What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

October 16, 2007

Standing easy

I’m giving this blog a rest for a short while. With the Lib Dem leadership race about to get underway, my role as commissioning editor for Liberal Democrat Voice is going to keep me quite busy enough (while also holding down a full-time job and being a councillor).

Doubtless I’ll be back at some stage, though it’s unlikely this time I will declare for any particular candidate.

I recorded a short interview for BBC Radio 5Live’s Pods and Blogs show, reflecting on Ming’s departure, which was broadcast at 2am this morning. If for some reason you weren’t finding yourself insomniac, you can listen to it here (I’m on pretty much at the beginning).

For Ming, with thanks

Yesterday was a sad day for the Liberal Democrats; but in particular for Ming Campbell, a good, decent, honourable man, and someone who - if politics and life were fairer - could have proved to be a highly effective leader. But, in truth, he never looked comfortable in the job. For a gent whose attire is always immaculately tailored, the suit of leadership hung awkwardly on his frame.

The early comparisons being made are with Iain Duncan Smith; but that is to underestimate Ming’s contribution, which was more akin to Michael Howard - a man who professionalized his party’s operation, and steadied the ship at a difficult time. Both men are perhaps too shy to find it easy either to give or receive warmth. But they earned the deep respect, if not always affection, of their parties.

It would be unnatural if Ming did not reflect with some bitterness on the mauling he has been subjected to by the gutter press (which is pretty much all of it these days); and perhaps also with the party which listened too closely to that press. In the circumstances, Ming had little option but to resign if he wished to preserve his dignity. His swift decision was, nonetheless, a brave one: to admit failure is the hardest thing in life. But it is entirely in keeping with his outlook on life that it was not one he shirked.

Public life is the poorer for his departure.

October 12, 2007

How should we respond to the media speculation?

For the conspiracy theorists among you, the fact that Lib Dem Voice has crashed on the same day as it is cited by both The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph as fuelling the pressure faced by party leader, Ming Campbell, might be just too much.

I have my own theory: the LDV servers have revolted at the misnaming of the website by both those august journals as Liberal Voice. I would have thought both the name and the url of the website would be enough for even the most slapdash and obtuse of journalists to be able to get it right. Which is a ripe lesson for me never to underestimate their incapacity.

It might also be of course that the servers have - if you believe the Torygraph report, which has since been shamelessly plagiarised by the Grauniad - become overloaded thanks to Lib Dem members “swamping” the site with anti-Ming Campbell comments:
unease has spread to the party's grassroots who have swamped Liberal Voice, the most popular supporters' website, with messages demanding the resignation of Sir Menzies.
The Torygraph’s facile Andrew Pierce is clearly reading a different website to the one I help edit. Yes, there have been messages calling on Ming to resign. They are, I would estimate (and with the site down I can’t currently check), in a clear minority and number no more than half a dozen. This may count as “swamping” if you’re writing in a Tory paper to stir up a bit of political excitement now a general election is off the agenda.

Still, at least Pierce came up with an original story. Factually flimsy, but still. The Guardian’s Hélène Mulholland doesn’t even have that excuse. Not only does she flagrantly rip-off the Torygraph piece, Hélène then has the bare-faced cheek to write:
Chatter about Sir Menzies's leadership overshadowed last month's annual conference in Brighton.
Wrong, Hélène. The only chatter about Sir Menzies’s leadership I heard was along the lines, “Why won’t the press report what’s happening here instead of banging on about Ming’s leadership all the time?”

In short, the press is talking rubbish with such casual concern for the facts that it scarcely counts as journalism at all.

And yet, and yet… As I posted on Lib Dem Voice this week, for Lib Dems to complain about the media’s pathetic press coverage is, at the moment, beside the point. The media has made up its mind: Ming must go. They will refuse point-blank to be interested in any other story, unless the party’s (and Ming’s) poll ratings perk up, and quickly.

We can moan about this all we like, and yes, it’s unfair. But that’s the situation and we’ve got to work out our response to it, or else endure another 18 months (or whatever) of the only occasions we gain any national media exposure being when the press reports speculation about Ming’s future.

It is no longer enough for Ming, or anyone else, simply to try and deflect the question, and state that Ming’s the elected leader, and he’s here to stay up to and beyond the next election. That the question is being asked is inflicting damage on the party, and becomes self-perpetuating: if the only times the public hears about the Lib Dems is because the press is reporting a leadership crisis is in itself a problem.

We cannot be a captive of the media agenda: I do not believe Ming’s leadership should be ended because the press is playing silly buggers. Journalists are already self-important enough in their belief that they can make the political weather without the Lib Dems offering them a sacrificial lamb in the hope they might actually bother to do their job and report on the state of the party fairly and objectively.

But, equally, it is no good closing our eyes and ears, and pretending all this nonsense will just go away if we ignore it. The vultures of the Fourth Estate are circling. For the good of the party, the uncertainty cannot be allowed to continue. The onus is on our MPs, I think. A letter signed by all 62 of Mings Commons colleagues expressing full support for Ming as leader is the very least that's needed. If they’re not prepared to do that, they have to work out what they are prepared to do.

October 09, 2007

Meltdown in meltdown shocker

Just nine days ago (seems a lifetime) it was Cameron who was in ‘meltdown’ (The Observer). Today it’s Team Gordon who are in ‘meltdown’ (ConHome).

Other current ‘meltdown’ news items include:
To name but a few.

Please can lazy sub-editors borrow a thesaurus, and try out a new cliché?

October 08, 2007

Is Gordon Brown really all that?

Talk about a week being a long time in politics. If Gordon Brown had the courage to match his opportunism today would mark the beginning of the second week of an autumn ’07 general election campaign.

Phew, say Lib Dems and Tories

And both the Lib Dems and Tories would be more than a bit worried for a very good reason: neither party is yet ready to face an election. Why should they be? After all, we’re just half-way through the full Parliamentary term.

Of course, party politics being the Neverland it is, both Ming Campbell and David Cameron have felt compelled to declare resoundingly, ‘Bring it on’, in order to avoid the charge of unmanly cowardice. What does it say about the political health of a nation when we expect politicians to tell untruths?

It would have been declared a major gaffe, or be pounced on as running scared if either Ming or Dave had told it as it is: “Look, we’re just not ready yet. The manifesto’s only half-written, and we’ve still got to find candidates for some potentially winnable seats (let alone all the others). Give us another year, then we’ll be good to go.”

But Gordon, rather kindly, chose not to put us on the spot. As is often the case in politics, the right decision was taken for entirely the wrong reasons. Gordon wasn’t bothered that springing a snap poll on the public while the main opposition parties are under-prepared was in any way a tardy way to behave in a supposedly mature democracy. He was concerned that he might not win. Something tells me that concern is one he needs to get used to.

Gordon - from zero to hero and back again?

I only caught a glimpse of Gordon’s press conference today, via The Guardian website. Given that this extract, focusing on the reason for delaying an election, is one the Prime Minister will have practised, it is dreadful stuff - waffly, insincere and dull. True blue Tory Danny Finkelstein has drafted the text Gordon should have used, and made a much better job of sounding both statesmanlike and believable - here’s how it begins:
Yes, I considered calling an election. And here's why. There are two options for a new Prime Minister. Asking voters for their trust in advance, or waiting until new policies have had a chance to work. I have been thinking about both these possibilities.
The polls were a large part of this. They have shown that people are enthusiastic, keen to back my vision for change. And that made me think hard about the idea of winning a fresh mandate which might make it easier to get Parliamentary backing for some of our most controversial ideas, ideas like reform of the Lords.
But the polls have also been volatile. They show that, quite understandably, the enthusiasm is accompanied by uncertainty. That uncertainty reflects the fact that people want to hear the arguments and see the change before they vote.
Gordon’s recent performance has recalled to my mind an article I wrote on this blog last year, looking at the often-forgotten part of the Gordon biography, the years 1992-94, when he went from being the obvious successor to John Smith to obvious bridesmaid to Tony Blair:
For all the controversy of the so-called ‘Granita Pact’, when Mr Blair and Mr Brown are supposed to have reached concord that Mr Blair would be the modernising candidate, there is one simple reason why Mr Brown sat on his hands: Mr Blair would have beaten him.

To understand why this was so, let me quote from Nicholas Jones’s excellent 1996 tome, Soundbites & Spin Doctors:
Aware of criticism that his delivery could be stilted and that he sometimes had a wooden appearance, Brown went to inordinate lengths to inject vitality into his answers. During a hectic round of interviews in the week of the 1992 autumn spending statement, a television studio technician observed the care with which he practised what was obviously the key sentence of his reply, repeating it a dozen times before deciding which words should get more emphasis. Such assiduity had its disadvantages: once he had memorised a soundbite, Brown had a tendency to keep repeating it whatever the subsequent questions. Some programme editors grew reluctant to accept his contributions, claiming they were predictable and repetitive. For a time, producers on the BBC’s One o‘Clock News were told to do their utmost to find other Labour voices: Brown was considered to have become over-exposed.
The appointment of Charlie Whelan as his press officer in January 1994 curbed the worst of Mr Brown’s media obsession. But John Smith’s untimely death triggered a leadership contest at the worst possible time for Mr Brown. As Mr Jones records:
… although [Mr Whelan] had gone some way towards repairing the damage to the shadow Chancellor’s reputation, the leadership contest reopened the debate about Brown’s addiction to soundbites. As the party started assessing the value of the likely contenders, there were powerful voices in the Labour hierarchy who said Brown was too lightweight to become leader.
A lightweight leader addicted to soundbites, eh? Up with that, Labour would never put.
Matthew Parris put his finger on it (as so often) last month when Gordon was riding high:
I keep saying this – but the man hasn’t got the ghost of a plan. Not an idea in his head. Anyone with ears to hear could guess as much from his speech and media interviews on Monday. “Citizens’ juries” across the country to advise the Government on policy? Spare us. Why doesn’t he advise the Government? He’s the Prime Minister.
What leaps from Mr Brown’s interviews is not the intellectual colossus that some of my Fleet Street colleagues describe, but an ambitious school bursar with a powerful ego, a good head for figures and a big gap in his brain where a creative political imagination ought to be. Mr Brown interviews like a frightened man, desperate to bore and bulldoze his way through 15 minutes without saying anything.
The Tories made the critical mistake in the summer of underestimating Gordon Brown’s tactical shrewdness. Until last week, he had inflicted grievous punishment on them for their complacency.

Labour has made the critical mistake of believing the hype about Gordon, imagining he can carry all before him on the assumption the country is as docile as the party. The last week has exposed the limits of Gordon’s prowess.

October 03, 2007

The expectations' see-sore

It all changes so, so quickly.

Five months ago, David Cameron was riding high, following some pretty decent local election results. Tony Blair, New Labour’s election talisman was soon to depart, and be replaced by the ever-grumpy, and supposedly vote-haemmorhaging, Gordon Brown.

And then Mr Brown took over, and confounded the Tories’ worst hopes.

Though most people would be hard-pressed to name anything significant that he’s achieved as Prime Minister - I’m afraid I don’t count being on watch during crises over which you have little or no control (foot-and-mouth), or for which you are partly responsible for (Northern Rock) - he has successfully managed not to be Mr Blair. And, frankly, that’s all the country wanted, just as Margaret Thatcher’s replacement with John Major lifted the Tories almost 17 years ago.

The media has, as is their wont, over-interpreted this mood of relief, and ascribed to it more significance than it deserves. The ‘Brown bounce’ is likely prove to be just that: a temporary and limited surge in Labour’s popularity which owes much to the Prime Minister’s current novelty value.

However, the media’s exuberance appears also to have gripped New New Labour’s high command, which has refused to kill off speculation that a snap election will be announced in a matter of days. As a result, serious politics has taken a back-seat while the parties take pot-shots at each other during this phoney war.

Perhaps Mr Brown was hoping the Tory party conference in Blackpool this week, should it prove a disaster, would help make up his mind. If so, he’ll have been sadly disappointed - whatever you think of the Tories, it’s clear they’ve had a good enough week.

By which I mean, they haven’t fallen into their usual traps of publicly displaying either chronic disloyalty to their leader, or self-indulgent rants from barking mad regiments of retired colonel-types taking their prejudices for a walk. Even if they did make the mistake of letting Liam Fox remind everyone exactly why all Lib Dem and Labour supporters would just love him to become Tory leader.

The Tories have, therefore, successfully achieved just what Mr Brown did in the summer: they have countered the low expectations set for them by the media, such as the risible headline The Observer splashed on its front page, Cameron faces poll meltdown. (If editors of the supposedly more serious newspapers are ever kept awake by their falling circulations, and wonder why the public chooses to shun their product, they would do well to ponder the dumbed-down, hyped-up sensationalism of their front pages.)

All of which leaves Mr Brown in a quandary: damned if he does call an election, and damned if he doesn’t.

Because, make no mistake, to go to the polls now is a huge gamble. How will the public react to being forced to endure a month’s politicking followed by a trip to the polling station in cold, damp, miserable weather?

Some polls suggest the electorate is up for it, ready, willing and able to bound down to their nearest polling station, and mark their cross. Well, perhaps. But Mr Brown should know better than to trust polls which ask hypothetical questions: after all, if they were at all a useful predictor, he wouldn’t now be enjoying his currently high popularity ratings.

I won’t be foolish enough to predict the result of a November election, if one happens - but I will predict that turnout would be down, which in itself would scarcely amount to a ringing endorsement of Mr Brown’s mandate to govern.

Even if he wins, he must win big enough - at least a majority of 40, or his credibility will take a real bashing (and he will find himself at the mercy of the left-wing Campaign Group of Labour MPs). It will only take the smallest of swings away from Labour to see Mr Brown’s majority vanish, and with it his authority and grip on his premiership.

And as for the ignominious prospect of defeat, joining the ranks of the shortest-serving Prime Ministers of this country… well, that thought is the one which is doubtless paralysing Mr Brown even now. To squander a majority of 69 for the sake of the personal hubristic vanity of winning an election in your own right - suddenly all the warnings which the Blairites had whispered in the years leading up to Mr Brown’s accession would seem eerily prophetic.

Which is why Mr Brown might still decide to flunk it, to decide against calling an election, and ride his luck at least until the spring. The whispers I’m hearing from Team Brown is that they have yet finally to make up their mind. The current favoured option is 8th November, announced next week. But who knows?

There would be lots of good reasons for Mr Brown to postpone. Yet it would be seen as a climb-down, an humiliating admission, rooted in careful calculation, that he can’t win at the moment. In an instant, political momentum would swing away from Mr Brown, and towards his opponents.

At which point, the media and the public might just begin to think: for a country-before-party, ‘big tent’-loving statesman, Mr Brown doesn’t half seem to devote an unseemly amount of time to promoting his own personal political interests.

October 01, 2007

Losing our Marples

Say what you like about ITV1’s updated Marple - and many have - the cast list is OTT-ly stellar. I’m especially intrigued by their decision to work their way through the entire cast list of Green Wing.

Last week it was Stephen Mangan (Dr Guillaume 'Guy' Valerie Secretan in GW; Inspector Bird in Marple), and Mark Heap (Dr Alan Statham; Mr Humfries). Last night it was the turn of Julian Rhind-Tutt (Dr 'Mac' Macartney; Dr Calgary) and Pippa Haywood (Joanna Clore; Mrs Price).

In his review last year, Jonathan Calder lauded the BBC’s Joan Hickson version of Miss Marple: “an impeccable performance set off by a frequently immaculate supporting cast and sensetive direction. And Geraldine McEwan's is a lesser performance which is often hindered by the setting in which it has been placed.”

I cannot disagree with him about Joan Hickson’s portrayal: she is Miss Marple. Which is, of course, why ITV was quite right not to try and replicate what had gone before. Where I do part company with Jonathan is about the production values of the BBC adaptations, which are very much of their time, and therefore (whisper it gently) rather dull.

Having absolutely loved the Hickson Marples as a child, I was distressed to catch a couple of them recently, and discover quite how torturously ponderous the script and direction is. By comparison, the ITV versions are slick, pacy and glowing with irony.

Which might not be to your taste, of course. But, just as theatrical productions of timeless pieces can vary, I don’t see why telly shouldn’t feel free to update itself for a new generation.

Bloglash (n.)

Last week’s publication of Iain Dale’s list of the top 500 UK political blogs has sparked some criticism - the funniest is here at mediocracy (hat-tip: Tim Worstall), the most acute is here at Stumbling and Mumbling:
… there's something nasty about the very notion that blogs can be ranked on a simple single ordering. The overwhelming virtue of the blogosphere is its diversity. And the many things that make a good blog are to some extent incompatible; originality versus consistency; passion versus intellectual rigour; number of posts versus quality of individual posts; brevity versus weight of evidence; wit versus gravitas, and so on.

These trade-offs mean the quality of blogs is just incommensurable - we can't rank them. … And even if we can each rank our own preferences, what meaning is there to an aggregate ranking? To pretend there is one is to commit the error that libertarians have often accused utilitarians of making - of believing preferences can be easily aggregated when they cannot be. It's symptomatic of the intellectual decline of the Conservative party that one of its cheerleaders should make this error.
Stephen Tall is 55th.

Tease shirt

A quick plug for Progresswear.com, who have just despatched my latest item of clothing - a T-shirt with this legend...

That’s one to wear on 18 Doughty Street next time I appear.