Opinion: The leadership contest – how's it looking so far?

by Stephen Tall on November 7, 2007

The leadership campaign must have begun: all party members have just received our first e-mails from the candidates, Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne.

I remain a floating voter in this election: genuinely (because I can see the good qualities in each candidate) and deliberately (‘cos I can imagine the flak LDV would get if it were seen to be promoting any one individual). What I’ve got to say should be read in that spirit.

Let’s take Chris’s statement first. (It happened to arrive in my inbox first.) In some senses, Chris should start the favourite: he was runner-up last time, attracting 42% of the final vote – which means over 20,000 members chose to make him their first or second preference candidate back in 2006. This gives him name recognition, at least among activists, perhaps exceeding that which Nick has. It also means he has a campaign infrastructure: a nascent team, extant database, loyal supporters primed and ready-to-go.

Yet it’s clear that Chris wishes – whether by design or default – to pitch his candidacy as still very much the outsider he was until almost two years ago. His opening statement is a call to arms: “Britain needs nothing less than a Liberal Revolution: a revolution in democracy, a revolution for social justice, and a revolution in global change.”

It’s a brave declaration: brave in its ambition, but also brave in its pitch. “A revolution in democracy” is a line which Chris knows will be applauded by party activists the length and breadth of the country. It is a measure which we know would transform the way in which politics in this country is done. And yet… isn’t it too easy? Will the revolution in democracy really grab potential voters? Is it really the slogan to highlight in your leadership pitch?

However, social justice is clearly the gauntlet which Chris’s campaign wishes to lay down to Team Clegg: “we’re against school vouchers and American-style health insurance. How about you?” It’s a fair question, and one to which Nick should give due regard. In his Vision statement Nick left it (deliberately) opaque: “our universal public services must be free to use and accessible to all. But beyond that, I want us to think afresh about how they should be funded and delivered.” Thinking afresh is all well and good – after all, if you can’t do that during a leadership campaign, when can you do it? But he can hardly be surprised if his rivals read into it what they will.

Yet there is a challenge here, too, for Chris: Nick has summarised his approach to public services (free to use, accessible to all, the delivery’s up for grabs) – is Chris suggesting that delivery of services in health and education must always be through government, whether at local or national level? Does he really think council officers in the Town Hall (as opposed to civil servants in Whitehall) will be better placed than the individual patient, parent or pupil to know what individual services they require? We can all agree that public services should be devolved from the centre. The question is: how far do you go? Nick has dodged the question; Chris appears to prefer not to ask it.

On Trident, it seems to me that after all last week’s sound and fury both candidates have argued themselves to a score-draw. Chris will have won over those activists wishing to hear their leader argue unambiguously against Trident; but worried those who fear he’s too in thrall to party activists. Nick will have reassured those who want the party to remain in the mainstream of political debate; but worried those who fear we will be squeezed by Labour and the Tories if we too often adopt a cautious middle-way approach to such vital issues.

Finally, and briefly, on Chris’s statement: “we need a revolution in global change”. I’d be grateful if anyone could explain to me what this statement might mean. I’ve read it a hundred times, and each time I do it means less than previously.

And now, more briefly, to Nick… the difference in style is quite marked. While Chris commits himself to take the party base to the people – “lead[ing] nothing less [than] a Liberal Revolution for the British people” (an oddly top-down remark from such a decentraliser) – Nick opts to widen the party base itself: “There are millions of people in this country who share our liberal values, but don’t yet give us their votes.”

I was one of those people who argued the leadership race should not be a two-horse race, who urged other candidates to throw their hats in the ring – either because they thought they might win, or else to signify their ambition.

But one of the consequences of the straight choice we party members face is that the – be honest, minor differences – which exist between the candidates are that much more transparent. A four- or five-horse race would have been much more interesting; but it would also have muddied the waters, allowing the two leading candidates to deflect attention from their perceived advantages and shortcomings.

Chris, it seems to me, is talking to the party – perhaps too gently for its own good – in order to win the chance to talk to the nation. Nick, it seems to me, is focusing less on the party – perhaps too little for his own good – in order to win the chance to be heard by the nation.

This, I would argue, is the essence of this leadership contest: purism (Chris Huhne) versus pragmatism (Nick Clegg). Should that statement be read pejoratively? Well, it depends on what you think the role of the leader should be. Should a leader unite the party around core beliefs – ones which fit it like a glove – in order to give us the confidence to take our liberal proposition to the British people?

“We will make the call loud and clear to change the country we love, not just run it. We will inject our energy and our ideas into the political system. We will build a grassroots movement of liberals within this party and outside it.” – Chris Huhne

Or should a leader unite the people around a broader concept of liberalism – one which the party perhaps sometimes finds uncomfortable – in the hope it will give the party mainstream appeal, and, in time, power?

“Some commentators argue that the best the Liberal Democrats can hope for is third place and a toe-hold in government if we’re lucky. They are wrong. Third place is not good enough for me, for the party, or for Britain. In a time of real political change and shifting public opinion we must aim higher.” – Nick Clegg

This leadership race offers a clear choice: it’s an honest choice, and an honest difference.

And yet there is also a marked similarity between the two candidates, evidenced most clearly by Nick’s public declaration to become “the first national politician to pledge to refuse to register” for an ID card. Nick was indulging in obvious hyperbole: the party’s president, Simon Hughes, beat him to the title by two years.

Yet it points to a growing recognition within the Lib Dems that the party has become too complacent. For five years, the Lib Dems have benefited from being the party which (for example) opposed the Iraq war, and which opposed tuition fees. As those two issues, in particular, begin to lose their visceral resonance with voters, the question emerges: what comes next?

And it’s evident when you talk to Lib Dem members – no matter which self-proclaimed ‘wing’ of the party they align themselves to – that our spiky, edgy, anti-establishment nature was one of the chief attractions of the party to them. Indeed, that word, ‘spiky’, was the one which was adopted by Ming Campbell as a cri de coueur for party members in his private speeches, and which was met with great acclaim; yet he somehow failed to communicate this liberal feistiness to the wider electorate.

If the last leadership election marked the breakthrough into the political mainstream of ‘green politics’ – thanks to Chris Huhne, and irrespective of David Cameron’s photo-ops – then perhaps this contest will witness the Lib Dems becoming more willing to identify ourselves as political outsiders eager to break the cosy Labour/Tory consensus.