Clegg Pitches for Renewed Coalition Role After U.K. Vote

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg portrayed his Liberal Democrats as a moderating force in British politics as he appealed for votes in next year’s general election.

Taking advantage of his party’s annual conference in Glasgow, Scotland, coming after those of Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives and the Labour opposition, Clegg used his closing keynote speech today to mark out the dividing lines with the other parties.

“The British people don’t want a Labour government running their country, racking up debts for our children and grandchildren to pay,” nor a Conservative Party that “only looks after its own kind,” Clegg said. “If the Liberal Democrat voice is marginalized in British politics, our country will be meaner, poorer and weaker as a result.”

Support for Clegg’s party has slumped by two-thirds since it went into coalition with the Conservatives after the 2010 election, and it’s struggled to establish its identity with voters as the junior partner in the government. Clegg, who has already appointed a team to oversee any coalition negotiations after the 2015 election, is seeking to make an electoral virtue of the role his party could play in a future government, with another hung parliament looking possible.

Clegg listed his party’s achievements in government in increasing funding for education, cutting taxes and introducing gay marriage. He asked to be judged on that record rather than on a U-turn on a pledge not to increase university tuition fees made before the 2010 election.

‘Immensely Proud’

“When you meet people who still aren’t sure about us, ask them this: How will you judge us? By the one policy we couldn’t deliver in government or by the countless policies we did deliver?” he told activists. “I’m immensely proud of what we’ve achieved, and I don’t want the Tories claiming all the credit for everything we’ve done.”

Clegg attacked the “seductive and beguiling” populism of the U.K. Independence Party and the Scottish National Party, and he pledged that the Liberal Democrats would seek to bridge the divisions they are exploiting in British society.

“Something very un-British is taking root in our politics, a growing movement of people who want to pull us apart,” he said. “Someone has to stand up for the liberal Britain in which we and millions of decent, reasonable people believe. For tolerance, compassion, openness, unity -- the values this party holds so dear.”

Different Politics

Reflecting on the loss of the novelty that helped him win support in the 2010 election, Clegg said the Liberal Democrats need to stand by their beliefs and values as the election approaches, even as polls suggest the party may lose half of its lawmakers in the House of Commons.

“We may no longer be untainted, as we were by the freedom of opposition, I may no longer be the fresh-faced outsider, but we still stand for a different kind of politics,” Clegg said. “Our mission is to give people a reason to reject bitter, us-and-them politics, to shun the politics of blame and fear, to choose something better.”

The speech “was vintage Nick Clegg -- he came across as so passionate,” Rosemary Hasler, who heads the local party in Wells, western England, said in an interview. “The speech on its own isn’t enough to revive us in the polls because no speech ever does and people only see the snippets they show on the news. I think the polls seriously underestimate the votes we’ll be getting, especially in those places we have MPs.”

Tax Threshold

Clegg, who proposed cutting income tax for most earners, funded by an increase in the capital-gains tax paid by the wealthy, said Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne had privately resisted reducing income tax for the lowest earners in 2012, telling him he didn’t “want to deliver a Liberal Democrat budget.”

The threshold to start paying income tax, currently 10,000 pounds ($16,000), should go up to 11,000 pounds in April 2016, with a goal of getting to 12,500 pounds, Clegg said. Osborne told his party’s conference last week that he also wants to increase the threshold, though he’ll pay for it in part through cuts to benefits for working-age people, without saying where the rest of the money would come from.

Under Clegg’s plan, people who pay the 40 percent rate of income tax and currently pay capital-gains tax at 28 percent would pay as much as 40 percent on profits from asset sales. A further 250 million pounds would be raised by reducing the amount of capital gains people can receive tax-free to 2,500 pounds from 11,000 pounds.

Clear Choice

“The choice is clear: Unfunded, unfair Tory tax cuts or Lib Dem tax cuts which are funded and fair,” Clegg said. “The difference is that they want to cut taxes for the wealthiest, paid for by the working age poor. We want to cut taxes for working people, paid for by the wealthiest.”

Clegg also promised to put mental-health services on the same level as treatment for physical ailments by investing extra cash and bringing in targets for how long patients have to wait for treatment.

Describing mental health as the “Cinderella” of the National Health Service, Clegg said patients shouldn’t have to wait more than six weeks to start “talking therapies” such as cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal psychotherapy. Providers will face sanctions if 75 percent of patients are not seen within that time, “just as if you are waiting for an operation on your hip,” he said.

“That’s the road map from here to polling day,” Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael said in an interview after Clegg’s speech. “He’s created brave, clear positions for us. We will look fresh to the electorate on polling day, and we will look different, and that matters.”

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