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.

Enjoy reading this? Please like and share:



by Joe Otten on November 14, 2007 at 7:59 pm. Reply #

You are absolutely bang-on with the empathy. I’ve been struggling to understand why I keep hearing Nick’s a great communicator and not quite agreeing, but at the same time seeing what people mean. You have it exactly.

Your comment on Nick’s whirring mind is interesting. I hear that much more when Chris talks – I remember being impressed with this very quality as a non-member at the last leadership contest. I’d also query your “steadiness” – can we have “hard-arse common sense”? Steadiness sounds boring.

by Alix on November 14, 2007 at 8:19 pm. Reply #

Yes, I applaud this too and agree with the strengths you’ve listed.

I’m currently doing something very similar on my blog, inviting people today to give ‘one good reason’ for voting for Chris and tomorrow Nick, with a rule that states the reasons must be positive *for* the candidate.

Encouraging people to talk about the positives is a great idea in the long run.

by Charlotte Gore on November 14, 2007 at 8:19 pm. Reply #

I think the thing with Nick’s communication style is that he’s mostly unpretentious and manages to come across quite naturally, often almost conversational. His speeches are quite odd because they really don’t feel like ‘speeches’ in the normal sense.

I think this makes him accessible and not off-putting or preachy. It’s something I personally quite like but whether or not the public even notice him, or Huhne, is anyone’s guess at this point.

by Charlotte Gore on November 14, 2007 at 8:25 pm. Reply #

Yes – well done.

I clam to be the originator of the empathy meme btw.

by Peter Welch on November 14, 2007 at 8:39 pm. Reply #

Nick’s strength that I particularly like is that he’s willing to explore in public the dilemmas that are inevitable in politics – this isn’t always comfortable or easy but it is necessary – and most of all it is authentic.

by Rob Blackie on November 14, 2007 at 10:10 pm. Reply #

“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”

I’m not convinced about this – it was tactically smart as it placed him ahead of the pack as “the next leader” but was fairly risk free as (1) if he wasn’t expected to perform that well and (2) would probably have outperformed expecatations as the media wouldn’t have factored in his SE profile as an ex-MEP. Smart move yes – a gutsy move requires a little more risk IMO.

by Hywel Morgan on November 14, 2007 at 10:51 pm. Reply #

The way I see it, everyone in politics is ambitious, nobody in politics is normal, and everybody in politics ought to be intelligent. So factoring out these qualities, it looks like Chris Huhne wins 2-1.

by Laurence Boyce on November 14, 2007 at 11:50 pm. Reply #

You undersetimate Chris Huhne in the empathy stakes. Before the Bristol hustings I was with him on visits to the Bristol Bangladesh Association, a Social Club, and a recycling enterprise.
He showed great empathy, and a grasp of a diverse range of issues.

At the hustings Nick spoke with passion, but irritated many by his failure to give a straight answers to questions. Nick does his ‘CameronBlair’ act well, but that may be past its sell-by date well before the next general election.

by Steve Comer on November 15, 2007 at 12:10 am. Reply #

I think that this is a very accurate summary of both candidates. Well said!

by tim leunig on November 15, 2007 at 12:49 am. Reply #

9 – Steve, you were doing so well being positive in your first paragraph, then you spoil it by going negative in your second.

Why do candidates’ supporters think that kind of attack will do anything to persuade undecideds like me?

by Stephen Tall on November 15, 2007 at 8:28 am. Reply #

Oh well, 8 out of the first 10 posts sticking to the theme of being positive about their chosen candidate rather than slagging off the other one is a reasonable result I suppose…

I hated the last leadership election. There was one candidate who I thought could do the job well and two who I was sure could not. Unfortunately, my guy lost and having spent a whole campaign absorbing negatives about Ming it was difficult to raise my morale and enthusiasm afterwards.

This time there are two excellent candidates who have different strengths. Either of them will be very good at the job. That’s why the bile-filled attacks from the ‘Negativista’ sections arent credible.

by Ed on November 15, 2007 at 8:42 am. Reply #

Stephen, I’ll go one better than your challenge and say something good about my non-preferred candidate. I agree with you that Nick comes across well and his stand on ID cards (see other blogs) was just the sort of eye-catching principled stand that we need.

by Paul Walter on November 15, 2007 at 9:21 am. Reply #

I have been surprised myself about how strong a reaction I have had to the two candidates when I started out feeling I didn’t particularly care for either of them. For myself, the slightly awkward intellectual nature of Chris appeals to me and comes across as “what you see is what you get”, while the smooth-talking salesman Nick who always seems to be on your side while never making any definite commitments arouses the sort of suspicion I always feel about that sort of personality type “what’s this guy trying to sell me, and where’s the catch?”.

I appreciate my reaction may be a minority one and may be to do with my own personality type. What I appreciate in Chris others may find cold and off-putting, what I dislike in Nick others may find warm and empathetic.

by Matthew Huntbach on November 15, 2007 at 9:27 am. Reply #

Matthew, read the instructions.

I think both candidates are pretty what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

6. Couldn’t agree more, Rob.

by Valerie on November 15, 2007 at 12:09 pm. Reply #

Stephen @11 re Steve@9: Like you I’m undecided, but veering closer and closer to Huhne, and Steve’s Blair/Cameron persona is one of the things that puts me off Clegg—I like him, but he does come across as ‘another’ Blair clone, and I do think that sort of thing is past it’s sell-by date, especially with our potential voters.

Clegg is competent, capable and I’ll be happy with him as leader, but I do worry that we won’t do as well under him as we potentially could under Huhne, as has been said a few times already, the only issue our poll ratings have gone up for recently has been on the environment, and while that’s an issue low on my list of priorities, I know I’m atypical.

Clegg’s been good on crime, but it doesn’t seem to have registered as well with voters, despite it being a good line and a potentially good campaign—but then, the media haven’t been covering it well. Um, given that’s his supposed strength?

I remain undecided, and I look forward to tonights QT, where likely I’ll make up my mind (and thus join a campaign for one or t’other).

by MatGB on November 15, 2007 at 12:43 pm. Reply #

Valerie, we’re trying to be positive here, so let’s say – Clegg’s advantage is that he appeals to the sort of person who is easily taken in by the glib salesman who gets what he wants with personal charm but doesn’t let you see the smallprint.

by Matthew Huntbach on November 15, 2007 at 12:44 pm. Reply #

I should add that I think both candidates are charming.

by Valerie on November 15, 2007 at 1:16 pm. Reply #

17. Voters dont read the small print.

by Anonymous on November 15, 2007 at 6:14 pm. Reply #

Matthew, read the instructions again.

by Joe Otten on November 17, 2007 at 1:25 pm. Reply #

Stephen, your detailed assessment which kicked off this blog was as perceptive and fair-minded as any of us has a right to expect.
Fopr me it is not so much a matter of trying to nuance any of your comments but more a matter of deciding which of the sets of qualities displayed by these two excellent candidates is more likely to help us win as a party.
I come down on Chris’s side because his experience and knowledge esp. in economics can match Brown and confound Cameron and perhaps even more because the unflappability you describe so well will get him impressively through the very many hostile interviews he will face.
We cannot afford to miss on this one.

by Denis on November 17, 2007 at 3:44 pm. Reply #

Leave your comment


Required. Not published.

If you have one.