Monday 12 April 2010

On Clegg/Paxman: a good performance, but not quite the whole truth on child benefit

I thought Nick Clegg did pretty well in his interview with Jeremy Paxman tonight (online here), the first of the three party leaders to face a bout with Paxo.

Three of the issues where he seemed to me to make a good pitch for the yellow team were:

1. He has a better response to hypothetical hung Parliament than the LibDems have had in previous election campaigns and didn't get stuck for ages refusing to answer a question in different ways. And continually defining a mandate as "more votes and seats" cleverly ducked the really important question he has decided not to answer.

2. He made a decent 'let them pay taxes' pitch for regularising long-term illegal immigrants, though was measured and fairly cautious about making too positive a liberal case on immigration more generally.

3. He was animated in arguing about equal life chances - that where you are born shouldn't determine the chances you have in life - and it is good that the life chances and equality language that was fairly marginal when the Fabians were trying to make that an issue ahead of the 2005 campaign is now pretty much common rhetorical ground across the political spectrum.

But I thought he was weaker on three points.

1. I thought he was weakest on NHS spending, and LibDem approaches to protesting against any changes. Warbling on about bureaucracy and waste just ducks the politics of this.

2. He was clear about the £10,000 income tax threshold change costing £17 billion, but then pretended not to know that only £1 - £1.5 billion went on taking the lowest earners out of income tax.

I am sure the policy remains a popular headline pitch - but it was good to see the issues which have been so extensively aired out here around the Labour and LibDem blogosphere getting into the high-profile mainstream media debate, though no doubt his supporters will have felt his riposte a good one.

Clegg showed admirable chutzpah in his defence, saying he wouldn't apologise for that £1.5 billion. But, if he was seeking to make a populist defence of his policy choice, he did miss a good chance, when Paxman complained that those earning over £100,000 were excluded by the taper from his tax threshold change, to apologise that Jeremy was one of the top 1% to miss out.

3. Finally Clegg did mis-speak or get caught out on one point, when he claimed that he had never questioned universal child benefit for high earners. "We are not putting child benefit into question. I never has and he never has either", he said referring to Vince Cable's verbal slip in the Chancellor's debate.

But that wasn't correct. Clegg himself had put it into question, and rather more deliberately, floating the means testing of child benefit in The Guardian last September, describing paying universal child benefit to the best off as "patently silly and patently unfair on the weekend of his party conference:

He is even prepared to examine means-testing universal child benefits, though he is cautious of destroying "middle-class solidarity" with the welfare state.

"I find it odd that people on multi-million pay packages from the city get child benefit. That's patently silly and patently unfair," he says.

Happily, LibDem policy in favour of universal child benefit was very quickly reasserted by Steve Webb at a Fabian and CentreForum fringe the following day.

"We've been able to conduct the review speedily over the last 24 hours - and I am pleased to say that the policy won't be changing",

"I read.....we were going to look at 'middle class child benefit'. I have looked at it – and I have rejected it," Webb added.

And I was glad to play a supporting role in defence of LibDem progressivism on that issue, as Next Left reported, along with Paul Waugh, and event chair Michael White of The Guardian all reported at the time.

Which I hope does show that Lab-Lib dialogue, though often sharply contested, can sometimes be of benefit to progressives in both parties.


Here is the Paxman-Clegg exchange on child benefit.

JP: Can we just clear up something on child benefit: in September last year, you said you wanted to get rid of child benefit for high earners. At the start of ...

NC: No I didn't say get rid of it. I didn't say; I've never said that.

JP: You've never wanted to get rid of it for high earners.

NC: No, I've never said that.

JP: But Vince Cable said in the Chancellor's debate,only a matter of two or three weeks ago, that he did want to get rid of it.

NC: No, he made quite clear, within minutes I think of the debate , that he misspoke, and that what he meant was the child component of the child tax credit system.

We are not putting child benefit into question. I never have and he hasn't either.

JP: Alright. Let's go then to what may be an outcome of this election ...

1 comment:

no longer anonymous said...

"And continually defining a mandate as "more votes and seats" cleverly ducked the really important question he has decided not to answer."

How was this clever? It was clear to anybody with reasonable intelligence that he was deliberately dodging the question. People hate politicians who do that!