Interview: Clegg sets out his leadership credentials

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Since winning Sheffield Hallam in the 2005 general election, Nick Clegg has made a major impression on Liberal Democrats in Parliament and across the country.

Tipped as a future leader before he even entered Westminster, in the wake of Sir Menzies Campbell’s resignation he finds himself standing sooner than was imagined.

Age did it for Ming, and 40-year-old Clegg is the frontrunner in the contest to replace him.

Like his opponent in the leadership race, Chris Huhne, he attended the private Westminster School.

After Cambridge, and post-graduate degrees at the University of Minnesota and the College of Europe in Brussels, he joined the European Commission in 1994.

A high-flyer, he became a senior adviser to Sir Leon Brittan, the Thatcher-appointed Vice President of the Commission, and then MEP for the East Midlands from 1999 to 2004.

As his party’s home affairs spokesman he has become a prominent critic of the government on civil liberties and a vocal opponent of ID cards and increased pre-charge detention of terror suspects.

In an exclusive interview with Nick Clegg explains why he is the heir to Ming, how to tackle homophobia in eastern Europe, and where the Lib Dems could take seats from Labour at the next election. How is the campaign going?

Nick Clegg: Good. The whole contest gives us a really good opportunity to do what, frankly, we haven’t been doing enough of over the last couple of years, which is speaking to people beyond politics and starting to really showcase what the Lib Dems are about. I am all about expanding the appeal of the party. Why are there so few out gay MPs?

NC: There are too few women, too few gay men and women, too few black and minority ethnic MPs, all roughly for the same reason.

This whole place, Westminster, looks like a 19 th century boarding school, acts like a 19th century boarding school, so frankly it speaks a language utterly alien to anybody who does not fit that conventional mould. In 2005 the Lib Dems had a manifesto commitment to make incitement to homophobic hatred a crime on a par with religious hatred. What is your view?

NC: I am absolutely in favour of that. I pushed it very strongly has home affairs spokesperson; I passionately believe that there is a real problem.

I have heard some people claim that it is not an issue – it is. There is a real problem with homophobic violence. That is unacceptable and what we did with religious hatred bill shows that we can strike the right balance between making sure that hateful crime does not take place but at the same time protect people’s right to free speech. Several gay commentators, such as Times columnist Matthew Parris, object to the law.

NC: I have become persuaded by the evidence put forward by Stonewall that this is a real issue. I accept there is a much more theoretical argument about where the law affords protection to particular groups. I still think the evidence from Stonewall is compelling.

Matthew is an old friend. I understand where he is coming from, I just disagree with him on this particular issue and under my leadership I will make absolutely sure that we are at the forefront of getting the balance right with this legislation. Homophobia in some of the new EU states is a huge problem. Gay rights marches are being banned in Poland and in Lithuania. As a former MEP, what do you think we should do about it?

NC: Bluntly, I do not think we were tough enough on the Copenhagen criteria in letting them in without challenging this. And it is not just homophobia. If you look at the persecution of the Roma in parts of central and eastern Europe, it is grotesque.

We need to use every single avenue possible – political, in press terms as well to throw a spotlight onto behaviour that is simply incompatible with the criteria these countries signed up to when they joined the European Union.

The EU is not an economic club, it is a club of values, and I passionately believe that, of liberal values. Are you confident they will come round to our way of thinking?

NC: If you look at the grand scheme of things, there is progress. Sometimes it goes backwards, but on the whole, judicial independence and a spreading of liberal values is going in the right direction, but is not moving as fast as I would like. If you become leader will you increase online campaigning?

NC: Oh yes, hugely. For the obvious reasons. I am part of that generation that increasingly does not rely on ink and paper for my information. I take a train in every morning into Westminster, when I am London during the week, and I get my news from a little hand-held PDA.

That is now the way people increasing get their information. You have been referred to as the “new Cameron” or “Cameron lite” – what is it you can bring to the party?

NC: It is a number of things. If you look at the work I have done in the home affairs capacity for the party, I think most people recognise that I am one of the leading campaigners in this country on some very important issues: prison reform, talking in a smart but compassionate way about immigration, being a progressive voice on civil liberties.

I have always tried to do it in a way that is straight, plain speaking and has real substance to it. But you do not have the gravitas that Ming was praised for.

NC: I am someone who has taught at university on policy, I used to work as an international trade negotiator, I used to manage major aid projects in some of the poorest countries in Asia. I think I have got the experience and the background … The perception of some people is: he has only been in Parliament for two years, he is the new boy, young, charismatic, good looking, but we do not know what he stands for …

NC: I will tell you a story to illustrate it. About seven years ago when I first thought that I might want to make the transition from the European Parliament to Westminster, I came to this building to meet some senior Lib Dem MPs.

I said that no one had made the leap from the European Parliament to Westminster before, do you think I can do it.

And all of them said to me that your problem is that you are too interested in policy substance, you keep producing all these books, I have written books on world trade, education police, reform of the EU.

They said, you are just a bit too interested in substance and not interested enough in the presentational side of politics. So to be told a few months later that maybe the reverse is the case shows how fickle, frankly, people’s judgements are.

I am totally self-confident that I marry an ability to be able to speak to people like a human being and crucially communicate with people beyond the Westminster bubble, but do so with a real sense of credibility and substance. It is one of the most dangerous jobs in British politics, being leader of the Lib Dems. You are confident that there are not any skeletons in the Clegg closet that are going to jump out.

NC: I doubt my teenage years merit a great deal of scrutiny by those who are easily shocked!

I am not for one moment pretending I am an unblemished human being but I wouldn’t be stupid enough – not for my own sake, by the way, but for the sake of the party – to put myself forward if I did not feel that I can do so with a clear conscience. Being leader does put a big strain on your family – is that something you have discussed with your wife?

NC: Oh yeah. I would say this, wouldn’t I, but Miriam is an extraordinary woman. She has her own full time career. We have two small children; we both work more than full time and we share childcare very easily.

I am as much a primary parent to my children as she is. The way you do that is being very organised and sheltering the kids from politics. I do not think you will ever see me use my kids for political advantage and above all saying no sometimes. It is not their fault their dad has gone into politics. Are you the nasty party now?

NC: No, I don’t think we are. We have had a really rocky time of it obviously and there have been some ructions, some self-inflicted, some not.

Frankly my only concern now is to draw a line under what has been a slightly introverted time in the parliamentary party and start talking outwards again. That is why I am so pleased that the vast majority of the colleagues in the parliamentary party, who know Chris and myself the best, have declared in favour of me.

Not for some fatuous tally or head count, but because I think any leader of this party is going to have to be able to unite people very rapidly in order to make sure that there is no internal tensions so we can reach out to new voters. It is going to have to be very rapid because of what is known as the Tory squeeze, that a third party with a resurgent Conservative party …

NC: Can I just qualify that? Cameron’s appeal is much more regionally constrained than large parts of the London-based media appreciate. In the same way that you are a middle-class party with middle-class concerns?

NC: Well you say that, but you watch. We are now a party which is representing north and south, urban and rural. The Conservatives have been beaten back to their English rural heartlands. One of the reasons I am keen to lead the party is because I am an MP from the North, I cut my teeth in cities like Derby, Leicester, and Nottingham.

I am the only non-Labour MP in Sheffield and south Yorkshire. You represent one of the richest seats in the UK outside of the south east.

NC: Well come and visit it. If you think Sheffield Hallam is paved in gold you have another thing coming. There are some real pockets of deprivation.

I am a very active MP for the whole of Sheffield. I campaign with Lib Dems across the city. You cannot but be shocked by the social divisions where in the poorest ward in Sheffield you will die, on average, 14 years earlier than someone in the wealthy wards just a few miles down the road.

The Conservatives are nowhere there. They are a meaningless political force in any urban area north of Watford. That gives us an enormous bridgehead. I think the big gains that we will make against either party in the coming years will be in large measure against Labour in their urban heartlands. Look at our advances in Leeds, Newcastle and Liverpool. And you don’t think the Tory emphasis on social justice under former leader Iain Duncan Smith will work in those areas?

NC: I think most people are pretty smart, and are not just going to be bought off with some new rhetoric and photographic blandishments from Cameron. They want to see where the beef is.

I still don’t know where the substance is on his environmentalism, his social compassion.

How can you believe the Conservatives on social justice, when they want to distort the tax system in favour of marriage? Where is the progressive nature of a party that somehow thinks you can bribe people through the tax system to walk up the aisle?

Where is the progressive nature of a party that thinks you can turn immigration on and off like a tap? In a party that is extraordinarily introverted and inward looking when it comes to international relations? And what about the charge that you are a middle-class party?

NC: It needs to change. Which is why Simon Hughes has declared himself in favour of my candidacy and why I was with him in London South Bank University last week meeting a number of students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

The Liberal Democrats cannot pretend to represent contemporary Britain until contemporary Britain is represented in us.

An estimated 65,000 Lib Dem members will be sent leadership election ballot papers on November 21st, and they must be returned by 15th December. Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne are the candidates. The winner will be announced on Monday 17th December.