After three very different Bite the Ballot Q&A sessions - Natalie Bennett, Nigel Farage and Ed Miliband all having been subject to scrutiny from this nascent platform, arguably the toughest task to date was presented to Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg.
Faced with a room of young people unlikely to have forgotten his party’s broken tuition fees promise, and with the Nick Clegg Apology Song (Autotune Remix) still ringing in their ears, the Deputy Prime Minister was going to have his work cut out to convince the audience that his party had learnt from past mistakes.
In a bold and shrewd strategy, Mr Clegg bravely opted to tackle the tuition fees issue head on (in addition to health, jobs and the public-selected topic of immigration) and selected education as his second topic.
On jobs, Mr Clegg was largely impressive; calling for an end to ‘absurd and deeply exploitative’ zero hours contracts, highlighting the difficulty many people find in ‘climbing the career ladder’ having started their first job on low wages and pointing to the income tax threshold being raised to £10,600.
With the expected message of ‘stronger economy, fairer society,’ it was difficult to argue with the Lib Dem leader, and his plans to scrap the ‘lower run minimum wage in apprenticeships’ won the approval of his audience, as did his view that interns who ‘do a proper day’s work’ should not be interns at all and should earn the same as a regular employee.
Yet it was not quite a virtuoso beginning. Mr Clegg made a hugely contentious claim, asserting that the gender pay gap ‘has roughly disappeared for women aged under 40’ in Britain. This assertion, made before by Tories, was recently called into question by Shadow Women and Equalities Minister Gloria de Piero, who highlighted that women have been hit worse than men by the coalition’s tax and benefit changes, and bear around 85% of the burden in the areas of tax credits and benefits.
The Lib Dem leader said he was in favour of ‘forcing big companies to publish what their pay gap is’, but flaked out of a question asking him what the penalties would be for companies who did not comply.
Yet these were minor blips. The Lib Dem leader was well received on jobs, with viewers tweeting a 58% #YesNick majority and giving him the good start he needed to tackle the elephant-in-the-room second topic of education.
Asked whether he could commit to bringing down tuition fees from £9,000 a year, Mr Clegg said that he thought he had learnt his lesson, and ‘shouldn’t make promises on that whole issue of how we fund universities… without being sure that it’s right and that it can be kept’.
“Is it not right then, bringing the fees down?” pressed the member.
For the first time in the debate, the Lib Dem leader looked flustered and retreated back to a predictable ‘small Parliamentary majority’ comfort blanket, claiming that had his party gone into coalition with Labour, the result would have been the same.
However, Mr Clegg picked himself back up and made an important point about the cost of going to university, putting straight the audience member who had given the audience preview of the topic.
“I agree with Sam on some things and disagree with him on some things,” said the Deputy Prime Minister, “but he is factually wrong on this - you don’t have to pay anything up front.”
Mr Clegg described the current system of paying tuition fees as “the next best thing” to not paying tuition fees at all and said that rising numbers of students going to university showed that students “had got their calculators out.”
Relieved to have got the tuition fees question out of the way, Clegg cogently argued for well-off retirees contributing more to the public purse to help fund discounted transport for schoolchildren and committed to a manifesto pledge on the subject, but ran into trouble again on a question of youth engagement in politics. Indeed, the Lib Dem leader was interrupted by the audience member who had asked the question, pointing out that Mr Clegg had not answered the concerns.
It could have gone worse, but audience groans at the Lib Dem leader’s ‘it’s just like the Scottish referendum!’ quip summed up how far the Lib Dems have to go in order to regain youth trust on universities, as the #NoNicks triumphed 55-45.
Once again, Mr Clegg’s resilience and bounce-back ability was one of the defining trends of his performance as the conversation moved onto health.
After the standard issue declaration of love for the NHS and a dig at the last Labour government, who, the Lib Dem leader alleged, had ‘handed out sweetheart deals’ to private companies (something which Mr Clegg flatly denied the coalition were doing), he made an important and well-argued point on the danger of viewing mental health as a secondary priority.
Attitudes to mental health and the stigma surrounding it is also a problem for schools, Mr Clegg said. “Our health and education systems don’t talk to each other,” he asserted – stating that teachers need better training to address potential mental health issues in children. Some very good ideas expressed which gained well-deserved support from social media to the tune of 60% #YesNick.
A performance which had seen the passion, weakness, open-minded liberal spirit and complacency of Nick Clegg reached its conclusion with a discussion of immigration.
The Lib Dem leader stated that public fears over immigration had to be addressed, but that he would not pander to fears. He argued that leaving the EU would leave the UK ‘poorer and weaker’, describing the desire to leave Europe as ‘not only mean-spirited, but self-defeating’.
Mr Clegg then treated us all to a literary rendition to rival The Nick Clegg Apology Song: “Don’t pretend to people that there is some false, easy short-cut solution… oh, morning sun would settle on the mist if only we would pull out of the European Union!” Gold.
All going well so far, an audience still bubbling with rage after their recent clash with Nigel Farage were appreciative of Mr Clegg’s pro-EU stance. Where it started to go a bit pear-shaped was on the topic of benefits.
“Moving round the EU is a great right and a prerogative, but freedom to move is not freedom to claim benefits,” said Mr Clegg, evidently expecting more agreement.
He did not get it. An audience member (the same one who had earlier interrupted him mid-answer to ask if he could possibly actually answer the question) accused the Deputy Prime Minister of being “disingenuous” and ‘trying to make the debate about benefits, when it’s not’.
Mr Clegg reacted by making a truly bizarre point, stating that public perception about the impact of immigration on welfare is ‘just as important as the dry statistic.’ This provoked much amusement on the part of the questioner.
The Lib Dem leader was on the rocks in the final round and his claim that he had ‘struck the balance between immigrants and bankers’ was dismissed.
Yet, incredibly, he managed to pick himself up one last time and won his audience (well, some of them) round again. Mr Clegg called for tougher controls on immigration and stressed the importance of immigrants learning English, a strategy not wholeheartedly acclaimed but still good enough to see a final victory for the #YesNicks at 61-39.
Overall, the Q&A was a success for Nick Clegg. He was relaxed, personable, if at times a tad condescending. He was firm in his beliefs but rarely rejected the opinions of his audience, although did not pander to them as Ed Miliband had attempted to do the previous week. Most important of all, Clegg came across as a human being.
He looked as though he enjoyed the experience, and watching the Liberal Democrat leader - a man constantly under-fire for the past four and a half years - put in a confident, assured, human performance in what was a potentially highly problematic environment was an object lesson in perseverance.