Saturday, 17 November 2007

The real leadership issue

I’m not sure I’ve got the hang of this blogging business yet. There is so much to respond to – people even ask me what I think and I never get round to replying (yes, James Graham, you’re absolutely right!).

The problem, I suppose, is that I ought really to have instant reactions. I do, but they’re often complete rubbish. Which is my excuse for writing something about the leadership debate on Question Time a full 36 hours after it happened (mea culpa)

I thought it was an impressive, civilised debate. I thought Nick Clegg won, but only by a whisker, but then all that seemed to be up for debate was the candidates’ abilities to articulate identical responses.

Yet there is an issue in this leadership contest, it just isn’t one that can be spoken entirely openly – so this is, inevitably, an interpretation of it. The issue is this: will the Lib Dems continue with the same basic tactics and strategy but better, or will they re-think precisely why they want to achieve power and how? Will they stay a tight, slightly inward-looking band of initiated enthusiasts, or will they reach out and find new ways of knitting together a Liberal coalition?

This is also – surprise, surprise – the key issue for me. I approach the candidates with the following questions:

• Will they renew the intellectual basis of Liberalism (we’re still living off the ideas from Grimond’s leadership four decades ago)?

• Will they articulate a new approach to politics that is capable of pulling opinion formers behind the party (or will they just assume, as we have done, that most of them are simply ‘against us’)?

• Will they update, renew and deepen our community politics heritage so that helping people ‘take and use power’ is at the heart of our strategy (or will they carry on assuming it’s just about leaflets and elections)?

• Will they engage with the ferment of new ideas outside the party (or will they fall back on the tried-and-tested way of expressing things that has served us well since 1979)?

• Will they stitch together an innovative platform capable of providing political leadership for the voluntary sector (as we did successfully in the 1960s)?

Since this is inevitably not part of the public debate, we have to read the code. But I take it from Clegg’s description of the last two years of the party as ‘inward-looking’ and his urge to take the party “out of its comfort zone” that he realises how much we’ve got stuck, and is prepared to do something about it.

Huhne may feel the same; I might be wrong. But the careful tailoring of his message to the defensive fears of activists leads me to believe it isn’t so high up his agenda.

That’s why I’m backing Clegg. Because I believe he will be bolder and more thoughtful on our behalf, and boldness and thought are what we need more than anything else right now.


Linda Jack said...


In waiting for 36 hours to respond to the QT Debate you have been able to articulate so brilliantly the key issues. This is such a great post David, if waiting results in such a seminal piece, I for one am delighted!

Charles Anglin said...

A superb post - you exactly sum up to post. Do we carrying on talking to ourselves, rehashing our last 3 manifestoes, with a new coating of competency or do we reinterpret our values so that they are relevant to the world as it is today?

Chris´s campaign has been very effective so far in playing to the internal LibDem gallery, a natural temptation in a leadership election. However, if we are to break out of our rut in the polls then we need persuade new groups of people who don´t think of themselves as LibDems to support us. Deluding ourselves that they don´t support becuse they simply have heard what we´ve said before is the road to no where. We need to make ourselves more relevant to their lives.

This election isn´t just about presentation it´s about direction, not so much left or right as inwards or outwards. I believe that Nick gets this in a way that Chris´s campaign indicates he does not. However Nick needs to start articulating the need to change more clearly or the momentum of this race will shift away from him.

Hywel said...

At the risk of agreeing with Charles (one of those Lib Dems I quite like but seem to end up always being on the opposite side of!) I think he's right that Nick is more outward looking.

What doesn't convince me is that there is a lack of substance to everything he says. The approach seems to be to say X is a problem and therefore he will do Y where Y is a rather gimmicky soundbite.

As an example improving the range of candidates by having a Lib Dem academy. But there's no detail as to how this will operate, be funded or be fundamentally different to the training regime we have offered over previous years. It might be a good idea or it might just be more of the same with a different branding. (It also wasn't mentioned in his ALDC piece suggesting this will be more Westminster focussed stuff but that may be another matter!)

I only voted Huhne last time as a favour to a friend and at the moment I will probably not vote for either as I'm not convinced by either.

James Graham said...

I started this campaign as a default Clegg supporter. I assumed that he would be more articulate and more outward looking than Huhne. I somewhat resented the accusation that we'd been inward looking for the past two years (any more so than it has been for the previous twenty at any rate) but like you David I took it to mean a direction of travel.

People like me were waiting to hear something of the detail of that during the campaign itself. It didn't have to be much, he certainly didn't need to reach as far as Huhne has been, but I needed something.

I simply don't see how you can argue that Clegg's campaign has been outward looking. Broadly speaking, all he has done is rehearse existing party policy. That is a strategy calculated to ameliorate the party faithful who are worried that he might actually want change. Worse, it creates a prison for himself for if and when he finally gets around to demanding something substantial. Which of his supporters is he going to alienate: Steve Webb or David Laws? Where is his mandate?

Being outward looking is all very well, but sometimes you have to say what you see. Otherwise it starts to resemble messianic self indulgence. An outward looking pig in a poke is still, at the end of the day, a pig in a poke.

youngdegsy said...

In a rare moment of consensus, I agree with almost everything James Graham said. The difference is that I started out as a Chris supporter and have been confirmed in that as the campaign has progressed.

Chris's status as an underdog seemed to be based entirely on the number of endorsements obtained from parliamentarians which, as we know in a one-member, one-vote ballot with an electorate as individually-minded as this one can be is no guarantee of anything. Nonetheless, this underdog status was awarded by the London-based media and a perception created that Chris had to make the running, which he undoubtedly has.

I was at least expecting Nick to come back fighting with something impressive, particularly which lived up to his "impressive communicator" tag. He simply hasn't, and has left many distinctly underwhelmed. Cameron and Blair were both "anointed" front-runners in their leadership contests, and although they both pointed out that their parties had to change, crucially, they also indicated how - not necessarily specific policies, but a sense of direction.

Worryingly, this is gravitating toward a lose-lose situation for the party. Now, if Nick wins, people will be wondering why he wasn't bold enough to set out a stall, and waiting to see which way he will jump on policy. If Chris wins, people will feel that Nick lost it as much as Chris won it, and the media won't hesitate to point out that most of the parliamentary party wanted the other bloke.

Derek Young

Davidboyle said...

Well, needless to say, I don't agree. We are not all of us inward-looking in the party, and certainly not people like you, James - quite the reverse. But there is something about the prevailing culture of the party that seems nervous of the new ideas out there, defensive about new approaches, conservative about community politics (I speak from the experience partly of sitting on the FPC).

Neither leadership contender gets much chance to get details across, certainly not through the media. That's a pity because we could do with more detail, and braver detail, from both sides.

But I was impressed by Clegg's speech to the NCVO. It isn't detailed policy, but the basic stance is innovative and right. See what you think: