Opinion: Now’s your chance, Nick

by Stephen Tall on December 19, 2007

Dear Nick,

I know you’re knackered, and that you’ve spent the last two months running yourself ragged in this leadership campaign. God knows why. Well, I guess there are 511 reasons why (though it’s mainly ‘cos the party exec reckons leadership campaigns should be run like by-elections, frantically keeping the party four-square in its comfort zone, appealing to its own electorate).

But, whatever the margin, you now have your mandate. You have been democratically elected leader of the Liberal Democrats. Now you must lead.

You must grab the agenda, and make it your own. As Vince Cable has, both with Northern Rock and with the official Saudi visit – and as Chris Huhne did with Labour’s donations-gate – you must elbow your way into the headlines. Thoughtful policy wonk speeches are all very well. But they are no substitute for getting a liberal agenda into the pages of the Daily Mail, or appearing on Strictly Come Dancing. You must do both.

If this leadership election has proved anything, it is that the party wants to be – and be seen as – more spiky, less consensual, more radical. ‘Safety first’ might have been enough to secure an internal leadership election; it isn’t good enough for national leadership of the party.

You must straddle the impossible divide: be taken seriously by the Westminster village media commentariat – whose verdicts of effective leadership are ridiculously informed by the infantile pantomime of Prime Minister’s Questions – but not be absorbed by it. Recognise there is a world beyond Westminster – beyond London – where real people live and work, and show that you and the Lib Dem parliamentary party are a part of that world; not apart from it.

Ming Campbell promised to be the ‘pin-striped radical’, who would ‘rattle the cages’ of the party. His leadership failed to live up to its slogans. You, Nick, must live up to, but go beyond, those slogans.

The national party membership wants you to be different, edgy, radical: it is up to you to use your mandate to link the Lib Dems’ preternaturally anti-establishment credentials to the policies we would implement if we were in government. Easy? Of course not. Impossible? No. Vince has shown how. Speak with confidence, inspired by our liberal values, and the headlines of the media and trust of the voters will soon follow.

You have nothing to fear but fear itself: in your case, it (occasionally) manifests itself as waffle in interviews. Be disciplined: you may despise yourself for repeating yourself – but realise that a constant, truthful message rammed home is vital to establishing the party as a credible contender. We must be mainstream, but never boring. If ever one of your advisers recommends caution trust your own liberal instincts, not their PR-honed blandishments. Don’t be afraid to go it alone: yes, be grateful to those who got you where you are; but don’t be afraid to do what you know to be right, and sod the consequences.

You start from an ironic position of strength: your under-performance as a leadership candidate has served to tamper down the over-hype some of your more enthusiastic supporters wilfully indulged. A better campaign might have led to deferred disappointment; your disappointing campaign must now result in deferred joy.

The next decade as the leader of the only liberal, progressive party in British politics is yours; but you have only a short while to prove that you have what it takes. You must seize the agenda before it’s seized from you. That’s your challenge, that’s your opportunity. Please don’t let us down.

With all good wishes,