Thursday, February 09, 2006

 

Simon: Think Before You Open Your Mouth

Simon Hughes for Leader? He’s got the most Parliamentary experience, he’s fluent and passionate, and he seems to have unbounded energy. He’s probably the best constituency MP in Britain. At his best, he’s the only candidate whose speeches have previously inspired me with his vision, and his credibility on the environment (perhaps the most important issue for us to make our own) is unrivalled. He’s committed to bringing in people who haven’t previously supported us. He’s the candidate I’ve seen most of over the years, and, personally, I like him. So what’s my problem with him? ‘Judgement’, in a word.

I’ve found this one much more difficult to write than the last, because I know and like Simon, rather than judging him coldly. So I’ve let myself be distracted by the splendid Technicolor plotting of The Prisoner of Zenda in the background, and it’s taken longer than I was expecting. Here goes…

My big problem with Simon has always been the “Oh, Simon!” factor. I used this term when explaining why I couldn’t give him my first preference back in 1999, and I’ve noticed other bloggers using similar words as headlines this time. I use it to express the way in which so many people who’ve known him for any period of time will become so aghast at his sheer flakiness that they feel the urge to grasp him by the shoulders and shake him, exploding “Oh, Simon!” A friend of mine told me one of the really big frustrations about this leadership election was desperately wanting to enthusiastically support a Hughes leadership bid - but not actually being able to do so. That hits the nail on the head. He’s simply not as credible as Ming. And that’s not because I’ve read it in The Guardian; it’s because I’ve seen them both in operation.

I know that my instincts are often in tune with Simon’s. I’m just not confident that I’ll know where his instincts will be taking him from day to day. On policy, coalitions, his disturbingly top-down attitude to party organisation and much else, the problem with Simon is that I’ve just heard him being so inconsistent, so often, that I fear what hostages to fortune we’ll be left with. On Any Questions with Ming and Chris, I thought he won hands down in terms of performance, but he also gave the most scarily unpredictable answers. I’ve seen Simon on the Federal Policy Committee over the years, and worry.

On ID cards, to take one example, he’s roused the troops by promising he’d rather go to prison than carry one – but has frequently said he’s got no problem with a ‘voluntary’ card. He was one of those who insisted we water down our opposition with the word ‘compulsory’ for the 2001 Manifesto (check it against the line in 1997 to see how mealy-mouthed it is). It’s an attempt to sound moderate that’s merely naïve, and that’s not unusual for him. Even the Government claims ID cards will be ‘voluntary’ for 10 years, but it’s merely to smooth the way of the compulsory cards to follow, and still means you’ll need a multi-billion-pound National Identity Register, and there are many people for whom they won’t be voluntary at all. If you want a passport, or a driving licence, they’ll be compulsory. If you’re on benefits. If you’re a young black guy, driving the wrong sort of car. If you live in a poor area and want to write a cheque or rent a video. It’s already socially excluded people in places like Bermondsey that will be hit hardest by the so-called ‘voluntary’ ID card. It’s no compromise at all, and it’s the epitome of Simon simply not thinking things through.

In party organisation, he has grand ambitions and no idea of how to fulfil them. Take the London mayoral campaigns. Then unknown Susan Kramer won 12% of the vote as London Mayor. With higher opinion poll ratings, more name recognition, more media attention, more money and the gilt off Ken after his first term, Simon won just 15% four years later. Facing a more anti-establishment candidate, Simon couldn’t even run as Livingstone Lite, but as a policy-free zone. He shares with me the unfortunate distinction of having been a failure as President of the Lib Dem Youth and Students, in his case by picking sides at a time when the organisation was split and badly needed a unifier. As President of the party, most of the way through his term of office there’s been no growth in our membership, despite his aim of overtaking Labour; and I can’t be the only Liberal Democrat worried by his decision to just appoint a bunch of Deputy Presidents, without elections or even a constitution. If Leader or Prime Minister, what makes that different to charges of ‘Simon’s Cronies’? As it happens, I like most of them; but in a democracy, that’s not the point.

His speeches are both famous and infamous. When he’s on form, he puts across what we stand for superbly. He can be charismatic, passionate and uplifting. But he’s also the only candidate who’s given a speech I’ve sat through that was so long and rambling that several members of his audience fell asleep. I’ve never forgotten the Liberal Revue sketch of the party as ‘Allo ‘Allo: in through the window comes ‘Ughes, of the Resistance. “Listen very carefully – I shall say this only 47 times.” When you never know from speech to speech whether what he’ll say will be uplifting, bonkers or so monumentally tedious that by the end of the forty-seventh point you still have no more idea of what he’s saying than when he opened his mouth, he’s a bit of a gamble (people might say the same about me, but fortunately for all concerned I’m not standing). I will defend his famous lateness, though, another unfortunate tendency I share: when I was a Parliamentary candidate, I remember being dragged roughly out of a meeting by my driver to make sure I got to the next one. Leader’s aides are more than capable of doing the same for Simon, so I don’t believe it’d be a problem.

On the bright side, I do think he’s the only candidate untainted by the downfall of Charles, though he still didn’t exactly cover himself in glory. I don’t believe he did any plotting; the spectacle of him equivocating uselessly on Channel 4 News the night of Charles’ announcement about his alcoholism was so painfully self-defeating it can only have been honest. Not that that’s the most outstanding example recently of Simon being painfully naïve and self-defeating. Of course The Sun was vile, back almost to its ‘80s level of homophobia, and almost the whole rest of the press have been unforgivably horrendous. I know it can’t have been easy, but it’s gobsmacking that he’d had all this time and not thought of a proper answer. I feel huge sympathy for Simon, who’s genuinely nice and rock-solid on gay rights. But I can’t help feeling exasperated too.

Simon’s decision to obscure the issue with a technically truthful but misleading remark that he wasn’t gay was astounding in a politics after “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”; that he told The Sun rather than just going public to everyone else when The Sun tried to fling mud at him was breathtakingly naïve. Did he really expect careful handling from arguably the most viciously homophobic and viciously anti-Lib Dem paper in the country? And days later, he was still refusing to use the label ‘bisexual’ to explain why he hadn’t lied, with every news outlet reporting the ‘fact’ that he was a liar, because (in his own words) he didn’t want to be labelled. Sorry, Simon; once you’re public about something that can be labelled, either you choose a label or someone else will choose it for you. He wasn’t mendacious – just clueless and woefully lacking in judgement. Simon has said since that this was a leadership test. Sorry, Simon – the test wasn’t whether you could stand up to the storm once you’d been stupid enough to set it off. It was whether you had the elementary nous to see the storm coming, or whether you’d just say the first thing that came into your head. And you flunked it. I often worry that Simon’s wish to bring religion and ‘faith groups’ more into politics is a slippery slope for a party of individual freedom; it takes rare talent to mishandle something so badly that both the religious and the lesbian, gay and bisexual constituencies think you’ve let them down. A Leader has to realise that not everyone will want to believe the best of you, and know how to explain things so that they do.

So after all that, what would make me likely to support Simon? How do you recapture ‘good judgment’ in one bound? Well, try this. Talk about the big picture and make people feel good about what things could be like with the Liberal Democrats. Make people believe, and don’t do the details for now: stop making up policy and organisation on the hoof. Say we’re a democratic party and you’re there to proclaim its message. Don’t believe you’re always right and people will always understand. Listen to advice, and take it. And don’t overcompensate for the press saying ‘the Lib Dems are losing’; stop talking about landslides and talk about building from our local roots – sound plausible, not laughably optimistic. A huge number of councillors are backing you, so don’t just use them as ‘supporters’. If you’re going to win, it’ll be because you can embody the party. Sound like the Leader of a force that’s credible in councils across the country, and sing the vision thing that unites them all. If you open your mouth without thinking and speak only for yourself, you’ll be left on your own.

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Comments:
Yet another brilliant piece and yet another load of reasons not to be inspired. Like you I can't make my mind up. I am not dreadfully inspired so far. Maybe the suggestion elsewhere will come to pass and we will have a massive write in campaign for "none of the above". Still I shall await Question Time and the Slough Hustings with baited breath
 
If evidence was needed how accurate this is, I independently came up with much of the same.
 
You've managed to sum up many of my reservations about Simon Hughes, even as a relatively recent member of the party (just over 6 months now).
 
Thanks for the kind words. Though I'm interested to see what you make of my assessment of Chris, Will ;-)
 
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