Opinion: Let's talk about strengths

by Stephen Tall on November 14, 2007

It’s an odd leadership race for me. Though I’ve always tried to be measured in my blogging, I don’t usually find myself short of an opinion, nor find it difficult to decide which side of an argument I’m on. But this time round, I’m genuinely torn.

There’s enough negativity in the Lib Dem blogosphere, so let me speak to what I see as the top three strengths of the two candidates vying to become the party’s next leader:

Chris Huhne

1. Ambition: sometimes regarded as a dirty word, especially by us nice, decent liberals – which is a part of the reason we haven’t been in government for 80 years. It took guts (or cojones, to quote Lynne Featherstone) for Chris to take on Ming Campbell in 2006 after just eight months as an MP. It took real ability to build a campaign from nothing and to come a strong second, beating the much better known Simon Hughes. If that’s not a qualification for the top job, I don’t know what is.

2. Steadiness: the party has been through a bruising last couple of years, with the Tories picking themselves up off the floor, the downfall of two leaders, and the media fuss about three of our MPs’ private lives. I find it impossible to imagine Chris ‘getting in a flap’ about anything; indeed, he’s the very epitome of unflappable. Whatever’s thrown at him – whether in Parliament or on TV – he will deal with it, calmly and effectively.

3. Seriousness: here’s a man who lives and breathes politics and policy; an intellectual who’s worked out how to apply his intellect. He chaired the party’s public services policy commission; he’s an award-winning journalist, who’s written four books; he’s founded his own firm of economists. It’s some CV. This is a man who knows of what he speaks.

Nick Clegg

1. Empathy: Nick has got saddled with the soubriquet, the ‘great communicator’, but I think it’s misleading. To be sure, he’s a good platform speaker, and can be a highly effective talking head for the party. But that’s not his real strength, which is to persuade those to whom he’s talking that he’s listening to them, that he’s considering what they’re going through, and that his reply will be both spontaneous and individual. This has its downsides – Nick’s answers are sometimes a little long-winded and unstructured; but his charm and straightforwardness mark him out in politics. You’ve either got it, or you ain’t.

2. Intelligence: when Nick speaks you get the feeling that this is a politician thinking about what he’s saying. There are hardly any set-piece soundbites, no learnt-by-rote speeches: these are thoughts in progress. I find it an appealing trait, though it’s not one to which our political culture is attuned. We – or at least the media – expects politicians always to have the pre-prepared answer to hand. Nick has an intellectual curiosity, a thirst for new ideas, different ways of doing things. His is a mind constantly whirring and questing.

3. Normality: for all his much-touted good looks, his public school Oxbridge education (like Chris’s), his multilingualism, his policy wonk writings – he’s the kind of leader folk will identify with. And that’s partly because he chooses to identify with them. His speeches are littered with anecdotal references to the people he’s spoken to, the problems they’ve brought to him, what they think of the local council, how their kids find the local school, the last time they visited a hospital, their hopes, their fears. He is a natural and engaging conversationalist, never happier than when absorbed in a dialogue. He may be a member of the political elite, but he refuses to let it set him apart from those he represents.

You may disagree with all this. Perhaps you think I’ve overstated certain qualities to the exclusion of more important ones; or that I’m entirely misguided in thinking either candidate has any qualities at all.

But here’s a challenge from me to you, at least for this one article: if you choose to comment, why not try accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative? Say what you think is good about your preferred candidate, not what you think’s bad about his opponent.

For myself, I find I’m still exactly where I started this contest: undecided. What I really want, of course, is a fusion of all the characteristics I’ve identified: ambition, empathy, steadiness, intelligence, seriousness, normality.

Fortunately, I’ll get that whoever’s elected – just in different degrees.