix the system and put developers and communities on a level playing field (if there are any left). This week I will take our plans on a roadshow of villages that have been so badly mauled by the Conservative-led developer bonanza – Harwell (Monday), Southmoor (Tuesday), Cholsey (Thursday) and Shrivenham (Friday) (Full details of the meetings are here).
In-between those meetings, on Wednesday, we have our final full hustings in Grove. I will once again ask Ed to set out his proposals for reform of planning and seek his appraisal of his delivery on his 2010 commitment.
It would be enlightening for the electorate if – just this once – he had something constructive to say about his vision for the future of planning, rather than quoting our policies or trotting out tired lines he’s misinterpreted from the history books.
I won’t hold be holding my breath.
My Election Address has started hitting doormats across Oxfordshire (thanks to the marvellous Royal Mail).
Some households will be receiving something else later in the campaign so I wanted to share the address here. It sets out some of the key reasons to support me and the Liberal Democrats on May 7th. It also offers a taste of my vision for Britain that I’d work to deliver as MP for Wantage, Didcot, Grove, Wallingford and Faringdon:
Compare that to the Conservatives, who would make cuts to our schools and hospitals in order to reduce the deficit more quickly than is economically necessary. Labour can’t win in this part of Oxfordshire so a vote for Labour will only help the Conservatives towards the majority they need to unleash their ideologically driven cuts agenda to fund tax-cuts for millionaires.
Rather than reducing the deficit on the backs of the poorest, the Liberal Democrats will continue to build a stronger economy in a fairer society. We will cut Income Tax for workers across Oxfordshire, increase apprenticeships and protect pensions. We will close the £8bn NHS funding gap and boost support for mental health treatment. We will increase provision of childcare and enhance support for the most disadvantaged children in early years. We will fight to protect our precious areas of natural beauty and support green jobs.
So, on 7th May, I need your help. With your vote, we can make a change in Oxfordshire. We can elect an MP who will make sure that the country we live in when we next go to the polls will be stronger and fairer. We can elect an MP who will balance the books by 2018 without destroying our services. We can elect an MP who will live in the constituency and help build sustainable communities in Oxfordshire.
I have a bold vision for our community and our country. Please support the Liberal Democrats on May 7th to help me deliver it.
There is a lot of talk about lack of engagement in politics and a failure by politicians to get out and speak to voters.
I want to change that in Wantage. That is why I visited so many of the communities in the constituency in a 100 mile odyssey on 26th March. And to show my commitment to sustainability and investment in cycling, I did it on my bike! It was called the Tour de Wantage.
Places that do not normally get canvassed were visited as I set out to engage as many communities as possible while pedaling over 100 miles around our large rural constituency.
I’ve set out a few pictures below:
I’ve set out the details and rough map here: Tour de Wantage
Thanks to everyone who gave me such a warm welcome. I intend to follow the Tour de Wantage up with an epic marathon on May Bank Holiday Monday.
A cap on immigration does not make sense. That has always been the Lib Dem position and it’s good to see the Tories and UKIP following behind us. They have both adopted our fairer tax policy, but I thought they would struggle to take on our liberal approach to movement of labour. However, given the shifting populist sands on which they built their original immigration policies, it’s perhaps no surprise they have both started drifting.
I believe in free movement of labour because it makes us better off. Without it businesses will be prevented from expanding and our ability to produce and export competitively will suffer. On top of that our public services, particularly the NHS, would crumble at a time when we need it more than ever.
We may be willing (as a nation) to pay those sorts of costs in order to reduce net migration, but those proposing to curb immigration need to make those consequences clear. The fact that the right wing parties have stepped back from caps shows that they are not willing to go into the election with an unworkable policy that will make us all worse off.
The fact that I support and believe in free movement of labour does not mean that I don’t recognise the challenges it brings. Our public officials (local and national) have to recognise that more people means more and better infrastructure. We need the foresight and courage to invest now in roads, railways, schools and hospitals to ensure that we can support a growing population. That will require more active management of the public finances including borrowing to invest, both at a national and a local level. We should get on with it.
We also have to work harder to integrate communities. Immigration is at its most positive and productive when it results in a mixing of cultures and ideas, rather than communities living side-by-side but apart. One of the best ways to do that is to get everybody involved in our election discussions to debate, challenge and reduce divisive negativity.
Which brings me to the third challenge – skills. There is a lot of rhetoric about migrants taking ‘British jobs’. The reality is that the demand for labour in the UK is not currently being met by domestic supply, which is why we have a record number of vacancies – 700,000. Migrants, particularly from the EU, back themselves to have the skills to compete for and win jobs we are creating in the UK, and in a lot of cases they are proved right. I, for one, have enormous respect for people who have the skills and confidence to travel to a new country that speaks a different language and have the talent to win a job, pay tax and thrive in that environment. Provided the government is making sure there is a level playing field in terms of minimum wage and advertising, I say “good on ’em”.
Our many unemployed young (and not-so-young) people looking for work could fill those 700,000 vacancies if they had the right training, skills and attitude. Some of them do. For the rest we need to work closely – one-to-one in some cases – to equip them to compete successfully with anyone from home or abroad for the jobs being created. Protecting them from the challenge of migrants is not a solution in the long-term.
That support will take time. At the same time, to avoid our past mistakes, we need to change the national mindset so that as a society we are actively encouraging and supporting our young people into apprenticeships and trades.
I want to go further than that. We need to equip young people in our country with foreign languages, or the right to free movement of labour will become meaningless to them. British people can’t legitimately compete for jobs (outside of holiday camps and ski resorts) in the EU if they don’t speak the native language. There would have to be a pretty desperate shortage of tradesmen if a Spanish person opted to employ a plumber who can’t speak Spanish? Why would a German company want a British engineer who can’t participate in a meeting with clients and colleagues?
Even if we were producing the most talented tradesmen and women on earth, they will not be able to take advantage of free movement unless they can speak more than one language, or are willing to spend a long time earning peanuts while they learn it. This may seem like an academic issue while unemployment is so high in the EU, but if the economic tables were to turn, we need to be confident that our young people could be employable in the EU if and when there are jobs being created there.
While we remain linguistic dunces of Europe, I find that very difficult to imagine. It is extreme hubris to think that just because everyone else in the world is learning English we will prosper. The very fact that too many young people come out of school in the UK with only one language (English) means we are already one step behind most developed countries’ school-leavers in terms of skills.
I believe in free movement of labour but recognise that it presents challenges. We need to rise to them if we are to equip the UK to be prosperous in the long term. It also presents opportunities. If we don’t equip our young people with the right skills, including language skills, British people will never fully realise the dividends that a liberal immigration policy can pay out.
The Rifkind-Straw affair is pathetic, embarrassing and they’ll probably get away with it. They look ridiculous, but it’s unlikely they have done anything that will attract any more than a slapped wrist. Greed is not an offence, even for MPs, and since Jack Straw has managed to escape punishment for his part in an illegal war, I’d expect he’ll wriggle out of this one easily enough [as an aside, who pays £5k a day for the advice of someone who thought we had better go to war to avoid being bombed with imaginary weapons?]
The value of the sting is therefore to raise an important question about political reform – should MPs be allowed to take on additional work while they are in Parliament? That was the question debated by Tessa Munt (Lib Dem for Wells) and Crispin Blunt (Cons for Reigate) on Radio 4 this afternoon. For anyone interested in politics, and particularly if you live in an area with a Conservative-Lib Dem fight, it gives you 8 minutes of crystal clarity on (A) why the Lib Dems will do better than expected in the election this year and (B) the difference between having a Lib Dem MP and having a Conservative MP. The debate starts at about 10 minutes into this link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b053721p
While Munt declares the idea of having a second job as ‘ludicrous’ on the grounds that no MP could have time to do anything other than serve their constituency, Blunt claims that this approach shows ‘everybody does the job in different ways’. Absolutely right Crispin. Typically, Lib Dems prioritise their constituency case work and pride themselves on being strong local advocates and campaigners. Conservatives ‘do it in a different way. In my constituency, that means getting staff to do the case work and focusing on important Westminster business like entertaining Rupert Murdoch’s henchmen.
Munt reminds Blunt that we no longer live in the 17th Century – you can’t just do another job in the morning and then toddle into Westminster. Blunt agrees, but try telling that to another Oxfordshire stalwart, Tony Baldry (Cons for Banbury). Tory Tony is Chairman of Kazakhstan Kagazy plc (a FTSE listed recycling company). Surely being the most senior figure of a listed UK public company would have presented a challenge even for the rotten MPs of the past. But, forget the City of London, just to show how important ‘other interests’ are to him, Baldry toddles in to do his bit at Westminster on a 5 hour flight from Central Asia. Ridiculous.
Blunt rightly identifies that Munt has a marginal seat, and somewhat condescendingly suggests that this is the reason Munt would be working 100 hour weeks. That neatly makes the bigger point for even more reform. Wouldn’t it be nice if all MPs worked super-hard for their constituents?
By getting rid of safe seats and ensuring that MPs have to fight for every vote, wouldn’t most of us get a bit more value and find a bit more respect for our elected representatives?
Only through wholesale political reform will we get a lot more Munts, a lot fewer Blunts and hopefully bring an end to the complacency of the Rifkinds, Straws and Baldrys.
Voting Lib Dem in May will not only help get more committed local campaigners into Parliament, but it will help bring long-overdue political reform that much closer to reality.
Few stories get my blood boiling like tax evasion. It’s the section of the emotional Venn diagram where feelings of anger with politicians, helplessness about the poorest, envy about the richest and frustration with public services, all come together.
That is why, to me at least, the HSBC Swiss bank scandal matters. It shows up the unfairness of the way that HMRC operates and shines a spotlight on the open acceptance of a culture of tax avoidance amongst our political and business elites.
Fairness in the tax system means corporate taxes that make a fair contribution without stifling growth, and individual taxes that place the heaviest burden on those that can bear it most easily. The exact balance of the tax burden is a shifting yoke that see-saws on our shoulders as we make our way down the path of history. A major shift in the balance can cause uproar, exodus or destitution. We have a say in that balance through our democratic choices at election time, but having made those choices, evasion and avoidance must be fought at all levels equally.
HMRC are failing on that test. When average individuals fail to pay tax (often in my experience because of an error by HMRC) we get threatened, prosecuted, fined (or worse). When big corporations (eg Goldman Sachs or Vodafone) find ways around the system, they are either ignored or come to sweetheart deals. The threats and intimidation of individuals is often to chase down a couple of hundred pounds. The approval of avoidance schemes by big corporates costs the taxman billions. Tax avoidance deals between HMRC and big business are expensive and shameful. They should be illegal.
HSBC is a slightly different case, but it’s equally shameful. Here we seem to have a situation where the tax man has been told directly that a UK bank is openly offering tax avoidance schemes to its UK clients. The response from the tax man is to put his head in the sand, and focus on squeezing working families. Not only that, the leader of this bank that has deliberately encouraged clients to put assets beyond the reach of HMRC on an industrial scale is immediately ennobled and brought into government. The fact that Stephen Green has also become a Church of England minister along the way makes this story worthy of a nomination in the corporate cloud-cuckoo-land Oscars.
I do not think that HMRC is run or staffed by bad people. I do not think that Stephen Green or his political or business chums are inherently immoral.
But their ‘that’s just the way it is’ mentality creates a malaise that eats away at our society. It feeds a belief that there is one set of rules for the rich and powerful, and another for everyone else. It supports the tacit understanding that big business and influential individuals will get the breaks while the rest of us carry the can. It gives rise to the realisation that complacency and hypocrisy are comfortable shoes for so many of our officials and institutions to walk in.
Britain is perhaps not the worst country for this sort of corruption and it is not a new phenomenon. But the relative transparency of modern public life makes it a front page issue and something that drives deep resentment in Britain in 2015. We’ve had enough of hearing how cosy arrangements protect vested interests and how nepotism drives political decision-making.
Of course we should review HSBC’s schemes, as well as the activities of those who used it. We should get to the bottom of who knew what and whether political intrigue adds up to something more damaging. We should also staff, resource and challenge HMRC to take a firmer enforcement position on corporate and individual tax dodging. Our politicians should demand that European and Commonwealth partners do the same.
But we need to go further and address the political diseases that gnaw away at our democracy’s integrity.
We have an electoral system that supports 2 major parties and job-for-life politicians to be enticed into corporate influence. We have a party donations system that allows the rich and powerful to buy influence at the top tables of British public life. We have a House of Lords built on wealth and political loyalty rather than merit or electoral mandate. We have a revolving door between government and business that makes for opaque, suspicious deals in the private, rather than public interest.
All of these issues have been known about for years, if not decades. We need to act to reform our political system now. Through wholesale political reform we can make the UK a fairer society, and in doing so make it stronger, richer and better equipped to prosper in the future. Both Labour and the Conservatives have blocked political reform because it challenges their control of the system – use your vote in May to vote for a party that believes in political reform so we can set about updating our political systems for the 21st century.
Basic human instinct tells us that no-one will pay more tax than they have to. But while the super-rich have the ability to exert disproportionate influence on the law-makers and organs of enforcement to avoid tax, the rest of us will be left asking – why should I play by the rules when they don’t? That basic sentiment of ‘why should I do my bit’ has the potential to have profound negative consequences for our society and we should press for reform of our institutions to ensure we do everything we can to arrest it.
Tax avoidance erodes our public services, but the idea that the system is rotten does far greater long-term damage. Let’s keep this on the agenda do something about it in May.
During my time as a candidate I have received most emails about crossing out cancer. Given the news on Wednesday that the lifetime risk of getting cancer has increased to 1/2 that is perhaps not surprising. However since it is a disease of which I have mercifully had very little direct experience I needed to understand the issues facing prevention and treatment better.
Thankfully, a wonderful local Cancer Research UK Ambassador, Sue Duncombe, got in touch and offered to give me a briefing. Sue does an extraordinary amount to help Cancer Research UK’s work and I was extremely grateful for her time and insight. Sue took me through the background and key objectives of the Cross Cancer Out campaign. The main focus of the campaign is to increase early diagnosis, particularly through bowel cancer screening, to give equal access to advanced radiotherapy and surgery, and to make best and most efficient use of the Cancer Drugs Fund.
I have pledged my full support to the campaign.
The figures on early diagnosis are particularly striking. For lung cancer patients a 25% chance of survival after 5 years if diagnosed at stage 1, can diminish to less than 1% if diagnosed at stage 4. On bowel cancer, a 9/10 survival rate drops to 1/10. Bowel cancer is a particular focus because there is a national screening process in place, yet only 50-60% of people take advantage of screening. The campaign aims to increase that by 10%.
Lib Dems in government have worked hard to improve diagnosis. £450m has been committed to support earlier diagnosis through improving public awareness of and GP access to key diagnostic tests and paying for extra testing and treatment in secondary care. The Coalition Government has also committed over £170m to expand and improve all cancer screening programmes, including extending the age range for the NHS Bowel Screening programme to men and women up to their 75th birthday.
Radiotherapy has been proven to be a potent way to treat cancer if caught at the right stage – effective in 4/10 cases when a cure is achieved. Cancer Research UK’s campaign to increase access to IMRT (targeted radiotherapy) is a sensible and cost-efficient long-term approach to treatment. Also when surgery is the best option it should be made available to all patients, regardless of age.
The main obstacles to achieving these aims are the lack of funding and (linked to funding) staff available to carry out the treatment. That is why we need to invest in the NHS to improve staffing levels in line with Simon Stevens’ five year plan for the service.
The Lib Dems have set out a plan to provide the required £8bn a year by 2020 that Mr Stevens has identified as the shortfall. This additional cash will support more staff to deliver radiotherapy and surgery as we move towards in Cancer Research UK’s objectives. It will take time, but the Lib Dems have made the necessary long term commitment to make it happen.
If we combine the Lib Dem commitment to funding with Cancer Research UK’s objectives, I am confident that we can do a huge amount during this election campaign to help cross out cancer.
In recent years panel shows and stand-up comics have turned banter into an art form. It even has its own dedicated broadcaster – Dave. The trouble is, it looks easy, but good banter amongst a panel of quick wits is difficult to pull off, especially on live TV. For that reason, most politicians usually adopt the first rule of PR self-preservation – I am a serious person and therefore can not and should not engage in public banter. Nick Clegg threw that theory out the window with a triumphant appearance on The Last Leg yesterday.
The show is worth a watch on 4OD if you missed it. For me The Last Leg has always been the programme after Gogglebox that I never had the stamina to watch. It’s a live knock-about news review with a bit of slapstick and guests – more natural than Russell Howard and much lighter than Have I Got News for You. The heart-beat of the show is banter between the hosts and guests. With the Deputy PM on as special guest last night I prepared myself to hide behind the sofa.
But Clegg did well. There were a few difficult moments, but it flowed. Most importantly he was just about able to raise the banterometer high enough to engage in the show at its level, without lifting it to a level that would have been ridiculous. It was also important that he didn’t appear to be trying too hard, or to have prepared himself with a plan of attack. As such, from nowhere came (dare I say it) a bit of natural charm and the quick wit that most senior politicians have, but they hide so convincingly for fear of an adverse headline. The line about not voting being equivalent to letting someone else order for you at Nandos may not make it into the quotations dictionary, but it was bang on the money in this context. And it persuaded Alex Brooker to vote which was the whole point of the encounter.
My favourite moments however were Clegg’s responses to the questions on Vladimir Putin and Tuition Fees. There was nothing witty or clever about either.
On Fees he expressed himself to have a 9.5/10 ‘feel bad factor’. This audience has not heard that sort of contrition from him before and there was almost a spontaneous round of applause.
On Putin, Clegg gave a sensible, clear response with the banterometer turned off. But you could see the hosts and the audience listening. He had come on the show as a figure of ridicule, but he left as someone people were listening to. Clegg has fought for 5 years for the right to be listened to by this audience, and on the evidence of that tiny moment he may just have made a breakthrough.
Who knows whether this performance will mean anything in the long run. Banter is not natural terrain for politicians and I don’t expect that to change overnight. That said, with this performance Clegg has made a strong positive statement about the front-line politicians engaging in live TV banter – without the format or tone being changed to accommodate him and without looking ridiculous. This is the sort of show that politicians should be on, reaching politically disengaged audiences on their terms. I hope that others will follow his courageous lead. It was good telly and refreshing to watch.
As a Lib Dem supporter I also hope something more comes from this. If twitter is anything to go by (#cleggleg was trending at number 3 globally) something small but important has happened already. This performance has given people cause to express something that we have not seen much of in the context of Nick Clegg in recent times – respect. For a politician facing a tough election, that is even more valuable than good banter. I hope he can build on it.