Nick Clegg and Lib Dems: 'We won't cut. Absolutely nothing is more important'

18th September 2009 at 01:00
While both Tories and Labour admit that the next administration must face up to cuts in public spending, the Lib Dem leader tells Richard Vaughan a rather different story. He says investment in schooling and children's well-being will form one of the three `pillars' of his party manifesto

Original paper headline: `We won't cut. Absolutely nothing is more important'

At first, Nick Clegg appears to be simply the latest incarnation of the urbane politician, straight from the BlairCameron mould.

A polished orator with a chummy, attentive manner that comes to him with ease - one that Blair perfected and which Gordon Brown can only grudgingly admire from his ever-wobblier seat of power.

Dubbed a "clone" of his Conservative counterpart David Cameron when he was fighting the leadership battle, Mr Clegg has steered his party closer to the Conservatives' waters in an attempt to woo Tory voters on the fringes.

A key ally in this process is the party's education spokesman, David Laws, who sits in on our meeting, giving the interview a slightly guarded atmosphere.

But once the conversation begins, sitting in his office in the bowels of the Houses of Parliament, it emerges that Mr Clegg is paying more than lip service to the importance of education in the Lib Dems' armory. One of the three "pillars" of the party's manifesto, Mr Clegg says, will be supporting schools and "improving the life chances of children".

Privately educated at Westminster School before attending Cambridge, where he studied social anthropology, Mr Clegg is the son of a half-Russian father and a Dutch mother, now a retired special needs teacher. She arrived in Britain as a child after spending part of her childhood in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Indonesia.

It was his mother who played a key part in forging his politics, and perhaps it was the way in which she overcame adverse circumstances to become a teacher that influenced his decision to place education at the centre of his plans for the election trail.

It is time to put an end to the "broken promises" of New Labour's regime, he says, as well as breaking the "cycle" of social deprivation and under- achievement at school.

"Anyone who works in a school - teaches in a school - must feel the disappointment I certainly feel after all the promises from New Labour," he said.

"Right back to Blair's education, education, education providing real emphasis on schools, despite all the money that's gone in we're still having to live with a record of close to 50 per cent leaving school without five good GCSEs, including maths and English."

He describes the link between social deprivation and under-performance as the "abiding weakness" of the English schools system. The talk of "breaking the link" has a distinctly familiar ring to the Tories' policy rhetoric on "closing the gap".

But there is one stark - and, particularly for schools, reassuring - difference between the words of Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron when the conversation turns to funding. It is when the Lib Dem leader becomes most animated and, perhaps, most convincing.

The last two weeks' headlines have been dominated by admissions from Mr Cameron and, eventually, Mr Brown that public spending will be cut and that schools will have no guarantees of financial security.

But according to Mr Clegg, school funding will be ring-fenced under a Liberal Democrat government.

"We won't cut. Absolutely nothing could be more important," he says. "We have a crisis in this country in how we pay for things in the future. The world has changed forever. We have got this ballooning structural deficit which means we will not be able to pay for things in the way we did before. That is a fact and we need to learn to abandon some policies and funding pledges we've made in the past. That will be painful for us and painful for all the parties.

"But one of the things I'm absolutely adamant about is that it would be madness to cut support for schools in order to deal with the poisonous legacy of this recession. If we want this country to recover from this huge economic shock we've suffered; we've got to start with our children. Sacrificing their life chances to fill the black hole left by Gordon Brown will only make it more likely that we will not be able to return to sustained prosperity in the future."

Sacrifices are exactly what will happen under the Conservatives who, he says, have been "utterly phoney" in their schools policies. He accuses them of "talking the talk" on school policy, but without giving a "scintilla" of thought about how they would pay for it.

"Seeing (shadow schools secretary) Michael Gove, there's a friendliness on funding and then this undisguised elitism saying they want to take vocational qualifications out of league tables," he says. "They're trying to be all things to all people, saying anything people want to hear to get elected. But actually scratch the surface and you get unfunded commitments and the same old Tory elitism."

The Liberal Democrats, like the Conservatives, would introduce a pupil premium, an additional sum that would be attached to pupils from deprived backgrounds. But unlike the Conservatives, the Lib Dems have revealed how they would pay for it by scrapping tax credits to above-average income families.

Similarly, the party would drop the so-called "baby bond" available to all parents of new-borns - worth approximately pound;500 million a year - to pay for smaller primary classes.

These are the necessary cuts, Mr Clegg says, that have to be made if we are to provide a better future for the next generation.

"If you want to shift social mobility, if you want to give all children the best chance in life, all children the opportunity to be part of a new, growing, green, sustainable future . you've got to bring that funding forward, not blow half a billion pounds by giving a 250 quid cheque to 18- year-olds," he enthuses.

"I'd love to give a pound;250 cheque to everyone, but it's the kind of thing we can no longer afford. That would be a spectacular act of self-inflicted damage to the future of Britain if we allowed the toxic legacy of this recession to hit support for schools and children."

Every sentence is geared towards his plan to correct the lack of social mobility in Britain. The growing divide between the "haves and the have nots" is New Labour's greatest shame, he says.

"I think it is the greatest stain on Labour's record in that it has done so little to really promote social mobility, really overcome inequality and really use the schools system to overcome entrenched social divisions."

"None of that has happened over 10 or 12 years of New Labour, and in a sense Ed Balls is just a postscript in a decade-long record of disappointment and there's not much he can do to shift that between now and the election."

Part of the plan to undo Labour's record would be to abolish the "manic micromanagement" that Mr Clegg says has become a recurring feature in Labour's government.

The Lib Dems would bin the current 600-page national curriculum and replace it with a slimmer 20-page document that would simply list subject areas to be followed. Likewise, local authorities would be given greater powers and the freedoms afforded to academies would be expanded to all schools.

The party has even given the academies model a twist, dropping the name for "sponsor-managed schools", which would effectively be controlled by the local authority in a commissioner role.

Such policy nuances may elude the average Joe in the street, he says, but the key in investing in schools and young people will be the deciding factor for voters, who want "change".

"I think with this general election looming, a lot of people will be thinking Labour are finished. They're tired, they've run out of road," he says. "But they look at the Conservatives and think we can't turn the clock back, can't be fooled into thinking they'll do all of these great things when actually they're not providing any money to back up their assertions and still harbour elitist instincts.

"I'm telling you (that) providing continued support to schools is a passionately held ideological conviction and that a happy, mobile, more equal society cannot be created unless you give continued support to the schools system and put your money where your mouth is."

Listening to the Lib Dems is often a little like hearing an aid worker on fighting the spread of malaria in Africa. Their conviction is praiseworthy, but at the back of your mind you know they are fighting a losing battle.

But to the Lib Dems it is clear that the only route out of a recession is to invest in the education and well-being of this country's children. At present, Nick Clegg is the only party leader saying he will continue to do so at current levels of spending.

Nick Clegg: CV

  • 1967: Born in Oxfordshire
  • 1978: Attended independent Westminster School
  • 1986: Studied social anthropology at Robinson College, Cambridge
  • 1993: Journalist, Financial Times
  • 1999: Member of the European Parliament
  • 2005: MP for Sheffield Hallam; European spokesman in Charles Kennedy's front-bench team
  • 2006: Shadowed Home Secretary
  • 2007: Succeeded Menzies Campbell as Lib Dem leader
    • Lib Dem proposals

      • A pupil premium that would raise pound;2.5 billion to help the 1 million most disadvantaged children and to cut class sizes for five to seven-year-olds to about 15
      • Scrap 600-page national curriculum and replace it with a slimmer minimum entitlement of about 20 pages
      • Retain key stage 2 but produce a slimmer version of national testing
      • A new general diploma incorporating GCSEs, A-levels and vocational qualifications
      • Replace the Government's five good GCSE target with average points system
      • General Teaching Council to be responsible for continuous professional development
      • Give heads more freedom on pay, to help them recruit
      • Cut class sizes to 15 for five to seven-year-olds.

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