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.

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“… and that one of its leading proponents should have stood…”

Doesn’t Chris Huhne count?

Of course, if we talk about the leading proponent, it would have been David Laws. But I’ve got the feeling that he doesn’t seek to become the leader, perhaps because he knows that he isn’t too popular among the left leaning membership. It’s a shame, actually, he’s easily the brightest MP that Lib Dems got. Or perhaps even the brightest MP in the whole House.

by Anonymous on February 12, 2006 at 9:06 am. Reply #

Chris would count if he’d been prepared to make the arguments. He hasn’t, and has subtly distanced himself from the Orange Book – which is understandable if you look at his list of supporters!

Fwiw, I think Laws should have stood, though I understand why he didn’t. Sure, he’d have lost. But he’d have had a chance to put his arguments to the wider membership. I suspect he’d have earned a lot of respect, even if some of it was grudging.

It would also have ensured the OB arguments about public services were seriously addressed.

Instead, we’ve had a sham contest with the major domestic disagreements centering around whether fuel tax should be higher, and the future of Trident. Both are important. But they’re not going to be what the next general election is about.

Chris’s supporters say he’s made the running on policy issues. Perhaps. But the policies he’s chosen are those carefully designed to sidestep the big issues the OB addressed – whether you agree with them or not.

by Stephen Tall on February 12, 2006 at 10:39 am. Reply #

Insults aside, and I know people have made this point before, but what is an “Orange Booker”? You complain that Huhne hasn’t been pushing the Orange Book agenda, and yet his environment policies echo Susan Kramer’s chapter and unsurprisingly elements of his international policies can be found in his chapter on international institutions. And he’s gone further than Ed Davey on localism.

He hasn’t come out and championed David Laws’ health policies, but then, as the chair of the party’s public services commission he is its most trenchant critic.

And Paul Marshall’s chapter on pensions has been overtaken by Turner.

So what do you want him, or indeed anyone, to do? The book wasn’t written by a group of people with a shared agenda – it is a random bunch of articles. You might as well lament that none of the candidates have campaigned on the “agenda” of the last issue of Liberator.

It makes a nice soundbite but makes no sense.

by James on February 12, 2006 at 4:49 pm. Reply #

I’ll take the fair point first! You’re right of course the ‘Orange Book’ is a mixed bag – I was using the term as a commonly understood short-hand to refer to an emphasis on using market-based economics to deliver liberal public policy goals.

On the unfair points: I wasn’t singling out Chris for criticism (was very careful not to), so I’m not sure why you’ve taken it that way. Other than that supporters of all 3 candidates seem a mite too testy at the minute. Though I’ve voted for him, I think (and said in the article) that Ming has also been too hazy in putting forward the case for public service reform.

My point here was not to complain that any one candidate has not been pro-OB. The point is that the party is ignoring this debate, which denies the opportunity both to those who are OB-ers and those who are not, to make their respective case to the party’s membership. A leadership contest should enable such a debate, not ignore it.

Ming, Chris and Simon have all (rightly) emphasised the fact that good quality public services require local accountability and
decent funding.

But none of them have addressed the bigger issue, which is more awkward: what to do when a bad decision is made locally, and what to do when the funding is insufficient (as it inevitably will be)? This is where markets are essential because they give you a robust evidential basis to make your decisions, and enable you to prioritise scarce resources to best effect.

So how can we as liberals establish markets? How can we correct the market failures there will inevitably be? And how can we make these markets work to deliver real social justice?

Those are the kind of questions a leadership debate should open up. We can all sign up to localism and decent funding. Let’s also have the courage to debate what we disagree on as well. This contest hasn’t provided that debate. That’s why it’s disappointed me.

by Stephen Tall on February 12, 2006 at 5:36 pm. Reply #

The trouble is, Stephen, that as we all now know, having these great ideologicaly debates is not the way elections are won. Everyone’s saying as close to the same thing as they can possibly make it as, just like in a general election, it’s going to be won by a smallish or sameish group of “floating” voters to which all the candidates have got to appeal.

And, while we’ve been nicely distracted by a leadership campaign, the likes of Paul Marshall and Vince may, for all we know, be successfully stitching up the fiscal and economic landscape under which we have to work in the Tax Commission.

by Jock Coats on February 19, 2006 at 1:09 am. Reply #

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