Clegg: 'Labour has failed and the Conservatives have no answers'

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Indy Politics

"I'm very excited about what the party can do once we get beyond this internal contest," Nick Clegg repeatedly told friends during a long and rather frustrating Liberal Democrat leadership battle. Now he finally has the chance to live up to his own billing.

But only just. The party's new leader did not display as much of the "X-factor" that his admirers hoped to see during a mainly low-key campaign. His team's initial telephone canvassing suggested a 60-40 winning margin. But the natural pessimist in him told him victory was not assured when more and more party members began replying "don't know" while his opponent Chris Huhne was enjoying a high profile. In the end, his wafer-thin majority of 511 was uncomfortably close.

Speaking to The Independent, Mr Clegg admitted he had kept a constant eye on the aftermath of the contest, in line with his desire to turn people with liberal instincts into Liberal Democrat voters. So he tried not to be drawn into bloody hand-to-hand combat with Mr Huhne, fearing it would damage the party's image. "If it had been a dirty fight, it would have been bad for me, the party and my leadership," he said.

One theory in the Clegg camp is that the election was so close because he left it relatively late in the campaign to set out his policies in detail, allowing Mr Huhne to run "scare stories" which worried party members for example, that he supported NHS vouchers (which he does not).

Mr Clegg will now begin the task of winning over critics who sniped that he was "windy and waffly" during the election. His desire to stamp his authority on his party will have been increased by the narrow margin of his victory. His big idea is to carve out a niche for Britain's third party as the champion of social mobility, which he believes is a classic "radical liberal" issue. He hopes to erase what he calls the "caricature" of him as a right-winger by adopting an unmistakably "progressive" agenda that also includes a redistribution of wealth through tax cuts for people on low and middle incomes.

It was the inequality of the Thatcher era that lured him into politics and made him a Liberal Democrat, a personal mission reinforced by representing a Sheffield constituency. "If you are born in the poorest ward in Sheffield, you die 14 years earlier than if you were born in the richest ward four miles down the road," he said.

He is genuinely outraged that bright children from poor homes are being overtaken by the age of six by less bright pupils from better-off families, as well as by the relatively longer life expectancy enjoyed by the middle-classes. "Britain is not a country fit for children to live in. We have a fossilised society," he said. "The figures are very embarrassing for Labour, which has failed, and the Conservatives have no answers." Mr Clegg wants schools to be paid more for each child they accept from a poor family than the amount they get for taking a pupil from a better off one. He would bring spending on poorest children up to that spent on those attending private schools.

He insists he has no intention of "rewriting LibDem policy line by line". His goals are to bring renewal, change, ambition, greater rigour on domestic policy and to break into new ground such as family policy and opposing "the politics of fear." He wants to re-energise a party whose membership has dropped from 101,000 in 1994 to 64,700 today. A new approach to the media will see him appearing on Newsround as well as Newsnight and a big push on internet campaigning.

Mr Clegg's message to the public is that his party is "back in business". He is convinced there are reasons for optimism. "Liberalism is a very distinct, separate political tradition. But it isn't properly represented in either the Conservative or Liberal parties."

Nor is he impressed with David Cameron's offer to work with the Liberal Democrats and Greens to forge a "progressive consensus". He literally laughs that off as a "piece of mischief-making" just before his party announced its new leader.

Mr Clegg knows that first impressions count. After all, Sir Menzies Campbell never really recovered from a doddery start at Prime Minister's Questions. Mr Clegg wants a good first 100 days.

His minimum target is to more than double the party's 63 MPs by the general election after next. "It is an incredibly steep hill to climb," he said. "I think we can do it. We must do it."