Opinion: Uninspired? Don’t blame Nick or Chris. It’s our fault

by Stephen Tall on November 27, 2007

I remain resolutely undecided, reliant on today’s London leadership hustings finally to make up my mind. But one thing I am sure about: I hope it’s the last time we as Lib Dems hold a leadership contest to such an abbreviated timetable.

Now some of you might be thinking, “What?! It’s already been twice as long as it needed to be.” And I have some sympathy with those who reckon the contest has failed to catch fire, except for a brief, phosphorescent flash on last week’s Politics Show.

Partly, that’s because some well-qualified MPs chose not to stand, instead throwing their weight behind the two front-runners – Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne – whose similarities vastly outweigh their differences. Those who are sitting out this contest doubtless had very good personal reasons. But for a party whose front-bench regularly out-punches its opposite Labour and Tory numbers it showed a lack of ambition which is pretty disappointing.

However, there’s a bigger reason the contest has failed to achieve what it should have done – and it’s got nothing to do with the two candidates who stood up to the plate, and everything to do with the mind-set of our party. We Lib Dems are addicted to by-elections, whether at local or national level, and that’s exactly how this leadership contest is being run: at a frenetic, frantic pitch seemingly designed not to let either Nick or Chris draw breath, still less to have the chance ever to think or reflect.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Leadership elections are the one opportunity a political party has to pause, to think through what it does, and why it does it. It is also the one opportunity a party like the Lib Dems gets to bask in a shard of media spotlight. So why not make good use of the time and space? Especially as we enjoy the good fortune of being represented by an acting leader, Vince Cable, for whom the phrase ‘sure-footed, sharp-shooter’ could have been invented.

Instead, we expect miracles of our leadership candidates: they must square their family, recruit a team and set up an office, organise a campaign launch and publicity, create a bells-and-whistles website, sign up supporters, plan a media grid, deliver dozens of speeches and attend umpteen hustings, faultlessly field scores of interviews, and write a manifesto: all within a few days of a vacancy arising without warning. At the end of it all, we’ll expect whoever wins energetically to get a grip of leading our Parliamentarians, take the media by storm, and transform the party’s poll ratings.

And woe betide the candidate who fails to meet the membership’s expectations in any one area! That Chris’s website was up-and-running before Nick’s provoked some pretty silly early willy-waving; while both candidates have come in for stick from some party members because the campaign teams haven’t yet managed personally to contact them to seek their vote. For a party which understands better than most how much effort is involved in running for election, the quite ludicrous expectations we have of our leadership contenders is baffling.

What worries me most is this: that the grinding pace of the contest to which both candidates are subjected becomes a substitute for hard thinking.

In the last leadership election, it was widely acknowledged that Chris Huhne ran the best campaign. Not just because he came from nowhere to finish a strong second place behind Ming Campbell; but because it was his campaign – his policy agenda – which dominated the debate, and shaped the party’s thinking in the next 18 months.

This contest has not been so elevated, with only two issues bubbling over: the party’s adopted stance on Trident, and school vouchers. How depressing that this golden opportunity to think aloud and afresh instead became mired in pondering how many anti-voucher multilateralists can dance on the head of a pin. Instead of opening up debate within the party, this contest has so far served only to close it down.

I’d be curious to know what the two candidates would like their legacy in this contest to be. Clearly each wants to be elected leader of our party; but only one will be chosen. So my blunt questions to Nick and Chris are… If you lose, what has been your contribution to this contest? How have you helped shape the future development of the party, regardless of the result? What are the three things you would like your leadership campaign to be remembered for? Perhaps the answers would help them each focus on what they’re seeking to achieve, and motivate those of us looking on in search of inspiration.

It hasn’t happened yet, though there is still a little time left. But if it doesn’t happen at all, I won’t lay the blame at the door of either Nick or Chris. It will be because we as a party prefer the perpetual motion of electioneering to the hard slog of working out what we would really do if we were in power.

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12 comments

I fear that in the case of one of them it’s ‘I’ve got more MPs than you’….

by anonymously anonymous on November 27, 2007 at 8:09 am. Reply #

I really do not think the Liberal Democrats should need to take so much longer to elect a leader than the country takes to elect a Government. Prolonged introspection isn’t good for anyone. I, of course, had declared for Huhne within seconds of Ming resigning. I had been for Huhne against Ming and Hughes before, though admittedly the short timetable gave Huhne practically nil chance of winning. What we need, I think, is not longer elections. It is longer periods between elections so that the bright ones have a fuller chance to establish themselves in the full membership’s consciousness through the quality of their contributions. So I really hope the party membership gets it right this time. In my view Huhne stands out from all the rest for his ambition, drive and boldness. One Lib Dem who is nobody’s wimp. If Clegg wins, I think the party will still be heavily Huhne-dependent for its cutting edge.

by Robin Young on November 27, 2007 at 8:45 am. Reply #

I agree with most of this Stephen. Bar one point.

The Leadership election is more a dry run for a general election than a period for thoughtful analysis. It allows the party to see how it might be led and GEs are generally 3 weeks not 6.

Considering direction, strategy and policy can surely form a part of that, but no leadership election could be long enough to do that process justice without making the party look rudderless.

by Andy Mayer on November 27, 2007 at 8:47 am. Reply #

Well said Stephen

by tim leunig on November 27, 2007 at 9:20 am. Reply #

I get annoyed when I read a so-called impartial commentator on the BBC announce that the contest is boring, but even more so when I read that someone on LDV agrees with him.
However there IS a difficulty in that the leader is supposed to support the policy of the Liberal Democrats, and should not tell the party what to think.
This reasoning prevented Simon Hughes from saying anything interesting in the last leadership contest.
Chris Huhne took some stick for re-opening the Trident debate, but he was right to do so in my opinion because of the poor performance of the Liberal Democrats in relation to the SNP in the last Scottish elections, and because the policy is pathetic and doesn’t make sense anyway.
No one is going to change Green Taxes, or our commitment to civil liberties. The funding of public services IS contentious and if Nick Clegg supports the chapter by David Laws in the Orange book, he should be challenged on that. He has been, and he appears not to agree with it.
For me that was a potentially interesting debate, although it generated more heat than light.
The relationship between the UK and the US is an important matter, and I am surprised there is not more of a debate over that, although maybe the 2 candidates agree. Also the same appears to be the case with the EU.
At least we can say that whoever wins, there is no reason for the party to feel split at the end of it.

by Geoffrey Payne on November 27, 2007 at 9:28 am. Reply #

Robin/Andy – take both your points, but a leadership contest is about more than being a proxy for a general election. In a GE, your policies are decided – it’s a question of communicating them effectively to the electorate in the given time. I think a leadership contest gives a party time to reflect, especially for us this time as we know a general election is almost certainly at least 18 months away.

Geoffrey – I certainly never said it was boring. What I do say is that real debate has been limited, and that I’m not sure the contest has moved party thinking forward – which surely a real contest ought to do. Of course the party membership does and should decide party policy – but we also elect a leader to give a clear sense of direction, and to communicate that both internally and externally. Because of the short timespan of the leadership campaign, neither candidate has been able to focus on the big themes which would give the Lib Dems a ‘narrative’ at the next general election – which I think’s a shame because I know both can do it.

by Stephen Tall on November 27, 2007 at 10:04 am. Reply #

I agree with you Stephen, and have made similar points in the past. Regarding the “dry run for a general election” argument, last time I heard we didn’t give the party less than 24 hours to mobilise for a general election.

One of the reason’s Brown didn’t go for an early poll was that his party simply wasn’t ready. While fixed terms are a good idea, the fact remains that the date of general elections are broadly predictable. Ming’s resignation wasn’t.

by James Graham on November 27, 2007 at 11:59 am. Reply #

I agree with Stephen that the leadership contest has been uninspiring on the whole , but I disagree that this is a function of the campaign’s length.

If the candidates are being uncontentious, stretching out the campaign won’t make it any more interesting.

What would have made it more interesting? A serious ideological diagreement would have certainly livened things up. If, say, David Laws and Steve Webb had stood, the party would have been forced to answer some serious questions about its direction.

As it is, not much separates Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne ideologically, and no amount of tactical ‘wedge issues’ can alter that fact.

The other thing that might have set things alight would have been a serious challenge by either candidate to the party’s ritualised form of campaigning, with its clapped-out tactics and slogans.

We’re not likely to get that either, since Clegg is stressing that he’s outward-looking and doesn’t want to sound as if he’s navel-gazing, while Huhne can’t afford to offend the activists.

Stephen is however right (@6) when he talks about needing a “clear sense of direction” and a “narrative”.

Politicians of all parties are hamstrung by a neurotic fear of causing offence. If, even at this late stage in the campaign, either candidate fancies livening things up, they might start by making some bold and unashamed Liberal statements that give cheer to our supporters while appalling the average Daily Express reader.

by Simon Titley on November 27, 2007 at 12:25 pm. Reply #

A longer campaign period might make it a better spectator sport, but I think you would get angry glares from both the campaigns if you suggested they string it out for *another* month… :-p

by Joe Taylor on November 27, 2007 at 1:17 pm. Reply #

Seems like they could have just done with a ceasefire for a week or so at the beginning to get their acts together.

by sanbikinoraion on November 27, 2007 at 2:17 pm. Reply #

I too am not yet fully decided as to who I will put my X down for, and it’s for broadly similar reasons as this article outlines.

And this is despite campaigners from both sides putting the squeeze on, hoping to elicit noises of support.

Sometimes it is almost like we are in perpetual canvassing mode, rather than in an actual dialogue – after all, the identity of the party leader is no replacement for a unified and motivated party knowing where we are going and how to get there.

I’m a little disappointed at the speed with which many of the membership have made up their minds, as though any factions within the party were barely contained and ready to break out at any moment.

With a bit more patience and a bit more breathing space for the candidates to present their views of the changing nature of current debates we would show ourselves to be more relevant and give more opportunity to engage and reengage with our potential members and supporters as well as our actual members.

This leadership election has been as much a demonstration of the way we do things as it has been a showcase for who we are and what we stand for, so it is a shame that it can still be said there is room for improvement.

by JamesS on November 27, 2007 at 5:51 pm. Reply #

No candidate can offer an alternative to the perpetual campaigning that wins us parliamentary seats, because there isn’t one.

It is interesting though how constant leafletting and canvassing does shift opinion. Not just on the public perception of our party but in people’s engagement with politics and its relevance to them.

From my experience, our campaigning drives turnout in elections up. Done well, it increases peoples awareness and understanding of issues. Done badly it plays to people’s worst prejudices.

We need a leader who ensures that we campaign well and liberally. Neither candidate can offer an alternative to the blood sweat and tears of our current campaigning activity, but they need to make it purposeful to our Liberal objectives.

by Richard Church on November 27, 2007 at 10:26 pm. Reply #

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