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Audience puts Lib Dem leader on the spot
6:30am Wednesday 21st May 2014 in News
LIB Dem leader Nick Clegg has admitted tomorrow’s local and European elections will be “tough” for his party.
But he has said that the Liberal Democrats’ performance in Oxfordshire could indicate whether the party will win back one of its target seats in next year’s General Election.
He was visiting Oxford yesterday to take part in a question and answer session with members of the public, on a range of topics including Ukraine, tuition fees and whistleblowers.
Speaking to the Oxford Mail beforehand, Mr Clegg said he would be paying special attention to the results in neighbourhoods that his party is targetting – including the marginal constituency of Oxford West & Abingdon.
He said: “I certainly think it will be worth looking at not only how we do in terms of headline national proportion of the vote but also how we are doing in those areas where we are focusing most of our efforts.
“I would predict there will be a rather big difference between those areas where we are able to get our message across and those areas where we can’t get our message across, because we are not as active as we are in other areas.”
Oxford West & Abingdon, currently held by Conservative MP Nicola Blackwood with a majority of 176, is one of the most marginal constituencies in the country.
It was won from Lib Dem MP Evan Harris in the 2010 General Election.
Mr Clegg denied that his visit to the Wesley Memorial Church in New Inn Hall Street, two days before an election, was because he was concerned his party would receive a drubbing.
He said: “I love campaigning. I am a campaign leader in my party. What we are discovering is, whilst of course these are tougher elections for us than when they were last fought in 2009, where we get our message across both as the only party with a clear position on Europe and a positive position on Europe and also as a party which is delivering an economic recovery, and tax cuts and apprenticeships, fairer pensions and a better school system, people are responding to us.
“But we need to work very hard which is why I am dashing around the place.
“I am delighted to be here to get our message across.”
Extracts from the Q&A forum
Q I recently delivered a petition to 10 Downing Street addressed to you and to David Cameron which has been signed by 10,000 people asking for the law to be changed to better protect whistleblowers.
My question is will you meet me for five minutes to discuss the petition, and also to give some time to a whistleblower?
So much government time is spent with the organisations that victimise whistleblowers and civil servants who block justice and we are let down by the people who are there to protect us.
A Of course I will look into the petition and I will certainly make sure that someone sits down with you and understands your concerns.
As you will know, there are greater protections for whistleblowers than previously existed. There are also notorious examples of people whose warnings and revelations have been systematically ignored in both the public and the private sectors.
Without trying to find out precisely what happened to you, which is probably not the best thing to do now, without knowing exactly what you are demanding in your petition, I can’t really add much more, but I totally accept the basic thrust of your argument, which is that one of the ways in which the powerful of any description and in any organisation are held to account is that where people have well founded and legitimate reasons to sound the alarm, they are not ignored.
Powerful organisations of whatever description are vested interests, they have vested interests to protect themselves and often the small individual can be overlooked and intimidated.
That’s why whistleblowers do need to feel they have the confidence and the backing to make their voice heard.
Keen to be answer all questions
Q When you instructed your MPs a couple of years ago to abstain from voting for an inquiry into Jeremy Hunt’s actions when dealing with BSkyB were you aware at the time that this despicable human being would be put in charge of the health service and if not, would your actions be different if you did?
A I have said a number of disobliging things about my coalition partners. “Despicable human being” is not a phrase I would like to use for anyone.
To be honest, your question is about two completely separate issues. I think the details around the BSkyB bid and the to-ing and fro-ing around that has been gone into in huge detail.
The state of the NHS and what we need to do to protect the NHS for future generations is a completely different matter.
Of course, to precisely answer your question, no, we don’t know what someone else is going to do in the future at any point in time.
Q I just feel that Jeremy Hunt’s actions are extremely questionable and and I think something as important as the NHS should be in the hands of someone with better character.
A He has explained himself very thoroughly on his actions around the BSkyB bid. On the NHS, what I will say is that no Secretary of State for Health does or should run the NHS. The people, thankfully, who run the NHS are not politicians but are the many many outstanding and dedicated people in the NHS and if anything, I think what we have got to get away from – as a country – is the time when every time something went wrong in the NHS people would say this would have to be fixed in Whitehall.
The more we can allow clinicians and other decision makers in the NHS to make their own decisions, yes they are sometimes difficult because resources aren’t infinite, but we can make sure that Whitehall only intervenes where it has to rather than constantly second guessing decisions on what is right for clinicians.
That is actually what’s happened in progressive reform of the NHS. We are moving to less centralisation and that is broadly speaking a good thing.
I really don’t know of any other successful health system in the developed world which was as centralised as the NHS was.
Q How do you think Britain in particular and the EU in general can manage the Ukraine crisis without damaging the needed exports of natural gas into the European continent?
A It has been a huge setback for Vladimir Putin that the Ukrainian people have decided to take the future of their own country into their own hands.
There has been a basic assumption in Moscow that the Ukraine is part of a greater sphere of Russian influence.
In my view it is in Russia’s own interests to recognise the reality of million of Ukrainians wanting to exert their own identity and their own nationhood because if you constantly try to put that genie back in the bottle what will happen is a grinding process of on-going conflicts. There are a lot of reasons why I think it would be sensible for Vladimir Putin to step back from the brink.
Let’s be clear, there are a number of European countries who depend overwhelmingly if not exclusively on imports of Russian oil and gas.
You don’t have to be a genius to work out that if you’re sitting in Berlin or Rome, you’re thinking that in the long run we had better wean ourselves off Russian oil and gas.
In the long-run, Russia will lose out massively if the existing countries in Europe do rely less on Russian oil and gas. We should map out how Europe can stand on its own two feet rather than continue to over-rely on Russia.
Getting his message across
Q What do you think is more likely, England winning the World Cup or the Lib Dem’s election promises being kept?
A I think they are both perfectly likely. On the former, I read that someone in Whithall had done some specious statistical analysis that England had no chance of winning the World Cup, but I believe until I see otherwise.
On the issue of manifestos, when parties have to make compromises in the coalition, all I would say is that my party would be perfectly entitled to implement and deliver our manifesto in full if we won the election. But I’m not Prime Minister, we didn’t win the election. I am flattered that people think that when we came third in an election we have the right to implement our manifesto in full.
We don’t have the right because we didn’t win. If you want us to implement our manifesto in full, then fine, vote for the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives didn’t win a majority so they have had to make compromises.
Nick Clegg with, from left, Lib Dem MEP Catherine Bearder, Dr John Anson and Dr Amanda Brown at the Begbroke Science Park
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