On being taken seriously: part I

by Stephen Tall on February 26, 2006

I’ve said it before, and I’d say it again – this leadership contest has not been what it could, or should, have been – except that Andrew Rawnsley has done it better than I could have in another excellent analysis in today’s Observer:

Where they have differences, the candidates have been deliberately blurring them. Not wanting to be cast as a leftie loon who would repel voters in the shires, Simon Hughes has muffled his more radical instincts. Not wanting to be painted as a patrician who looks down on the hairier activists, Sir Menzies Campbell has been cautious about giving a modernising message to his party. Not wanting to be seen as a risky right winger, Chris Huhne has made populist noises designed to arouse the applause of Lib Dem members rather than to provoke them to think. They have all played it safe.

Where the party has big dilemmas to face and crunchy choices to make, the wannabe leaders have failed to confront them. None of them has had the courage to boldly tell their party what needs to change if it is not to be another half-century before they are a part of a government.

They have failed to challenge their party’s comfort zones. They have not told the Lib Dems how they need to modernise with the urgency of Tony Blair running for the leadership of the Labour party or David Cameron campaigning to take over the Tories.

I have a lot of time for Chris Huhne, and hope he will have a big part to play in the Lib Dem shadow cabinet if (as I suspect) Ming wins the vote on Thursday. His campaign has been professional in the best sense of the word. However, Rawnsley’s point is a good one. Chris had the best opportunity, as the rank outsider, to raise the level of debate in this contest… and I’m still waiting.

Three issues have dominated this contest: eco-taxes, nuclear energy and withdrawal from Iraq. All three are vital, don’t get me wrong. But they are not going to be the issues which decide the next election: as James Carville famously remarked, “It’s the economy, stupid”.

Chris’s supporters, most notably Lynne Featherstone and Susan Kramer (stars, both of them), have told us Chris’s biggest USP is that he can convincingly take on Gordon Brown on the economy at the next election. They may well be right. But, having attended two husting events, I’ve still not heard nearly enough from Chris on this. I’ve read his manifesto, and parts of it get close, for instance:

Liberal Democrats are also believers in competition, because choice gives power to the consumer. There are still too many parts of the private sector that lack the cut and thrust of intense competition. That is bad for prosperity, and bad for our prospects of creating winning businesses.

Quite correct, and well said. But there’s a couple of words missing from that sentence – that’s right, any reference to the ‘public sector’. There are elliptical phrases elsewhere such as, “Local control of public services like health and schools will mean creativity, experimentation, innovation.” I’ve been longing for Chris to unwrap these concepts, to elucidate his thinking.

But, as the campaign has rattled along, and his prospects of winning have become much greater, so has his campaign played it safer. This is understandable – when you’re endorsed both by Polly Toynbee and The Economist it can safely be said you have assembled a broad church – but it has been disappointing for those, like me, who have been longing to hear the serious debate about the future direction of public services which should now be gripping our party.

I want to make it clear that I am not picking on Chris here. Ming’s campaign has been far too defensive on the domestic front, and James Graham has taken a typically trenchant, but by no means wholly unjustified, view of this over at Quaequam. And the early promise of Simon’s campaign – that he would reach out to all parts of the Lib Dems – has become just a distant memory as he attempts to shore up his base.

Yet Chris’s campaign could have set the tone. He has, after all, plastered Peter Preston’s paean – “Britain’s most formidable one-man think-tank” – across his literature and website. Perhaps I’m being unfair. The nature of a Lib Dem leadership contest is that the candidates have to press the flesh of as many of our party’s 73,000 members as possible in a highly compressed period of time. The hyper-kinetic nature of the contest does not allow that much opportunity for policy reflection. But I wanted Chris’s campaign to be different: I had high expectations of him, and thought his campaign would raise the bar for the other two candidates. That just hasn’t happened.

So I’ve voted for Ming – not because I agree with him 100% on domestic policy, but because he has articulated for me most clearly of the three candidates his liberal values. If we’re not going to do wonkery, we can at least have some passion.