The Lib Dem leadership contest and the elephant in the room

by Stephen Tall on February 11, 2006

The three Lib Dem leadership candidates hot-footed it over from Slough to Oxford this afternoon to speak at St Anne’s College (big up to my employer here, which offered the venue free). Pictures as below. The lecture theatre was packed despite the unavoidably short notice we were able to give for the event, with well over 150 members eager to be persuaded, or to have their preconceptions confirmed.

Each of the candidates spoke very well – clearly their speeches have been honed over the last few weeks – in their very different styles: Ming, the Grimond-ite gut liberal, spoke with passion about his internationalist values; Chris, the self-professed Green Horse of the contest, expounded his detailed policy vision; and Simon, the radical progressive, issued a crie de coeur to the party to take the fight to Labour.

Of the non-activist members I spoke to afterwards, the hust seemed to have done little to help them make up their minds: their second preference appeared to be as good as their favourite. (Though, interestingly, many had a very decided third preference, spread evenly between the three candidates.) Oxford is Chris’s old stomping ground – he was the candidate here in 1992 – and he certainly has picked up support. My sense remains that Ming still leads, and that Simon and Chris will both do very well.

There was a real sense of purpose and enthusiasm following on from the stunning Dunfermline by-election result. And perhaps most of all of relief that the demoralising turmoil of recent weeks is now behind us.

The candidates are being trailed by John Harris – author of the excellent The Last Party and So Now Who Do We Vote For? – who is writing a major piece for The Guardian’s G2 supplement: a sort of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, though a bit less gonzo.

He’s an engaging and perceptive guy, and we had an interesting chat outside the hall during the Q&A session (when he, as a non-member, was banished from the room). He described the party as being torn between voting with its head (Chris) or its heart (Simon), dismissing Ming as the “Trojan Horse of the Orange Bookers” – which I think more than a little unfair, though it doubtless has a grain of truth.

Like me (and many others) he thought the Lib Dems had missed a trick by not having had a more open debate about the Orange Book, and that one of its leading proponents should have stood in order to push forward its arguments within the party. Harris himself, though not a Lib Dem, is very much on the side of the social liberals, and feels the big debate the party needs is largely being ignored; he noted that very few activists had any real clue what was in the Orange Book.

This is, it seems to me, a fair criticism of the leadership contest so far. Both Ming and Chris have, for their own slightly different reasons, retreated from pushing the Orange Book’s economically liberal agenda (recognising that it remains still a minority view within the Lib Dems).

Ming has, I suspect, feared becoming too tarred by the Trojan Horse allegation; while Chris is anxious to keep high his stock among the activist base, which tends to be suspicious of the Orange Book and its proponents. And Simon (who is by no means the left-winger he’s sometimes portrayed as) has nonetheless done little to reassure those like me who have huge respect for him personally that he has a robust or coherent view about the future direction of our public services.

The leadership contest has, therefore, become slightly paradoxical. Each of the candidates has made clear their view that the Lib Dem mistake in the last election was to fight with a shopping list of policies, but not to give the electorate a real sense of our values. I agree. All liberals can unite around core values of internationalism, civil liberties and constitutional reform. But that’s just too easy. We need also to talk about how our shared values lead many of us to different conclusions; and to resolve what are those conclusions.

The big issues about public service reform have largely been dodged – or at least elegantly side-stepped – by all the candidates. It is good, but not sufficient, for us to talk about localism and fairness. We need to work out not only what are our values, but how they can be put into practice in a tough, competitive world. And that means how scarce resources, earned through a strong economy, can best be put to good use to ensure we have health and education systems that are among the best in the world.

None of the candidates has yet convinced me they know how to achieve this. And, though I think the contest has been in many ways interesting, I’m disappointed we have ignored this elephant in the room.