Monday 22 June 2015

The most obscure leadership election ever?

Years ago, when the Democratic party in the USA began using computerised push-polling, I read a fascinating magazine in one of those many American political magazines.

It quoted a defeated Democrat candidate for nomination who had lost a leadership battle against an opponent who had been using computerised push-polling against him.

I should briefly explain that push-polling means that you use polling techniques to remind supporters of the other side about the weaknesses of their candidate. But this particular example went further than most.

When this candidate’s supporters were asked who they were supporting, and they replied with his name, the computer was programmed to say: “Why are you supporting him? He’s a jerk.”

Needless to say, you can’t fight that kind of computer and he lost.

Now, I went to the London leadership hustings last week, where the two Lib Dem leadership candidates slugged it out – and a good deal more gently and with more charm than the Labour leadership candidates. It was a strange, dreamlike experience, but completely obscure about the issues of contention.

Even so, I was surprised to hear that one side had been accused of push polling against the other - not like the example above, and not using computers, but still using a poll (they deny it was a 'push poll').

And here I’m reminded that political activists are sometimes the last people who should run political campaigns, because they sometimes can’t see the wood for the trees.

Political activists are always hyper-aware of the small weaknesses in their opponents that might possibly give their side an edge. Both candidates in this election have narrow vulnerabilities, but actually they are completely irrelevant to the business of finding the right leader for the Lib Dems.

In the end, Tim Farron’s Christian faith is completely irrelevant to the leadership election, except that I respect him for it. It is a sign of commitment and depth and, personally, I find myself leaning his way whenever I’m reminded of it.

In the same way, Norman Lamb’s record on collective responsibility for the coalition as a minister is irrelevant too, except in so far as that it demonstrates loyalty and shows he can get things done.

Anyone who might think they can swing the leadership election one way or the other by harping on about either are missing the point.

The point isn’t their beliefs, or their previous compromises, which we all have to make, heaven knows – but their strengths and their core messages.

Which brings us to the key problem. The parliamentary party of the Lib Dems has been reduced to a rump of eight MPs, yet the hall at London University was packed with over a thousand expectant people for the hustings. The venue had to be changed to accommodate them.

Also about a quarter of them were new members.

I’m not sure what this means, but a closer examination of the audience revealed it to be extraordinarily like Londoners. Perhaps this isn’t surprising.

It was an overwhelmingly white audience, and might be older than previous Liberal gatherings might have seemed in the past. To me, at least, there seemed few 20-somethings and a very great number of 30-somethings.

There were more ear-rings in evidence too than you might have predicted at Liberal events in years gone by. In fact, it reminded me a great deal of the first SDP gatherings in 1981 and 1982. Polite, enthusiastic, restrained, articulate, and overwhelmingly middle class.

As you might expect from the author of Broke, I don’t regard this as a criticism.

It is a peculiar feeling, like the long-awaited Kitchener battalions in the First World War. We know these people have arrived but we don’t really know what they will do or what their impact will be on the battle.

The fact is that nearly a third of the paid up Lib Dems have joined the party within the past few weeks. It is in many ways a new party, with enthusiastic new people who are unsure what to expect – but clearly expect to be involved in debate in a way that the long standing members have not been.

Here’s the question then: how are they expected to make a decision on the leadership when the issues remain so obscured?

The press were excluded from the London hustings, which was strange, The two candidates were also excluded from each other’s presentations. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was hearing Norman Lamb’s Gordon Brown moment with his radio mike still on, in the far recesses backstage, asking if there was a lavatory anywhere.

The odd thing was that both candidates were brilliant and, although they didn’t hear each other’s addresses, they used almost exactly the same words and phrases, but in a slightly different order.

My immediate sense was that both Norman Lamb and Tim Farron would make excellent leaders. Tim won on style but Norman won on substance.

But when the message is so subtle, it is hard for new members to hear what is being said. Lib Dem leadership elections are famously obscure and often you don’t realise the point at issue until long after the polls have closed.

So let me say what I think the issue is, though you would have to read between the lines in the most subtle ways to understand this as an outsider.

It seems to me to be about how much the party needs to be turned upside down in order to win again. The Farron message appears to be that the key missing ingredient for the party is self-confidence. And that inspiration comes from articulating the traditional mantra more excitingly.

The Lamb message seems to me to be that the key missing ingredient is depth and breadth. And the inspiration comes from understanding Liberalism in new ways.

The Farron camp implies that the moment the great mistake was made was in 2010 when the party’s message was blunted. The Lamb camp implies that the moment was a decade or so before that when the party stopped thinking.

The Farron camp implies that we can reach back to our core vote before and that we need to remake the party as it was before the coalition. The Lamb camp implies that we need a new core and therefore have to reach out beyond the party.

The Farron rhetoric harks back to the Kennedy years. The Lamb rhetoric harks back further to the Grimond years, and the intellectual energy he brought to the party which drove it through the next four decades.

All these overstate the difference, and I will no doubt enrage both sides.

There are other subtle differences about their attitudes to austerity, though not really to public spending. Paradox? Not necessarily, but more on that another day.

I use the word ‘implies’ because neither of them say this precisely. This is a pity and perhaps it tempts close supporters to start seeking out the negatives instead.

Lamb and Farron share the same ambition – a Liberal government representing a Liberal movement. Their actual policies, green and devolved, seem to me to be identical. They describe those ambitions in precisely the same way, one with style and one with a bit more substance.

Style is important, especially these days, but I’m looking for the candidate who will shake us intellectually, and who will take the party out of its rhetorical comfort zones.

Full transparency. You can't really take this as a disinterested account of the differences because I'm backing Norman Lamb. It isn't a reliable guide because of that, but it is as honest a one as I can manage in the circumstances...

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Anonymous said...

Tim Farron isn't being criticised for having religious beliefs. The criticism relates to how those beliefs have influenced his public behaviour as a politician. Specifically, whether there has been an element of imposing decisions inspired by those beliefs on people who don't share them.

Felix Dodds said...

I have to say my friend having read the guardian today (Norman Lamb's Lib Dem leadership campaign admits to 'negative' polling) i worry about your recommendation

Metatone said...

For myself I'm most interested in:

Which candidate is least likely to try to turn the LibDems into a clone of the German FDP?

I can't read the subtleties well enough to work even that out...