Ten years ago the Liberal Democrats didn’t have too much of a say in UK politics. They were often used as a tactical vote in swing seats, and no one would have thought they’d be in Government. 5 years on from Nick Clegg joining forces with the Tories in a few weeks he could again be in the position to decide who our next Prime Minster is. I talked to the Deputy Prime Minster about tuition fees, the student vote and Lib Dem’s record in government.
Are you pleased you decided to go into government in 2010? And are you proud of your record in in government?
Going into coalition was absolutely the right decision. No- one won a majority in 2010, which was a clear sign from the voters that they were tired of single party politics and were looking for an alternative. After 5 years with a stable government, which has turned the economy around, we’ve got an incredibly good story to tell. More people are in work than ever before, we’ve cut taxes for millions of working people, we’ve protected the health and education budgets and championed the environment – it’s clear that coalition was what the UK needed, and we’ve shown that coalition works. We’ve proved it.
As the smaller party in the coalition, we were never going to be able to do everything we wanted, and of course, we have had to agree to some things we wouldn’t have chosen to do. But we have achieved all of the top policies from the front cover of our 2010 manifesto – a £10,000 tax free allowance, the pupil premium which gives more money to help disadvantaged pupils in schools across the country, and more jobs and apprenticeships in a greener Britain. And we’ve stopped the Conservatives time and time and time again from doing highly regressive things like allowing bosses to fire staff at will, with no explanation needed. So, yes, I am extremely proud of our record in government.
As a student, I have to ask you about tuition fees, in 2010 you pledged to abolish them. Obviously now we’re paying £9,000 a year – what’s the Lib Dem’s tuition fee policy for the next government?
Firstly, what I want to say is that this is the fairest deal I could get. Labour introduced fees and hiked them up, and the Tories wanted them to go up even further. In that context, it just wasn’t in my gift to abolish them. But the new system has proved to be much fairer than everyone predicted at the time. We’ve made sure that no undergraduate student in England has to pay a penny up front of their tuition fees, and graduates do not have to pay anything back until they are earning over £21,000 per year. We now have the highest university application rates ever, including from disadvantaged students. We have also introduced a loan system for some post-graduate courses, allowing people access to courses that were prohibitively expensive.
Looking forward though, we need to make sure that higher and further education remain accessible to all those who can benefit, so in the next Parliament we want to get even more people going to university and do more to drive up standards. One of the barriers for many young people is a lack of flexibility in higher education, so we’ll look at introducing a ‘credit’ system like they have in the USA. This will allow people to receive points for each of the classes that they take which will accumulate as credit towards their degree. This will make it easier to for young people to study part time and could allow them to change their university or to take a break from their studies without having to start over in the future.
Do you think some students are right to not trust the Liberal Democrat party because of the broken tuition fee promise?
We made a commitment and we couldn’t see it through, so of course I understand why people feel the way they do. I have put my hands up and apologised for that. Clearly in a government where you haven’t got a majority, you don’t have the mandate to deliver your manifesto in full. That’s just the reality of coalition. I understand why some people won’t be able to forgive us, but I hope some fair-minded people will also see beyond the one thing we couldn’t do and look at all the many things we have done. If you look at the commitments we made on the front page of our 2010 manifesto, we have treated them akin to a tablet of stone: deliver the pupil premium to help disadvantaged pupils. Done. Deliver £10,000 tax-free personal allowance. More than delivered that. Fix the economy; I think we’ve done pretty well on that. Yes, I’m not going to duck that we weren’t able to deliver on tuition fees, but there are many, many more areas where we did deliver.
Let’s be clear, in politics as in life, every party finds that there are things they can’t deliver once they get into government – Labour said there would be no boom and bust – and then presided over the biggest bust ever. David Cameron had his “no ifs, no buts” promise on immigration – he failed to deliver that. I would like to be judged on the whole of our record, but of course, that’s up to the voters.
I also want to ask you about the TV debates, you were very vocal about them going ahead. Do you think the broadcasters were right to include the Green Party, UKIP, SNP, and Plaid Cymru?
Yes. At the last election we broke the stranglehold of the two old parties – the era of two party government is over. Having seven parties on stage was symbolic of that. As you say, I was very clear that the debates should happen. I think it’s important that the British public has the opportunity to see the leaders hammering it out, discussing policies, setting out their visions, defending their records. And I think the public now expected these debates.
Around 13% of Lib Dem supporters would rather see you in opposition rather than another coaltion. Would you consider entering a coalition with either the Conservative or Labour Party?
Obviously, it is entirely up to the British public who they choose to elect in May, and it would be wrong of me to speculate about who might get how many seats and what the government might look like. But on whether we would go back in, I don’t think the Liberal Democrats should be in government just for the sake of it but we should always, if we can, play a role in doing the right thing for the country and do it in line with our policies and values.
Of course, it would be irrational not to be wary of what it might mean for us as a Party if we were to go into coalition again given what’s happened. I’m very wary. But saying we would never go into government again would be quite contrary to what liberals believe.
There’s been a lot in the media about UKIP being the biggest threat to the Lib Dems, but a recent YouGov poll showed that nearly half of Green Party supporters voted Lib Dem in 2010. Do you see either of these parties as a threat?
I think this is part of a trend – if you think about it, there has been a sharp drop in the support for all the three main Westminster parties. That’s why we’re in the situation where, for the second election in a row, no one is going to get an overall majority. And yes, the parties which espouse the sort of politics of grievance, and blame and anti-everything are on the rise.
In terms of whether I see them as a threat, well, there’s no doubt that both the Greens and UKIP will get more votes than in 2010. But I believe in plural politics and I think it is right that voters get a real choice.
Your seat, Sheffield Hallam, has a high student population, and the polls are showing a lead to Labour’s candidate. Are you worried about losing your seat?
I’m not complacent at all but I hope and expect to remain as MP for Sheffield Hallam. We’ve done a lot for Sheffield in this coalition government including a fantastic city deal, more money for schools and tax cuts for working people. I realise not everyone is going to vote for me, but I’m up for the fight, love getting out on the doorstep and speaking to constituents, and I have a great local team working with me. I actually think we are going to do a lot better than people think across the country.
In 2010, it was in your manifesto to reduce the voting age to 16. Is this something you stand by?
Definitely. I’m a firm supporter of lowering the voting age to 16, and it is in our manifesto. I think that anyone who has doubts about it should look at last year’s Scottish referendum, which showed us that 16 year olds will engage with politics when given the chance and that they deserve to be empowered to make important decisions about their own futures.
Are you worried that UK graduate recruitment and students opportunities to travel and study in Europe will be affected by Britain voting to leave Europe?
I am very worried at the negative impact exiting the EU would have on our country, and an aspect of that fear is the damage it will do to fantastic student exchange programmes like Erasmus and the great opportunities for graduates across the continent. Around 2 million Brits live in other EU countries, from students in Berlin to retirees in Spain, and our economy here in the UK benefits greatly from the contribution of people from across the EU.
In terms of where the Lib Dems stand on the EU, we are the party of ‘in’. We are unambiguous as a party that says, yes, Europe needs to be reformed, yes there needs to be a referendum – when a decision needs to be made about the transfer of powers to the European Union, we guaranteed that in law. We are not like the Conservatives, many of whom are straining at the leash to leave. We think that would be a terrible thing for the British economy. We will fight hard to keep the UK in Europe and to show people all the benefits our membership brings.
You’ve spoken a lot about decriminalizing drugs, but been quite vague about to what extent – would it span to class A drugs?
The current approach to drugs is totally idiotic, and it’s absolutely clear that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ has not only failed but done a great deal of damage to many fragile countries and communities across the world. In government we commissioned a report which concluded that there is no link between tough penalties and levels of drug use, so we need to look at new ways to help people overcome addiction. The Tories tried to stop the report from being published, because they aren’t willing to face the facts and accept that our current approach isn’t working. But we’ve looked at the facts and listened to the experts, and that’s why the Lib Dems would end the use of imprisonment for possession of drugs for personal use and move the drugs and alcohol policy lead from the Home Office to the Department of Health.
Finally, what have you learnt during the last 5 years in government, and what advice would you give to those who might be crazy enough to want a career in Politics?
That is a tough question! I guess the key lesson I’ve learnt is to keep fighting for what you believe in. One of my best days in government was last year when results came through for disadvantaged primary school children and it showed that those who had the full 5 years of the pupil premium had achieved the best results ever. Seeing the tangible benefits of a policy which you have campaigned on for so many years makes every rally, speech, interview, meeting, argument and door-knock worth it. My advice to those who want to get into politics is don’t be put off by what you see at Prime Minister’s Questions. The vast majority of people in politics from across all parties are there because they have a vision for a better country that they are willing to fight for, and if you are passionate enough to face down critics and disbelievers then you should absolutely come and get involved.
Nick Clegg is the MP for Sheffield Hallam, Leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minster.