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.