What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice
January 31, 2006
So kudos to him for turning up, and ensuring the Lib Dems, Tories and 27 Labour rebels defeated by one vote the Government's absurd, ham-fisted plans to outlaw criticism, insult, abuse and ridicule of religion, belief or religious practice.
He's not had much to smile about lately; but he can be justly proud of what he helped achieve this evening.
7 things to do before I die:
1. travel to every continent
2. read everything I want to
3. find a reliable plumber
4. work out the meaning of life
5. appear on Desert Island Discs
6. live and work in London
7. become immortal
7 things I cannot do:
1. speak a foreign language (to my shame)
2. wink with my right eye
3. like beer or understand rugby
4. work out how to tape a programme on digital TV
5. stop losing umbrellas
6. listen to ‘Quote, Unquote’
7. tolerate intolerance
7 things that attract me to Oxford:
1. Bodleian Library
2. Covered Market
3. Port Meadow
4. University Parks
5. Pitt Rivers Museum
7. the bus to London
7 things I often say:
1. “To be fair”
2. “Latte with cinnamon, please”
3. “I’m sorry, but I’ve been on hold for 20 minutes”
4. “For fuck’s sake”
5. “Ah, that’s the County Council’s fault, not the City Council’s”
6. “Sorry I’m late”
7. “I take your point, but…”
7 books that I love:
1. The Unconsoled – Kazuo Ishiguro
2. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke
3. An Instance of the Fingerpost – Iain Pears
4. The Warden – Anthony Trollope
5. The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen
6. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – JK Rowling
7. Moon Tiger – Penelope Lively
7 movies I watch over and over again (well, more than once)
1. Moulin Rouge
2. The Third Man
4. Escape To Victory
6. Love Actually
7. The West Wing (I know it's not a movie)
7 people I want to join in too:
1. Peter and Steve at The Apollo Project
2. Neil Fawcett
3. Phil at John Bright’s Body
4. Richard Huzzey
5. Simon at Inner West
6. Rob Knight at Liberal Review
7. Jock Coats
January 29, 2006
Half of it is lazy, sloppy and cheap, the other half is the quality analysis I’ve come to expect; like two cars – a Robin Reliant and a Rolls Royce – grafted together by a dodgy dealer.
Last week, David Cameron warned his Shadow Cabinet colleagues not to be complacent about the Lib Dems' present crisis, amid daily revelations that have given the third party a taste of what "Back to Basics" was like for the Conservatives (or, in the case of the party of beards, sandals and folk songs, "Back to Beatniks").Beatniks? You mean those 1950s’ American bohos who rejected middle-class values (yeah, that sounds so Lib Dem). Is that the best pun you could find, Matthew? Sad thing is, I bet you were really pleased when you thought of it too. And lest Matthew forgets, the ‘Back to Basics’ which inflicted real damage on the Tories was not the sad death of Stephen Milligan but being on the take from Mohammed al’Fayed, taking cash for questions, and selling arms illegally to Iraq.
It would take a heart of stone not to snigger at the sight of Britain's most sanctimonious politicians making fools of themselves so soon after they mercilessly despatched Charles Kennedy for his own frailty.
Well, clearly I’m not cut out to be the Tin Man. Perhaps it’s why I’m not a hack-writer. ‘Cos I have a sneaking sympathy for Mark Oaten – publicly humiliated, his career over, his marriage in tatters – and certainly for Simon Hughes – forcibly outed by a latently homophobic media, glorying in its own brutish power. If the last week has done anything, it is to remind me and many other Lib Dems quite how deeply unpleasant so many Tories are in their treatment of others’ misfortunes.
And for the Conservatives, so used to the traffic heading in the opposite direction, the defection to the Tories last week of Adrian Graves, a former Lib Dem candidate, must have been especially
It was certainly sweet for the media whose narrative this ‘small earthquake in Chile’ it fitted. We’ve yet to see the defection of three Lib Dem MPs so well trailed by mischief-making Tory bloggers like Iain Dale, and obediently picked up by journalists who really ought to know better.
Yesterday, the Lib Dems announced the defection of former Tory MP, Sir Cyril Townsend. Let’s be honest: it was a bit cheeky. Sir Cyril joined the party last year; he has not been converted by the last few weeks’ shenanigans. But imagine if he were a former Lib Dem MP defecting to the Tories in exactly the same circumstances? I don’t think then the press would be quite so scrupulous in reporting the timescales. After all, Adrian Graves decided to leave the Lib Dems last year.
The Lib Dems will be disappointed with their showing in our ICM poll today: 18 per cent is alarming compared to the 22 per cent of the vote that Mr Kennedy achieved at the election.
Erm, you’re having a laugh here aren’t you, Matthew? 18% - I think most of us are pretty jubilant, as Conservative commentator Anthony Wells notes today. (You see, Matthew, it is possible to be a Tory and impartial.) I can’t help thinking that sentence was written before Matthew knew the poll result, and that the figure was dropped in later by a sub-editor.
It will appal the three remaining leadership candidates that, only three weeks after his resignation, 39 per cent of Lib Dems and 37 per cent of all voters already want [Charles Kennedy] back. It is a measure of the panic that has descended upon Lib Dems that less than half of them think that a new leader will improve the party's prospects.Try looking at it the other way round, Matthew: “majority of Lib Dem voters think new leader will improve party’s chances”. Just as accurate; just doesn’t fit your agenda. Given the press of the last few weeks, I suspect you’re actually surprised it’s not higher than 39%. I wonder what the equivalent figures would have been for IDS, when the Tories decapitated him? Not that different is my guess. Yet I think almost all Tories would recognise that Michael Howard’s succession gave the Tories more stability and brought greater electoral success. Forced changes of leader are rarely pain-free.
That said, the poll also shows that the public is not moved by the revelations about Mark Oaten's relationship with a rent boy or Simon Hughes's declaration that he is gay (or, at least, that he was at the time of writing - by the time you read this, he may be straight again).A cheap, offensive and unworthy shot. It is incredible how few right-wing commentators – who are more than happy to platform their conversion to Cameron’s trendy modernity – are utterly unable to grasp the concept of bisexuality.
It was surely Mr Oaten's great misfortune to have picked the only rent boy in Britain who was familiar with the Liberal Democrat front bench. (Rent boy: "I say, you're that Mark Oaten, aren't you?" Oaten: "No! No! I'm not!" Rent boy, in the manner of Uncle Monty: "Yes you are. Of course you are.") You would have thought that one of the only advantages of being a Lib Dem politician was never being recognised. Not so, apparently.Ha-ha! I see what you’ve done there, Matthew. How wry. Yes, you’ve passed your audition for The News Quiz with that inspired piece of observation satire.
And then, having so utterly jumped the shark of political commentary, he pulls it back. His last few sentences are bang-on-the-nose, and worth quoting in full (if only to demonstrate a blog can strive for balance where a columnist doesn’t even try):
One of the Tory Party's great failures in 2005 was to win Lib Dem votes in seats where the Conservatives were second to Labour. In 2001, the Tories finished second to Labour in 308 seats.
Yet, last year, the swing in such Labour seats was away from the Conservatives (a mean fall of 0.1 per cent) and towards the Lib Dems (a mean increase of 4.7 per cent). In precisely the seats where the Tories needed to win over Lib Dem voters to topple a Labour MP, it was the Lib Dems who made advances.
It is hard to exaggerate the electoral importance of what may look like a technicality. In this context, the manual for New Labour is a Fabian paper by Liam Byrne, the health minister, published last September that caught Mr Blair's eye. The core statistic presented by Mr Byrne was that the Tories are now in second place in no fewer than 88 of the 100 most marginal Labour seats. His conclusion - that Labour dare not lurch Leftwards - is all the more acute now that Mr Cameron is storming the centre-ground.
The Tory leader knows that he must win back the ABC1s - the white collar middle classes - who have deserted his party in droves. So no more "dog whistles" - nasty little coded messages - "core vote" politics, or skinhead Conservatism: such strategies have been tested to destruction. In the Seventies and Eighties, the Conservative lead among ABC1s was always above 30 per cent; now it is a mere 3 per cent.
The essence of the Cameron strategy is to make this section of the electorate - about 54 per cent of the population - feel comfortable once more about voting Tory, and to woo those of them who are tired of Labour, but have not found a stable home with the Lib Dems.
January 28, 2006
It is undoubtedly the question I am most often asked by people I meet when they find out I'm a councillor: "So, do you want to be an MP?" A few years ago, the answer might have been yes. But the more I grow up, the less sure I am. Why? Because, in the words of Alistair Campbell's famous sideswipe at Gordon Brown, I think you have to be "psychologically flawed" to put yourself voluntarily through the hell of being a parliamentary candidate.
Any activist who's lived through a general election campaign knows quite what a bruising experience it is. It gets personal and unpleasant. This is true across the political spectrum, and applies both within and between political parties, as well as to the public at large. As an activist you can observe all this at arm's length, vicariously, at one remove. As the candidate, there is no escape. The closer together the parties stand, the more determined they are to shout louder. The lower voter turn-out sinks, the more shrill become the campaign leaflets. Frankly, the conduct of political discourse in this country demeans everyone, and it is slowly but surely destroying the quality of political life.
We, the British public - and especially its media - are anaesthetising political debate, forcing our politicians to be bland automatons who must slavishly toe the party line, or else be tainted as rebels, mavericks or cranks. Or, worse, lauding as rebels, mavericks and cranks those who are little more than ornery contrarians who long ago gave up any pretence at thinking original thoughts, and now get their cheap thrills by being thorns in the side of their party for the sheer heck of it.
The intellectually curious all too rarely go into politics these days. Why would they? Far better to confine yourself to the more rarefied worlds of think-tanks, academe - or even the quality end of serious journalism - where you can explore complex ideas in a serious arena with like-minded colleagues (and retain your right to a private life). Better that than have one isolated, controversial phrase plucked out of a long argument, and see it plastered over opposition campaign leaflets. (It's not happened to me yet, but it can't be long.)
There are exceptions, politicians prepared to think beyond their parties' pre-conceptions and prejudices - David Laws, Frank Field and Alan Duncan, for example - but all are treated with suspicion by their respective parties, regarded by some as not quite 'one of us'. And just look at the ministry of talents that Harold Wilson was able to draw upon in his Labour cabinets - heavyweights like Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, Richard Crossman, Tony Benn, Shirley Williams, Tony Crosland, Barbara Castle - and compare it to the lightweight, motley collection who meekly comprise Tony Blair's cabinet. Politics is becoming more staid, more dull, more safe.
I joined the Labour Party when I was 16. I voted for Tony Blair as Labour leader (and, God help me, John Prescott as Deputy) in 1994. I voted for Labour in the 1997 landslide. It's the done thing when talking about reasons why you defected to say something like, "My views haven't changed; it's the party that's left me." That's partly true, though in my case youthful socialist exuberance had long since given way to mature liberal reflection. But it's certainly true that the Labour Party I joined believed in 'my kind of politics': devolution, House of Lords reform, Freedom of Information, proportional representation, and civil liberties. The Labour Party I left in 1999 had, in the main, forgotten these liberal indulgences, and has shown even less sign of remembering them in the seven years since.
I was elected a Liberal Democrat councillor six years ago, and have always felt comfortable within the party - despite disagreements with some of its policy positions - because I'm confident the values which form the core of my beliefs, my political being, are shared by the vast majority of fellow members.
The point I'm seeking to make here is that the political divides we've constructed are frequently artificial. Yet our political system is tribal to a fault. Yes, for sure, there are divisions between parties (and within them). But there is a lot of overlap too. It's one of the bizarre realities of today's de-aligning politics that many Labour members oppose much of their own Government's education reforms. Yet I, as a Lib Dem member, support many of these reforms while my party opposes the Government. That this is so shouldn't really surprise me or anyone else. With all three mainstream parties signed up to the delivery of a broadly liberal capitalist economy, policy disagreements will inevitably be more nuanced, the party divides less clear cut.
A political party is, in any case, no more than a vehicle for your own ideas and ideals. (The aspect of politics which depresses me most is when, for some, their party becomes an end in itself.) So what are these ideas and ideals? I'm going to borrow a binary division from one of the few genuinely intellectual political figures in recent years, Robin Cook, whose death last year robbed radical, progressive politics of one of its too few powerful voices. He divided politics into two categories: chauvinists and cosmopolitans. Let me unwrap those a little by throwing out some free association terms which might pertain to each label:
Chauvinist: reactionary, isolationist, anti-European, anti-immigration, anti-asylum, thinks one party has all the answers, pro-hanging, anti-abortion, convinced 'prison works', little Englander, centralisation, nostalgic for a past world.
Cosmopolitan: outward-looking, internationalist, pro-European, pro-immigration, pro-asylum, pluralist, anti-hanging, pro-choice, believes in rehabilitation, multi-culturalist, devolutionary, anti-ID cards, anti-war, tolerant, progressive, forward-thinking.
Chauvinist and cosmopolitan: these, to me, are the big societal divides today. The terms are so much more instructive than the tired, clichéd left/right axis so beloved of journalists whose brains ceased functioning in the 1980s. And it is, for me, a cause of optimism that - whatever the travails of my party in the last few weeks - those progressive, cosmopolitan, liberal values are being so commonly embraced: whether by the 'old Labour left', like Brian Sedgemore; or the 'new Tory right', like David Cameron.
I've attempted to avoid too much partisan politics in this piece, but allow me also to say why I think the Lib Dems have cause for optimism too: because those shared values which are becoming more prevalent are what this party was founded to promote. Some political commentators are (overly) fond of saying that the Lib Dems' dilemma is that we have to work out if we're going to be a party of the 'left' or the 'right'. What they appear not to have realised is that our real dilemma is that both Labour and the Tories have recognised they need to become more 'liberal' in order to appeal to modern Britain. But, of course, every problem is a challenge is an opportunity.
And, for the Lib Dems, the opportunity is great because neither of the two other parties quite get what it means to be liberal.
Labour wants social justice, and understands the need to give the poorest in our society a helping hand. But they fail to comprehend why liberals like me object to our civil liberties being trampled on because they devotedly believe that the state (at least so long as it's in Labour hands) is always and everywhere a force for good. In contrast, liberals believe that governments, of whichever hue, have just as much potential to hurt individuals as private business does.
The Tories are, under 'Dave' Cameron, increasingly understanding that civil liberties - the need to protect the individual from the pernicious effects of state interference - are a key issue (even though I suspect most of them were awoken to its implications by the ban on fox-hunting, rather than concern for society's real downtrodden). But remarkably few of them actually, really, truly believe in social justice. They know they have to pay lip-service to it, or else they will be held in contempt by the three-quarters of the public who also appreciate its centrality to the health of society. Indeed, a large part of what Tories like about Mr Cameron - at the moment - is that he can speak fluently a language they can only barely comprehend. 'Dave' can talk about Third World debt and climate change, and do so pretty convincingly, while his fellow Tories look on bemused, but grateful, happy to have out-sourced the 'being nice' part of politics they know is required of them, but which they think irrelevant compared to their chauvinist fetishes of hating Europe and loving tax cuts.
This, then, is the Lib Dems' two-fold opportunity.
1. To help Labour understand the value of civil liberties - that social justice requires individuals to be empowered by government, and not subject to it. And to help the Tories to understand that citizens cannot truly be free to lead their own lives, liberated from the nanny-state, unless those at the bottom of the pile are given the opportunity to make the most of their talents.
2. And the best part of this is that we are likely to have the chance in the coming years to force both Labour and the Tories to take a long, hard look at themselves in the mirror. It is probable, but not certain, that Gordon Brown will lead a Labour Government after the next election, but with a much reduced majority. It is possible, but not likely, that David Cameron, may be able to form a majority administration, or at least lead a minority government. And it is quite feasible that there will be a hung Parliament in which the Lib Dems will hold the balance of power. In any one of these three eventualities, my party will have greater influence than it has been able to exert at any time since the 1920s.
There is, therefore, plenty to be excited about in the new politics which is currently feeling its way into being. The liberal momentum is gaining traction, moving our society in an irreversibly more progressive, cosmopolitan direction. The Lib Dems' task is to give this liberal momentum a resonant, credible, consistent, authoritative, enduring voice within the British political system. That is more than reason enough for me to continue to be as closely involved as possible in liberal politics. Just don't call it a career!
* This is an adapted version of the talk I gave today at the OUSU Alternative Careers Fair.
January 27, 2006
And now Media Guardian's Organ Grinder has saved me the trouble, as Wing-nuts from the UK have shared their favourite moments here. Two Cathedrals gets my vote, closely followed by In The Shadow of Two Gunmen.
There's lots more best bits here, here, here and here - including this gem:
Sam: Oratory should raise your heart rate. Oratory should blow the doors off the place. We should be talking about not being satisfied with past solutions, we should be talking about a permanent revolution.
Toby: Where have I heard that?
Sam: I got it from a book... The Little Red Book.
Toby: You think we should quote Mao Tse-tung?
Sam: We do need a permanent revolution.
Toby: Still, I think we'll stay away from quoting Communists.
Sam: You think a Communist never wrote an elegant phrase? How do you think they got everyone to be Communist?
January 26, 2006
Last year, its former owner, the disgraced foreign press baron, Conrad Black, was declared bankrupt and charged with racketeering and eight counts of fraud. In the last 18 months, the paper has haemorrhaged senior staff, losing its managing director, finance director, commercial director, sales director, marketing director, and editorial director. “All the signs are,” whispered one employee, “that the game is up. I cannot see the paper recovering from this news.”
In June, Dominic Lawson was summarily sacked as editor of its Sunday stablemate in what was seen as a botched coup. Then, just two months ago, the Telegraph’s popular but beleaguered editor, Martin Newland, was forced to quit amid claims of constructive dismissal that have never been denied.
The paper has also had to contend with a series of high-level defections, including that of its City editor, Neil Collins, to the more upmarket Evening Standard. Last night, many in the embattled Telegraph camp were said to be “deeply unhappy” with the paper’s position, with rumours circulating that the paper might face imminent closure if it proves incapable of halting the decline.
“A lot of people I know are feeling pretty bruised by recent events,” explained one anonymous source. “We know our ageing readership is dying off, we can’t attract new readers, and that this is all bad news for our advertising revenues. No wonder profits fell 11% in 2005. Losing to George Galloway is a big dent to morale around here. Frankly I cannot see how we are going to climb out of this hole.”
Speculation was mounting last night that a rival newspaper group would be putting in a takeover bid in the coming days. “The trouble is,” confided one journalist, “that the whole operation lacks confidence. We just do not know what the Telegraph stands for any more. We used to believe that news came first. But now we simply hope that splashing a photo of some gorgeous posh bird on the front page will lure readers. But our readers can see straight through it. They know we’re desperate.”
No-one from the Telegraph was contacted for comment last night.
January 25, 2006
UPDATE: it's grown. Headline amended accordingly.
So how bad is it?
Well, if you want the honest answer: it’s terrible. Really, really dreadful. Frankly, I’m bewildered, appalled and depressed at the meretricious state of British political journalism, and its melodramatic, contrived and distorted take on current political events.
I am acutely aware as I write this that to take issue with journalists’ reporting is easily perceived, often rightly, as sour-grapes-bad-loser-you-can-give-it-out-but-can’t-take-it territory. So be it. The criticisms which follow may have been prompted by the Lib Dems’ current problems, but they apply far more generally, across the political spectrum, and to the broadcast media every bit as much as newspapers.
Let’s start with that ‘freefall’ Telegraph story. I have to confess when I first saw the headline, I thought, “Bloody hell, so we’re down to 14% in their latest opinion poll.” It wouldn’t be entirely unexpected given the slew of bad press, some of it deserved, which has come our way in the last two months. But it turned out there was no new poll; in fact, there was no new story. The paper, and its political correspondent, Brendan Carlin, were simply spinning the new media line – the party’s in crisis – based on the week-end’s revelations about Mark Oaten’s private life.
During the Hutton Inquiry, the BBC, and Andrew Gilligan, came under a lot of fire among Beeb-bashing newspapers like the Telegraph for their use of single-sourced stories – that is, where only one person was prepared to substantiate the facts of a story. It’s a legitimate journalistic grey-area deserving of scrutiny, and one with which responsible reporters (and there are many) wrestle every day. But the Telegraph is quite happy, seemingly, to splash on their front page this zero-sourced item:
“Sir Menzies Campbell appeared last night to be the Liberal Democrats' only hope of restoring their battered credibility after Mark Oaten's resignation plunged the party into its worst crisis for a generation. … Last night, there were signs that grassroots activists - shocked by the revelations - would rally to Sir Menzies, at 64 the oldest of the leadership contenders, as a steady hand to see them through the crisis. … He is now the 5-4 odds on favourite.”Four quick questions for the Telegraph:
(1) Ming “appeared” to whom to be the party’s only hope?;
(2) what “signs” among grassroots activists?;
(3) who is “shocked”?; and
(4) since when did betting odds count as credible evidence?
This is not nit-picking: quality journalism should not seek to shape events, but to report them. Nothing in the section of Mr Carlin’s report I’ve quoted is backed-up by any on- or off-the-record sources. It is worthless, pointless, trivial hackery.
Perhaps I should expect no better from the Torygraph? It’s a true blue paper through-and-through, happy to give its prejudices house-room on the front page, and not simply to confine them to the opinion pages where they belong. But the Indy and Grauniad should know better, surely? After all, both are papers of the liberal-left. And though neither have supported the Lib Dems at election time, they have always given the party a fair hearing, and decent coverage.
Now, of course, the Lib Dems have 'today' experienced a defection. In fact, Adrian Graves, who was a parliamentary candidate in 1997 and 2005 in Suffolk West, decided to leave the party before Christmas. In other words, before Kennedy’s self-immolation, let alone Mr Oaten’s spontaneous combustion. The Tories, sensibly from their point of view, delayed announcing Mr Graves’ decision until the moment when it could cause the Lib Dems most embarrassment: today, the close of nominations for the leadership. Such is politics. The Tories simply did what my party would have done (indeed did do) in a similar situation. No complaints about that.
But journalists are paid to understand such machinations, to aid the public’s understanding of the political process. So quite why the Indy’s political editor, Andrew Grice, began his article today with the words,
“The sense of crisis engulfing the Liberal Democrats has deepened after one of their parliamentary candidates defected to the Conservative Party,”is quite beyond me. Once again, this is a journalist side-stepping any empirical basis for his subjective observation – how is Mr Grice defining this “sense of crisis”? How is it “engulfing” the party? This is egotistical, self-fulfillment journalism (because of course there will be a crisis if all the press reports is that there is a crisis).
And what’s all this guff about “rumours” of defections?
(Here let me parenthetically add a caveat. I have no insider information, no special insight which allows me to state categorically that there are no circumstances in which any Lib Dem MP will consider defecting to the Tories. Perhaps there are a whole gang of them who are banging on the door of Conservative Central Office demanding admission to Cameron’s party. We shall see; or, more likely I suspect, we won’t.)
This is the first sentence of Hélène Mulholland’s Guardian report today:
“Speculation grew today that a number of Liberal Democrats MPs are considering crossing the floor to the Conservatives following hints originally dropped by a former parliamentary candidate who left the party this morning.”Let’s try a little deconstruction exercise here.
(1) “speculation grew” – well, I guess it did. After all, the Guardian just reported some speculation;
(2) “a number” – I like your precision, Hélène. After all, who wants to be pinned down to anything so tediously irrelevant as scale: one is a number, so is 62. Which is it?;
(3) “crossing the floor” – a figure of speech, I realise, but surely a Lib Dem defecting to the Tories would simply slide along the bench some? Only someone switching to Labour would cross the floor;
(4) “following hints” – strong stuff! – from someone who is now a Conservative… okay, you’ve sold me, Hélène. If a Tory says Lib Dems are considering becoming Tory it must be true.
But let me reserve my maximum ire for the BBC’s lightweight political correspondent, Nick Asinine (sorry, Assinder). His BBC.co.uk article today exemplifies precisely the kind of journalistic vacuity which drives me to distraction. Previous excrescences I have thoroughly parsed; this bland recycling of unsubstantiated gossip stands in a class of its own for its failure to say anything about anything.
“As nominations for the job to replace Charles Kennedy closed, the party was suffering what was being branded [by whom?] its greatest crisis for 25 years [25 years? Really? In 1989 the Greens polled more votes than us.]. The resignation of frontbencher Mark Oaten over a relationship with a male prostitute has shocked and angered party chiefs [who?] and provided a major source of speculation and gossip in Westminster and beyond [well quite]. Now there are claims [from whom?] that as many as three of the party's MPs are set to follow former parliamentary candidate Adrian Graves, and defect to the Tories who, under David Cameron, appear to have spooked the party. Meanwhile - and there is no other way of saying this [oh, go on: try!] - the whispering and rumour-mongering in Westminster have reached new levels.”Quality political journalism is vital to a fully-functioning democracy. It’s crucial that our news gatherers use their positions of access to explain and inform to the British people complex, difficult issues in an interesting, comprehensible way. Whispers, rumours, gossip: all have their place in human interaction. But journalism should be founded on fact, rooted in empiricism. Otherwise it is worthless detritus.
But Gordon Brown might just have watched recent events in the Great White North with the slightest twinge of foreboding - in the same way that John Major must have pondered the significance of Canada's Progressive Conservatives being reduced from 169 to just two seats in the 1993 Liberal landslide, some four years prior to his ejection from office.
The electorate's overwhelming rejection of the Conservatives - their worst election defeat in history - ushered in the 10-year rule of Liberal Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien. He resigned just over two years ago following allegations of financial corruption that rather put Mr Oaten's 'scandalous' local difficulties in the shade.
Mr Chrétien was succeeded by his finance minister, Paul Martin, whose diligent management of the economy won him much acclaim. On his watch, Canada has achieved the fastest growth of any of the G8 countries for five years, resulting in its lowest unemployment for 30 years, big gains in incomes, profits and tax revenues, and consistent surpluses both in its federal budgets and in its trade and current accounts.
Yet the Canadian voters today sent Mr Martin and his Liberal Party packing: they won only 103 of the 308 seats up for grabs. (The voters can be very ungrateful, Gordon.) He will be succeeded by Stephen Harper, leader of the Conservative Party, who, with 124 seats, will now have the tricky task of leading a minority government reliant on the Bloc Québécois. Mr Martin had attempted to taint his opponent as Canada's version of George W Bush - a slur Mr Harper batted away, while using his victory speech "to assure the public he is a moderate sort of chap who believes his opponents, despite a relatively bitter campaign, are really swell fellows" (Economist, 24th Jan 2006).
I won't labour the analogy. Mr Brown is not Mr Martin; Mr Harper is not Mr Cameron; and the Lib Dems are most certainly not the Bloc Québécois (no matter which candidate becomes leader). History never repeats itself, and certainly not across the divide of an ocean.
Yet Mr Martin's swift despatch from his country's top job does point up the difficulties inherent in attempting to freshen up a stale government. Mr Brown is, after all, a familiar face: he remains an enigma, but lacks the mystique of novelty. Sure, we can expect his premiership to give the Government an opinion poll bounce - doubtless he will already have carefully devised a series of policy announcements designed to show he is every bit as New Labour as Tony Blair is, while stressing his commitment to social justice perhaps a little more passionately than the current Prime Minister does.
But he will have more hurdles to clear than Mr Cameron, or indeed than whoever is Lib Dem leader by then. First, he will be the only one of the party leaders not to have been elected on the basis of one-member-one-vote; regardless of whether he is the sole candidate, Mr Brown is assured the leadership because he has the trade union block vote sewn up. How will the Labour Party's Banana Republic internal democracy play in modern Britain?
Secondly, Mr Brown's natural countenance is not what one might term sunny. His dour, Presbyterian, stentorian brooding will contrast sharply with Mr Cameron's canny self-projection as an open, cheerful, optimistic figure of the future.
And, thirdly, Mr Brown will no longer have anywhere to hide. He will have to speak out on a range of issues, and to do so he will need the voice of Everyman: Mr Blair has it more or less pitch perfect. Mr Brown does not. (This is why the Labour Party still does not appreciate fully how good is its current leader, and has no idea how badly they will miss him when he's gone.)
As I wrote back in March:
"when Mr Brown becomes Prime Minister, a flashlight will be shone on his personality and his policies. He will have to make decisions, unpopular ones, and defend them in public. He will no longer be able to use Mr Blair as a lightning rod to earth him from the electric shocks of political opponents' attacks. … Mr Brown cannot forever define himself by what he is not. At some point, and soon, he will need to show he understands that, to be Prime Minister, you need to be more than just clever, and that range is as important as depth."
Mr Brown's interview in The Sun (where else?) lauding the Prime Minister's education reforms - "I cannot be stronger about the importance I attach to this reform programme and the link between education and the economy" - suggests the Chancellor is beginning to understand the need to poke his head above the parapet, precisely because he needs the unreconstructed Old Labour left to take pot shots at him, and so prove to 'middle England' that they can trust him as Prime Minister.
Canada's election results do not mean that Mr Brown must follow where Mr Martin has failed. But they do point to the challenges he faces in taking over a third term Government running out of ideas and money, with a cabinet remarkably light on intellect or ideology or talent, and a resurgent Conservative Party whose leader is determined to neutralise its most pungent extremism.
I have glibly remarked in the past that Mr Brown's destiny is to lose the only election he fights as Labour leader. Such a fate looks far more likely now than it did six months ago.
January 22, 2006
January 21, 2006
The rent-boy allegations in tomorrow's News of the World will be immensely painful to him, and those who know him; and it's right that he should have stepped down immediately so that he can get his life back in some order.
The Liberal Democrats are a proudly tolerant party, and an individual's private life - however messy - is strictly their own concern.
But I am left scratching my head in utter bewilderment that he could have considered standing for the leadership of the party - to succeed a man who was forced to resign because of personal problems - when this story was lingering in the shadows.
January 20, 2006
If you still can't read this, I throw up my hands in mock despair.
January 19, 2006
1. Was nervous at PMQs and made a noticable mistake in his speech.
Yes, he was nervous: it would be unnatural if he were not. (I bet Cameron’s hands still shake; but he can grip hold of the despatch box.) But I decline to judge leaders on the basis of the farcical pantomime that is PMQs. I didn’t notice the mistake in his speech: but I’ve read it and I liked it.
2. Has been losing support since his campaign launch.
Has he been losing support, or have others gained support? Whichever, he has at least picked up my one vote during the campaign.
3. Assumed to have played a major part in Charles’ downfall.
I’ve no idea what happened behind-the-scenes. What I do know is that Charles’s alcoholism, and the way it impacted on his leadership, placed everyone in the party in an incredibly difficult situation. Could it have been handled better? Possibly. Am I going to single out any one individual for blame? Absolutely not.
4. Will be seen as too old by many.
And will be seen by others as credible, authoritative and experienced. Which is the correct call will be decided by the quality of his leadership.
5. Is an intermediate solution, not a long-term solution.
I do not believe that any one individual is the long-term solution for the Liberal Democrats. What I do believe is this: we need a leader who can unite the party, understands the need for a credible, costed programme of liberal policies, and can assemble a top-quality team of MPs to articulate this vision. I believe Ming can do this.
6. Still talks about left and right far too much when talking about the party.
A fair point. Like you, I deprecate the terms, and think they’re best avoided – to be fair, so does Ming on his website: “[Ming] has no time for the media-driven view that we must either lurch to the left or lunge to the right. Given the progressive liberal agenda that Liberal Democrats represent, he sees these terms as meaningless.” (He does seem sometimes to forget this in interviews, though.)
7. Owns a (or two, if you believe some reports) petrol guzzling Jaguar.
Unless we’re proposing banning Jags I see no problem with this. I just happen to think he should be taxed accordingly for the privilege – that’s how to solve negative externalities.
8. Is in favour of Tuition Fees
So far as I’m aware he’s signed up to the Party’s opposition to ‘top-up’ tuition fees. Unlike me.
9. Has held a shotgun certificate.
And…? So’s my brother. And a few other people, I dare say.
10. Fails to understand the issue surrounding passive smoke
I’m sure he doesn’t. But he may disagree with governments legislating to ban smoking in private businesses (or ‘public places’, as pubs and restaurants appear now to be classed). I know I do.
11. Is failing to lead the way in the by-election in his nearby constituency.
Come off it, that really is unfair! The by-election was called after Ming had declared his candidacy for the leadership. What should he have done? Stood down?
And, anyway, I imagine he’s earning a reasonable amount of publicity for the party up there just now.
12. Would continue ‘Celtic Fringe’ leader tradition that we started to avoid.
I’m not sure how we “started to avoid” it under Charles Kennedy…?
13. Was worryingly keen on merging with New Labour in the long run.
I’m not sure ‘The Project’ was ever about merger, but, yes, he has a Grimond-inspired passion for a realignment of the left in British politics. Do I agree with him? No. Do I think we’re going to wake up one day to discover Gordon Brown is our new leader? Again, no.
14. Was once described by Ken Clarke as "as much a Tory as I am".
Make up your mind… Is he about to merge the Lib Dems with Labour, or jump ship to the Tories?
As it happens, I think Ken is wrong. But, then, I also think Ken’s a liberal.
15. Could we realistically have a leadership election during hung parliament talks? …No!
Let’s get to the next election. Hung Parliaments are far more often forecast than realised. Even if it does happen, why should Ming not conduct the negotiations? If we’re saying there must never be a leadership contest during a Hung Parliament, we might be in some difficulties if and when PR is introduced.
Many Lib Dems, me included, have harboured doubts about his leadership credentials. But it would only be fair to acknowledge that Mark has shown in the last 10 days that he can be an effective spokesman for the Party.
He has appeared comfortable, relaxed, and good-humoured in his countless media interviews, and in his Meet The Challenge hustings speech. He has impressed a number of people - many against their expectations - and he deserves credit for that.
That he was not my, or many others', first, second or third (or, come to that, fourth) choice to be Leader should not blind us to his obvious talents. He remains a significant figure within the Lib Dems.
January 18, 2006
Here are a few reasons:
- He is our most credible figure, well-known and well-respected within Parliament and with the public. As Andrew Rawnsley said: "The Lib Dems' problem is their credibility gap. There is a strong case that, for them, an older leader is precisely what they need to convey gravitas."
- He has the authority and experience to unify the Party which no other candidate can match.
- I like his definition of leadership: "I believe in leading not following; setting goals and objectives; shaping events not being shaped by them; taking responsibility and discharging it; being both candid and confident; neither dictatorial nor prescriptive, but consultative and committed."
- Because he understands what it is to be a gut liberal: "just as government does not always know best, neither does the council" - this statement worries Lib Dem MP, David Howarth. It reassures me.
- He recognises that the Lib Dems have to take the fight to Gordon Brown's New Labour. For sure, Mr Cameron's shiny new Tories pose a threat; but it is Mr Brown who will be Prime Minister at the next election. It is he we have to beat.
- His experience will counterpoise neatly with Cameron's youth. This will be all the more critical in the lead-up to the next election, when all the talk will be of hung Parliaments and coalitions. "The only project I would embark upon, were I to become leader, is maximisation of the vote and maximisation of the seats." That's the correct response; not a hostage to fortune.
- He's speaking my kind of language on public service reforms: "Local politics must be reborn with new powers for communities to take decisions about their own public services. If that leads to greater innovation and experimentation in the way that public services are organised, all the better. I am determined that the Liberal Democrats should pioneer ways of making public services truly responsive and accountable to the public. Liberalism in this country was founded on opposition to protectionism. But governments can, and must, do what is within their means to help to prepare Britain for a globalised world dominated by new economic powers in Asia and elsewhere. That is why schools and skills must return to the top of our domestic agenda."
- Nick Clegg is backing him. (Okay, so there are better reasons than this; but there are worse ones too.)
January 15, 2006
The stability, authority and unity candidate is Sir Menzies Campbell. It is a testimony to the respect in which he is held that he enjoys the support of so many MPs as well as two former leaders. That is not necessarily a selling point with all of his party members. Talk of a Ming dynasty makes him look like the establishment candidate and Lib Dems are a nonconformist lot.
He has the advantages of being the acting leader. He also suffers the disadvantages, as was illustrated by the merciless Labour and Tory mockery of his debut at Prime
Minister's Questions. It was written up as his 'David Davis moment', which really it wasn't. Sir Menzies is already suffering from the media's lust for knocking down favourites.
He can come over as one of the last of the patricians. But the Savile Row tailoring is actually a bit deceiving. He went to Hillhead High in Glasgow, a school considerably less posh than either Eton or Fettes. Though the bright young thrusters on the right of his party are backing him, Sir Menzies is not one of them. He may not be a high tax and spender, but he is a recognisable product of the more collectivist traditions of Scotland. He used to argue for the renationalisation of the railways.
When Paddy Ashdown was leading the party and desperate to inject its economic policies with more authority, he tried to persuade Sir Menzies to become their shadow chancellor. He wouldn't do it, perhaps scared that he would not be as impressive in that brief. One thing he will need to prove is that he can be as engaged on domestic policy as he has been with international affairs.
I have said it myself - he is old enough to be David Cameron's father - but his age can be turned to his advantage. He could counter that David Cameron is callow enough to be Sir Menzies's son. For a Conservative party trying to rejuvenate its appeal, it made huge sense to select a young leader. The Lib Dems' problem is their credibility gap. There is a strong case that, for them, an older leader is precisely what they need to convey gravitas.
I doubt that Sir Menzies would march the Lib Dems off in any startling new directions. They would neither lunge to the left nor lurch to the right. That is being counted against him on the grounds that he is too much the predictably safe choice. Authority and certainty seem to me to be a powerful asset in a fluxing and risk-strewn political environment for the third party.
Sir Walter Menzies Campbell, CBE, QC, MP. The very name makes it possible to imagine him sitting in the Liberal cabinet of 1905 alongside Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. At least that makes him a Liberal Democrat you can imagine sitting in a cabinet.
January 14, 2006
A sound speech, emphasising his deeply-rooted liberal credentials. The references to Joe Grimond signalled clearly his intentions – that’s a good thing – but Ming could do with emphasising more the future, or else he risks self-defining his stereotype as a 1950s’ patrician Liberal out-of-step with modern Britain. He could also do with loosening up his speaking style - read less and extemporise more - to freshen up his message, and avoid looking like he’s delivering the encomium at a memorial service.
Best quote: of David Cameron - “This is the man who was Michael Howard’s conscience. Now he expects us to believe he’s experienced a conversion on the road from Notting Hill.”
An inspiring speech, as you might expect from our most inspiring speaker. The pitch here was explicitly aimed at tickling activists' g-spots: fighting poverty, safeguarding our liberties, and achieving social justice. We all know how passionately-held are Simon’s beliefs, how much he so clearly cares, and how well he could campaign against Labour. What was missing here was the corrective to what some of us fear is Simon’s weak point: can he prove that the Liberal Democrats, under his leadership, could be trusted with the economy? I want to hear more from him on that in the coming weeks.
Best quote: “I want the Liberal Democrats of 2006 to be as courageous and principled as the Liberals of 1906. Just as it was, a century ago, the Liberal hour; this century I want our time to be the Liberal Democrat hour.”
A thoughtful, sonorous speech that will have dispelled any notion that Chris is the Lib Dems’ answer to David Cameron (both positively and negatively). Chris needs to learn that a leader’s speech must have both light and shade: the Lib Dems will not be able to lecture ourselves into power. More positively, the content was meaty, and flagged up a green, localist agenda that could make the party’s appeal distinctive from both Labour and the Tories. But such an approach must be shown to be ‘carrot first’; Chris’s passion appears to be for the stick.
Best quote: “The sugar on the pill of higher eco-taxes must be lower personal taxes directed at the bottom end, and fulfilling our fairness agenda. It’s a nonsense that we set a minimum wage, and then turn around and charge income tax on it.”
Mark got off on the wrong foot with me today, with his “let’s win for Charles” pitch for the loyalty vote. More frustratingly, though, is the fact that Mark can be very good. He is a relaxed speaker, can tell a good joke, and appears to enjoy the opportunity of parading his views. Equally his defence of civil liberties against New Labour’s onslaught is welcome. But his delivery manages to be both earnest and lightweight: it’s a killer combination. Two quick suggestions for improvements. First, lose the wristband (way too try-hard). Secondly, if you’re going to ape Cameron’s ‘look mum, no notes’ approach, don’t retreat to the lectern half-way through your speech.
Best quote: “We’re going where the country is going. The future is Liberal, and the future of this Party is Liberal. Twenty-first century Liberalism is about realising our potential.”
January 13, 2006
A lot of this suspicion can, I suspect, be traced to an infamous passage from John Harris’s book, So Now Who Do We Vote For?:
Sitting in Parliamentary café, we began talking about his membership of the nascent SDP as a first-time voter repulsed by Thatcherism, but almost as alienated by the Labour Party. … “And then,” he continued, his conversational tone suddenly brightening, “this new modern party comes along that has its own credit cards, that has rather nice logos, that has a modern, professional media launch.”Did Mark really say all this?
He now sounded positively evangelical. “They’re wearing suits. They’re driving round in Volvos. It’s claret and chips. It was different, exciting, dynamic. There wasn’t necessarily a philosophical belief: the important thing was, it wasn’t Tory or Labour. And it was modern, it was different.”
The next bit was so startling that I had trouble maintaining my composure. “I only really got a philosophical belief about three years ago,” he admitted. “I’ve gone through this whole process as a pragmatic individual, who’s just by quirk ended up in Parliament. It was only about three years ago that I got it. I was suddenly able to call myself a Liberal, which I’d found difficult to do in the past. It suddenly clicked. Before that, I’d become a Liberal Democrat, I’d got elected to Parliament – but I hadn’t really defined what being a Liberal Democrat meant. …
“Once I got over this barrier of the word Liberal, I suddenly clicked that if you have a philosophical belief that being Liberal is being laissez-faire and not wanting a nanny state, you can suddenly start to impose that on a whole load of political situations. I’ve now been able to get my head around doing it.”
If he did, then no-one should be surprised that Lib Dem members view his leadership bid with real scepticism. If he did not, he should set the record straight.
January 12, 2006
1. Pre-heating phase: when the unburned fuel – aka Charles Kennedy – is heated up to its flash point. I think it’s safe to say we’re though that phase now.
2. Distillation phase: when the mix of evolved flammable gases – let’s call them Campbell, Hughes and Oaten – with oxygen is ignited.
Well, we can scarcely complain about the oxygen of publicity in recent days. But I can’t help but feel that nothing yet has ignited. The three candidates’ names have been well trailed, and party members like me are now waiting to be wowed… and waiting.
(Though let’s clear one thing up right now: neither Campbell’s nor Hughes’s performance at yesterday’s PMQs should be held against them. The Commons was at its most pathetically, theatrically cheap; and the Prime Minister sank to the occasion with mastery. I wonder how many members of the public, if they read the following report from today’s Independent, would wonder at our good fortune in being represented by the Mother of Democracy:
Sir Menzies's campaign suffered a setback when he appeared at Prime Minister's Questions in his role as acting party leader. His attack on Tony Blair's public service reforms backfired when he asked the Prime Minister to explain why one in five schools do not have a permanent head teacher. MPs roared with laughter and mocked him because the Liberal Democrats do not have a permanent head.)Lib Dem members want a choice. The trouble is those whom many of us would most like to see contest this election – Nick Clegg and Susan Kramer – seem so far to have ruled themselves out.
Both were elected just eight months ago, but have vast experience beyond the Commons. (Far more so than that callow youth, Mr Cameron.) Both would bring a new dimension, a real sense of excitement, to this so far lacklustre campaign. I hope both, even at this stage, can be persuaded to throw their hats into the ring.
For, once we have that point of combustible ignition, we can look forward to the immediate release of a flaming energy that can produce both heat and light. We could do with a little warmth after the chilly last week, and I’m not talking about the weather.
And then we can look forward to the final, less phosphorescent, phase of our combustion:
3. Solid phase: when our fuel continues to glow, providing a steady level of energy.
All we need now is to find the bright spark who can be the Lib Dems' fire-starter.
January 07, 2006
But there was nervousness too. There was a fear that the party had become too close to Labour for its own good. And a very real fear that the party could not hope to repeat its 1997 triumph at the next election. Mr Kennedy deftly soothed our anxieties.
A polite but pointed distance from Mr Blair was maintained (which later became a scorching chasm); and, against expectations, the Lib Dems gained seats in 2001. In the next four years, Mr Kennedy secured for himself a reputation as one of the country's most popular politicians.
He bravely led the Party into the No lobby in opposition to the war in Iraq, a decision which has been wholly vindicated - but which could have cost the Lib Dems dear if those damned elusive WMD had turned up after all. On issues like the Hutton and Butler Inquiries, and on ID cards, Mr Kennedy's statements were intelligent and principled, and recognised as such.
In short, Mr Kennedy has achieved a huge amount for this party, far more than he might have imagined possible when he became our leader.
The pace at which events are now moving is quite startling. Even a couple of days ago, many ordinary members like me were annoyed with, and baffled by, our MPs' constant anonymous backbiting based on what appeared to be little more than personal animus. It is now clear there has been a lot more to it than that.
It seems Mr Kennedy used up his second chances, and that a group of MPs sought him out privately, handed him the loaded revolver, and invited him to do the decent thing. He refused to do so. Critics who think the Lib Dems lack ruthlessness will argue they should have shot him point-black. They may be right, but if we were that kind of people we would not be in this party.
Those MPs who then briefed to the press may have been out-of-line to do so anonymously, but the personal circumstances of Mr Kennedy's problem put them in a very difficult position. I think and hope most members will be understanding of that, regardless of the respect and warmth we hold Mr Kennedy in.
There can be no doubt now that Mr Kennedy must and should resign: for his own sake, and that of the party. (I have written in those terms to Mr Kennedy, as an ordinary party member, and posted my letter here.) I hope he will do so swiftly, and with dignity, so that those of us who have been his staunch supporters can remember his leadership for the good that he achieved, without a bitter after-taste.
We are a proudly democratic party in which every member's vote is valued and counted equally. That stands in stark contrast to the Labour Party, where trade unions still rule the roost, with ordinary members accounting for just one-third of the voting power. And of course Tory MPs attempted just a few months ago to remove from their members the authority to elect their new leader (though they were ultimately thwarted on a technicality).
The leadership contest on which the party is about to embark gives us a real opportunity to debate openly the issues that matter to the public, to show that we trust our members to elect a leader who can project a crystal clear liberal vision, and to unite behind whoever wins so that the Lib Dems can serve the people without distractions in the years ahead.
It's been a grim few days and weeks. But the thing about being a liberal is that you have to be constitutionally optimistic. So I have no hesitation in saying and believing that the current doom and gloom will prove transient, and that the party, under new leadership, will emerge stronger than ever in the coming months.
Thank you for your recent statement, and for your invitation to Lib Dem members to make known our views.
You have been an incredibly successful leader of this Party, and I thank you for all you have done. You have consistently made the right calls on the big decisions that mattered. You have led the Lib Dems to our most successful position in 80 years. We are all in your debt.
However, it is now clear that a change must be made. For your own good, and that of the Party, I ask you to resign, and allow a leadership contest to take place to elect a new leader. I think that, only in this way, can we hope to move forward as a united force to serve the people who elected us.
Thank you again for all that you have done, and I hope your considerable talents will continue to be seen from the Lib Dem benches in the House of Commons.
With kind regards,
Cllr Stephen Tall
Oxford East constituency
January 06, 2006
I feel I owe them at least a half-apology.
It’s now pretty clear that many of our MPs have witnessed at first-hand – in a way that members like me could not - Charles Kennedy too frequently under-performing in his job owing to his drinking problems. A group of 11 of them did the right thing to confront him about the issue in private, and ask him to step to one side. I’m not sure what else they could have done.
When this failed, some of them resorted to anonymous briefings – which were unhelpful and ill-advised, but at least in part understandable.
I have been a huge Charles fan. What he has gone through is a personal tragedy, and I wish him all the very best dealing with his demons. But, in the cool, clear light of day, it is evident he cannot continue as Leader.