Page last updated at 17:00 GMT, Saturday, 7 March 2009

Clegg offers tea and sympathy

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News, at the Lib Dem spring conference

It might be good for the soul to talk to victims of the recession, but there are rarely any votes in it.

Nick Clegg meets ex-Woolworths workers
Nick Clegg wanted to listen to the women's stories

At least that is what Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg found in Harrogate when he met former employees of now defunct retail chain Woolworth's.

Between them, the three women had racked up 45 years of service at the Knaresborough branch of Woolies before being told in November that their services would no longer be required.

"I was in absolute shock. I couldn't really believe what I was being told," said Fiona Carter, who worked at the store for 16 years.

They had been like a family and it was "sad" for them all to be split up, said Sylvia Murphy.

Happily, the three women have managed to find new jobs, although they had a few problems sorting out their redundancy pay and had to turn to local MP Phil Willis, a Liberal Democrat, for help.

Which, in a roundabout way, is how they came to find themselves spending Saturday morning posing for photographs with Nick Clegg outside what used to be the Harrogate branch of Woolworths, soon to become a branch of Boots.

'Esoteric debate'

At previous spring conferences, the Lib Dem leader of the day has done a walkabout in Harrogate town centre. This invariably turned into a typical media scrum. One year Charles Kennedy even had to take refuge in a church, after the event was hijacked by Labour students.

This was not to be Mr Clegg's fate. Apart from the fact that no one in the town centre seemed to know who he was, he wants to do things differently.

This conference is all about "listening to people," he told reporters. It was not about "esoteric debate".

So rather than competing for attention in the town centre with a man in a gorilla suit handing out fair trade bananas and a pair of boy scouts advertising a church coffee morning, he decided to head off to a nearby cafe for a proper chat.

Unconvinced

Bleary-eyed from lack of sleep following the birth of his third child, he spent a good half hour listening to the women's stories.

Mr Clegg is convinced the Lib Dems have something distinctive to say to people who have lost their jobs or are suffering in some other way due to the recession.

He says the party would get people spending again by slashing taxes for low and middle income workers and not spending billions of taxpayers money on "sham" bank nationalisations.

The women listened politely but seemed unconvinced.

Speaking afterwards, two of them said they never voted and a third, Sylvia Murphy, said she was "red through and through I'm afraid".

Surely meeting a top ranking politician like Mr Clegg - who had just bought them a round of teas and listened patiently to their stories - would make them think again?

Possibly.

But, Karen Sage pointed out, "as politicians there is not much they can do is there?".

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