Friday, December 14, 2007

 

A Vote For Nick (featuring Nick’s ‘EXCLUSIVE’ answer to a nasty question)

The ballot for the new Liberal Democrat Leader closes tomorrow: there’s still time to send your vote by special delivery or deliver it by hand if you’re in London. But if you’ve left it this late, then how to cast it? A vote for Nick Clegg is a vote for someone with deeply Liberal instincts he can put across with passion and appeal. My lovely Richard has said throughout this campaign that the candidates’ most often-used soundbites are the wrong way round. Chris calls for us to elect a Leader who’ll be a risk; well, the riskiest option is Nick. Chris has been consistent in his message and performance throughout this campaign, while Nick has often underperformed – but, at his best, Nick is the inspiring one. Let’s gamble that Leadership will bring out ‘inspiring Nick’ and put ‘ineffective Nick’ to rest.

Vision, Passion and a Nice Bloke

I came into this campaign undecided and have remained so until late, this week (as the deadline loomed) often switching from hour to hour, but, having vaguely known Nick to speak to for some years and with confidence in his Liberal instincts and his approachability, I started off leaning towards him. I was very impressed by him some years ago on the It’s About Freedom paper on the Party’s philosophy: I get the feeling I agree with his Liberal instincts more than I do with Chris. He’s pleasant, engaging, and very bright – he’s absolutely not a lightweight. When he’s caught fire, such as his sudden passion on what drives him in politics on the Leadership Question Time, I’ve also seen a real Leader in the making. His speech at the London hustings showed a capacity for intellectual depth about the coming issues, for a good turn of phrase (or the ability to spot someone who can write one) and a captivating delivery. Nick has great potential – I’d like to see him deliver on it.

Nick has natural advantages beyond the choices he’s made in his philosophy. He’s not only quite handsome, but – when he relaxes – looks natural and at ease on TV. He can speak directly and in a down-to-earth way; he can talk around a subject as if thinking aloud. Both styles come over as genuine, human, and even (rare for politics) thoughtful. I think he has the chance to connect with a lot of voters who might not give more processed-seeming politicians the time of day, and perhaps with some of the younger voters that we’ve worryingly lost to the Tories over the past couple of years – not through his instilling fear of how bad the Tories were when they were little kids, but through a message of optimism for the future that the Tories just can’t match. And it is thinking about the future where Nick excels, setting out his vision on subjects like powerlessness, social stagnation, globalisation, fear and the environment. I don’t always know what the specifics of Nick’s message are… But I’m comfortable with the direction, and his tone and ‘mood music’ seem right for the Party.

He sounds like a very impressive candidate, and he is. But I do wonder if he’s ready yet for the big step, and what worries me isn’t any negative campaigning from Chris or sneers from the media. What gives me pause for thought is that Nick and his campaign have failed so often not just to match expectations but even to seem up to the job.

But Is Nick Ready?

So what exactly is the risk with Nick? Well, Nick at his best is inspiring, but his campaign has had three consistent problems. The first is that it’s made little headway, despite the backing of most of the Party establishment and a favourable wind from most of the media that bothered – Chris has set all the agenda, leaving Nick on the back foot. If he can’t make the running in a Liberal Democrat contest, and with all that support backing him up, how will he manage it in a hostile media environment and starting from third?

The second problem is how he’s dealt with negativity. I’m in little doubt that Chris’ campaign has been more willing to go for the jugular from the top than has Nick’s, though it’s not all been one way. Almost every time Nick’s opened his mouth, he’s slipped out his stiletto soundbite that he doesn’t sound like a “Westminster policy wonk” (translation: ‘I’m a human; Chris is a robot’; ironically, if you know what a “policy wonk” is, you’re almost certainly a politics wonk), and some of Nick’s supporters have been infinitely more vitriolic than Chris’. The reaction to attack, though, has been equanimity from Chris and constantly complaining that it’s unfair from Nick and his team. Some of it has been unfair, but goodness me, deal with it fast and move on rather than letting it linger for weeks and then running crying to a grown-up when it all gets too much. With the proven ability of the media to destroy our Leaders, I’m worried that Nick seems so easily rattled by relatively gentle assaults. Will he be floored with one punch in the real, nasty world? Nick may be more likeable, but he’s also more breakable.

The last and most risky element of his campaign is that it’s been so consistently inconsistent. It’s not that he started well and faded, or let Chris get off the starting blocks first and then caught up – throughout the campaign, watchers have never known whether they’d get Nick being at ease, on the ball and engaging, or looking nervous, stammering a bit and waffling round a question he doesn’t want to answer. Viewers of The West Wing will know the syndrome: will he be President Bartlet, or will he be just Uncle Fluffy? I’m confident Nick has it in him to be Leader. But is he there yet? If he wins and messes it up because his confidence and abilities aren’t yet honed, it’ll do neither him nor the Party any good. This is nothing to do with his age, nor his experience. It’s simply from watching his campaign and going, ‘Oh, I dunno… Why is he so ill-prepared?’ When his passion shows, it’s captivating, but it doesn’t show often enough. Will it?

Nick Vs Chris

You’ve probably seen and heard the programmes where the two candidates debated. You’ve probably made up your own mind. But as far as I’m concerned, it goes like this.

Nick lost Question Time, but by much more in the first half than the second. With both initially confronted by hostile questions, Nick was the one who couldn’t deal with them. Later in the programme, Nick found his feet a couple of times and showed some passion; his highs were higher than Chris’, but most of the time Nick just wasn’t reaching the highs. Chris was pretty consistent, but Nick was all over the place. In some ways, the most worrying aspect of Nick’s performance came with the questions where he was best, rather than the forgettable ones. Without exception, they were not the first answers given; either because Chris had gone first or because Nick jumped in for a second go. Each time, it seemed he needed time to think about it, and usually he needed a second answer to correct himself after fluffing his first go. On the question when he finally flew, talking about what motivated him in politics, it was his third go. First up on why he should be Leader, he flannelled. Chris came in with his real-life experience, much more effectively. Nick, clearly feeling ‘It’s not fair,’ chipped back in to boast about his modesty, which by definition is a bit of a no-no. And then, on his third attempt, he gave the answer everyone remembers [for posterity, I can’t find a clip of it online, but Nick finally got his passion going about children born into poverty and their shockingly different life chances just in different parts of Sheffield, and on his anger against illegal war, as MatGB records in his helpful summaries of the debate on this thread (and which Tom Papworth terms Nick’s “haymaker”). He was also good in contrasting himself and Mr Cameron, both the same age: Nick was appalled by Thatcherism when growing up; David Cameron became one of her footsoldiers. That’s a fundamentally different choice]. So the problem is not when he got it right and knocked spots off the other feller, but how many takes it took him to get there. How many media opportunities do the Liberal Democrats have to get one go to make an impact, let alone two or three to feel their way to one that’s any good?

One of the odd things watching Nick is that, though I’ve thought he was very effective, rounded and competent for years, on TV suddenly he seems much more formless. As other bloggers have said, sometimes he doesn’t seem like ‘the finished product’. So while, for better or worse, Chris comes across definitely as Chris, Nick’s protean state keeps firing off impressions of other people (though despite what’s ever written, never with the sliminess of David Cameron). In his less impressive moments on Question Time, I was getting a cruel whiff of Boris ‘Um um I don’t know how to answer the question but you like me’ Johnson, but mostly Nick reminds me of other Liberal Democrat Leaders. Is he Charles Kennedy, likeable, human, talking in approachable language but waffling a bit and often coming across as rather ineffectual and poor on detail? Often looks like it. Is he Ming Campbell, talked up by the Party establishment and raved about by the media, but with all of us hoping by this stage of a lacklustre Leadership campaign that he’s just been under-performing for a bit and it isn’t that he’s just not got it? Or is he Paddy Ashdown, with old-fashioned good looks and a stirring ability to wow us with the vision thing – and, yes, I’ve often got that Paddy feeling from Nick when his passion kicks in, too.

The Politics Show, of course, was lost by both of them. Chris was too aggressive and not fair to Nick, which was off-putting; Nick was tetchy and unable to answer effectively something that by his own testimony had been going on for ages. And then he went crying to the Chief Whip afterwards. Give me strength, or indeed, give it to Nick! A couple of days later, I’d say Nick won Newsnight, perhaps because Chris had had so much feedback of how badly he’d miscalculated and was uncharacteristically reticent. But by last week and the Today Programme Chris was back to walking all over him, assertively rather than aggressively. Nick really has to shape up at getting it right first time.

Given the chance to practice, Nick is very impressive. At the London hustings I went to, Chris gave the best speech I’ve seen him give – polished, fluent, persuasive, funny. And yet Nick flew past him by miles. Passionately Liberal (and social Liberal at that), internationalist and visionary, it wowed the audience despite the odd malapropism and having fewer applause-prompting soundbites crafted into it. On the questions, though, it was again much closer, with Chris for me edging it by a smidgeon but both of them frankly bum-numbing in their wordiness. I think Nick’s questions may have lost a point from me when he said that “Only in a Liberal Democrat meeting would you be asked to solve the Israel-Palestine question in thirty seconds”; a good five minutes of flannel later, the drooping audience was wishing he’d stuck to that time limit.

Odd thing about that hustings, by the way: the stickers. Last year we had one candidate with a reddish-orange, one using the safely prescribed Party Pantone, and the other with a yellowish-green, enabling undecided voters to display an exciting traffic light formation. This year, both colour tones were identical, so it was impossible to tell at a glance which candidate was which…

Vote For Nick

Both candidates are good Liberals (Nick’s instincts slightly more to my taste) and both are capable of communicating what we stand for (Chris slightly more effectively). If the ballot paper offered a vote for Nick as Leader to set out our vision alongside Chris as Deputy Leader with a roving brief to grab the agenda from our opponents and a licence to kill, I’d go for it like a shot. But there’s a crueller choice involved, and our Leader will have to shoulder both roles.

Nick has Liberal instincts and is capable of broad appeal, and our press operation will have to improve enormously to give him that chance. Nick is a risk that I hope will pay off – a choice in hope that he can consistently be as good as the best he’s been this campaign, rather than from fear that he won’t withstand the media whirlwind. Nick will be a Leader who will speak to people’s hearts and give a hopeful vision. That’s why one of our votes goes to Nick Clegg.


And Finally… The Nasty Question

At the bloggers’ interviews with the Leadership candidates, on which I’ve been very slow to write, both candidates were very impressive, with both more charming, charismatic and animated than they’ve been on TV. Both were also more long-winded, with Nick just edging it for the one who went on the most (not that I’m one to complain). I’m also not one to complain about lateness, but you should know that Chris pounced on the opportunity to see bloggers and set a date that was within days of the first enquiry; Nick’s team needed a lot of prodding, eventually providing a date a fortnight later, in a typical example of his campaign’s ability to meet the 24-hour hour media cycle and set the agenda (though in Nick’s favour, he brought us teas and coffees, only one of which bore traces of strychnine). To test each of them – as I had with Ming before – I constructed a very leading narrative out of which I sprung a ‘nasty question’. With Nick, there wasn’t time to ask it in person after all his other answers, but I e-mailed it on, and after a couple of weeks’ prodding to them and then a couple of weeks’ delay on my own part in publishing it, here it is…

“Just last year, your judgment was that you weren’t ready to be Leader, and that Ming was the best man for the job. Ming’s just stepped down because he didn’t think he could make a success of the job, and now all of a sudden you’re up to it. Was your judgement wrong then, or wrong now? And how do we judge?”

“Dear Alex

“Nearly two years ago, when Charles stood down, I was certain that only Ming, with his experience and standing in the party, could settle the nerves of the party and point us to the future.

“I still believe that judgement was right. People too readily forget what a fragile state the party was in at the time, and too readily overlook what Ming achieved in very difficult circumstances.

“I did not believe a ‘rookie’ MP, just arrived in the House of Commons, could have forged the unity in a somewhat fractious Parliamentary Party necessary to move the party forward. I stick to that view.

“Now the circumstances are quite different. Being a liberal Lib Dem Home Affairs Spokesman is widely regarded in Westminster to be one of the toughest jobs in one of the hardest policy areas. I’ve been up against three Labour Home Secretaries, leading debates on civil liberties, counter-terrorism, crime, anti-social behaviour, the prisons crisis, and immigration. And I’ve got the scars to show it! So I’m far better equipped for the job now than I was two years ago.

“I also believe that political success is not possible without unity. The fact that a large number of my Parliamentary colleagues now feel that I’ve proved myself enough to deserve their support in this leadership contest is important. Not because of some arbitrary headcount of supporters, but as an indication that the people who work most closely with me, day in day out, now think that I am capable of leading the party as a whole.

“All best wishes

Nick”

You can read my alternative “A Vote For Chris” here.


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