Thursday, February 09, 2006


Chris: Fill in the Person, Not the Policy

Chris Huhne for Leader? He appears to have the big mo, and creating momentum out of nowhere is a very useful trick for a third party, as is forcing the other two to fight on his territory. He’s very bright, writes very persuasively, and was effective in reaching a policy consensus on public services without making it simply bland. I agree with much of his policy ‘vision’, and he seems the most capable of giving a succinct and effective answer. He’s also putting across an impressive set of non-Westminster experience. So what’s my problem with him? ‘Dull’, in a very unkind word.

Like almost everyone else, Chris is the one I know least about. So my main view of him boils down to ‘relatively sensible policy wonk, but zero charisma’. It’s unfair to call someone dull when his policy programme has shaken up the campaign, but politics is an unfair business. He looks all right (as purely presentational issues go, he has the advantage of hair), but when he opens his mouth I’m reminded of Tom Baker’s withering assessment of Jeremy Irons: that he’d have been a great silent movie actor, but his voice is just so boring. Chris has got quite a nice voice, actually, but he seems unable to modulate it. He looks and sounds stiff. Don’t worry; I’ll have some ‘policy wonk vs policy wonk’ stuff in a minute, but I’m sorry to say that politics is shallow, and how you come across to people is important. Ming, at his best, has statesmanlike gravitas. Simon, at his best, can be passionate, or friendly and at ease. Chris, at his best, is… succinct. Unfortunately, he writes much better than his spoken delivery, and the election will be settled on television rather than through pamphleteering. Who is he going to appeal to? Yes, he can seem solid and serious, but does anyone really think he’ll come across as more solid and more serious than Gordon Brown? He really needs to work on sounding human, and I suspect hardwiring his massive brain to a virtual Charles Kennedy is as yet beyond the party’s budget for CGI.

Another issue for me is his seat. After Jackie in '99, I vowed to myself I wouldn't back another first-time MP with a tiny majority. After the European Parliament I can just about let him off the one, but a 500 majority? What is he thinking? Though he’ll probably hold it, there'll be no other story than 'Will the Lib Dem Leader lose his seat?' for us in the run-up to the election. So I worry. My other half is more sanguine, I should point out: “If the Tories want to make the issue of the election whether they can manage to knock down the tiniest of Lib Dem majorities, let them,” he said earlier. “The last election was about the Lib Dems trying to fight it out with the Tories for second place. If the Tories want to make the next one about fighting it out with the Lib Dems for third place, I doubt it’ll help them.”

His lack of Westminster experience isn’t necessarily a disadvantage; ‘the outsider coming in to clean up town’ is a powerful message. Unfortunately, that goes right back to the presentational issue: he doesn’t look or sound like an outsider. ‘The outsider from Brussels’ is a less helpful narrative, while ‘journalist’ probably beats even ‘MEP’ as a job description to go down like a lead balloon. On the other hand, the other two are lawyers, so it’s probably evens. Still, it makes the appeal that ‘As far as I know he doesn’t have the baggage of the other two’ (which some unkind observers might say makes him sound like the Liberal Democrats all over) weaker than it might otherwise be. And how did we come up with two out of three whose names sound like “Who”?

In fairness, his work on the Public Services Commission (or as it modestly became known, the Huhne Commission) was certainly impressive at bringing people together, and though he seemed a little high and mighty when he presented it to the FPC, he did the best job of promoting his policy paper round the party and media of any policy group chair I’ve seen. Obviously that meant self-promotion too, but he promoted the policies so well I was still impressed. The other side of his dealing with people, however, is his obvious ruthlessness, which is unattractive; perhaps he needed to from third place, but he’s been much more ruthless in person to the other two leadership candidates than they’ve been (their entourages are a different matter). He was quite open about being one of those to bring Charles down, too; I didn’t like it. Though it’s more attractive than plotting without holding the knife. And if he’s such a good team-builder, I do wonder that his team and following is mostly made up of people on whom he’s made a good first impression, rather than known him for a while. It’s striking that there are so many more MSPs, for example – as far away from him as possible – than MEPs who he worked with for years on his list of supporters.

I’m interested in the minutiae of policy. Even for a Liberal Democrat, this makes me unusual and strange. Chris is a policy wonk too, and not with just the first wild and wacky things that come into his head. I’ve read his manifesto, and I’ll not bore you with an in-depth analysis (that might be another post). However, as Chris’ campaign is the only one that is more clearly policy-driven than it is personality-driven, there are some I want to engage with. If you’re a policy wonk, people will pay more attention to your policies than to the others’, and some of them may come unstuck.

There’s good and bad here, and I have to declare an interest; I proposed pretty much exactly what Chris is saying about environmental taxation before the last election and got nowhere, so I wish at least that part of his programme well. However, where I disagree is on strict fiscal neutrality, something he appeared to endorse earlier on but seems to have backed away from in later answers. It’s because I do think income tax is the best we've got, but allowances are the key things to cut if we're going to. That leaves me wary that less tax altogether will be raised through progressive sources if we follow the apparent Chris plan to drop the 50p rate. Dropping road pricing, too, and only going with one eco-tax, also seems a mistake. Easy for someone else to nick; over-prescriptive; inflexible; and most of all, as with other fiscally neutral policies it doesn't bring in any extra money. I've sat through three General Election Manifesto costings rounds, and a wholly fiscally neutral platform would be a disaster. Things like the ‘50p’ and the ‘1p’ weren't about clobbering people, nor even just about bringing in cash; the hypothecation gave us a financial credibility nothing else ever will. Basically, say "We'll cut bureaucracy" and no-one will ever believe you. Say, "We want this so much here is one specific tax that will pay for it," and people reckon it's true because they all know it’s brave.

Skip the italics if you’re not interested in my thoughts on environmental taxes, presented for the final and most strongly argued time (after earlier unsuccessful attempts) to the FPC for to a discussion of our finances in October 2004:

There is one issue in particular that I am concerned we must resolve. Our attitude that, aside from the 50% rate on earnings over £100,000, our tax changes are revenue-neutral, should make us relatively flameproof, but there is one area where that message is not as clear as it must be. The derision the Tories have faced for claiming “We’ll give you tax cuts, but we won't tell you what they are” means we must not hoist ourselves on the same petard...

There is one issue on which we must press for clarity. At present, we envisage a range of environmental taxes which will all be offset by corresponding tax reductions elsewhere, leaving the whole package fiscally neutral. This is a well-established and effective policy direction, but as yet we have not identified the taxes we would cut. This “We'll tell you the pain, but not the gain” approach is missing an open goal, and is increasingly reckless as the election approaches. In the past, this has always been a contentious issue, but tended to be resolved in favour of reducing NICs. With our policy now to earmark National Insurance for the NHS*, we have firmly denied ourselves that option.

My preference instead would be to resurrect a '90s policy that has fallen by the wayside purely for lack of funds: sharply increasing allowances, to benefit all ordinary taxpayers and take the lowest earners out of tax altogether. It is an obvious complement to our 50% top rate policy, in defence of which we point out that the highest-paid 20% have a tax rate of 35% to the lowest-earning 20%'s effective marginal rate of 40%.

However, whatever tax reductions we call for, we must decide on them - or press Vince to decide them - very swiftly in order to establish the message with our campaigners. We would be deluding ourselves, and ignoring attacks which have already been already circulated, if we believe that “We'll cut some taxes too, but, um, er, we're not sure which ones” is going to be a sufficient answer on either the doorstep or Newsnight.

We never did decide which taxes to cut, of course, which was an opportunity thrown away in the last General Election. Even if I don’t end up voting for Chris, I’m grateful he’s made a start.

*That reminds me. Earmarking National Insurance was a brilliant wheeze from something called the Huhne Commission, of which you may have heard. It resembles several other brilliant wheezes being widely trailed at the moment, and was adopted by the FPC because the Campaigns Department begged us to, saying how sexy and saleable it was. You may not remember that ‘headline’ policy now, as it was later dumped by order of the Campaigns Department, because it was impossible to sell. Hmm…

The other policy issue for me is that it feels very individual – which reads well, but makes me worry that it’s just one person wanting to write the party’s entire programme. Both Paddy and Charles had their advantages for policy as Leader (a crude characterisation would be King Stork and King Log), but Chris’ attention to the minutiae comes across as a bit too prescriptive. Paddy was brilliant in many ways, but I remember him treating every policy issue as a fight to the death, which wasn't a healthy way to run the Policy Committee. Unlike Ming’s, Chris' is a campaign that would benefit from having more of a team to it, and from making lots of moves about consulting the party.

So after all that, what would make me likely to support Chris? Keep plugging your policies – they got you there in the first place. But do more of the ‘vision thing’ than tying yourself to every specific, or you’ll carry on sounding mechanical and potentially dictatorial. Relax a bit more. Move your face. Sad to say, the time I got the most positive feel from you on TV was launching your campaign at the National Liberal Club, surrounded by women wearing very vivid colours. Vivid colour is what you’re missing. Instead of promoting yourself as ‘the man’, make it more of a team – if you aren’t charismatic, borrow it. If you’re going to win, lighten up. Get people to tickle you under the table during Question Time if you have to, but show you’re human, for goodness’ sake.

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First of all Alex, a distinguished series of posts.... I would have liked to have seen your Oaten one if events had occured differently!

Regarding Huhne's narrow majority, I think it will play well with the public, it will make him look like the plucky underdog risking his own seat in order to benefit the party.

In short, I think we'll hold Eastleigh. But to be blunt, being a leader will boost his vote, and if we are doing badly enough nationally even to lose Eastleigh with a leadership boost, we would want to change leaders after the election anyway!
Having read all three posts (all of which were very informative) and If I was basing my decision on these posts alone I feel I would come down on the side of Huhne...Just and I still worry about that majority. I mentioned it a while back on my blog and got a couple of comments along the lines that if he was Leader he would hold it. Anyway will watch QT tonight
While I take your point about Chris's campaign sometimes appearing to be a one man band, the other members of his team have been doing their bit, but the problem is that they don't have the media profile to get attention for themselves in the way that Nick Clegg can, for example. Lynne Featherstone and Stephen Williams have both been doing their bit to speak for him, but it's hard to get noticed when you're a first term MP without a Guardian column.

As for Eastleigh, there is a 20% Labour vote there to squeeze, he's already seen off one ferocious Tory assault and as we saw in Folkestone last year, a leader's national media profile during an election does a lot for their personal vote in an election!
I think you miss the most obvious problem about eco taxes with fiscal neutrality. Eco taxes will hit the poor. You can compensate low earning income tax payers with tax cuts, but what about pensioners, students and the unemployed? Either they are hammered, or extra cash has to be found for them, which the eco taxes cannot supply due to fiscal neutrality.

Chris even mentions rural communities in his manifesto? But what tax cuts, exactly, can compensate them?
Thanks for some interesting posts; ‘distinguished’? Gosh. I merely suspect I’m stacking up a whole new set of enemies I never knew I had ;-) Tony, thanks, and I do hope you’re not “basing my decision on these posts alone”. I’m fairly well-informed, but not enough to decide my own vote yet, let alone anyone else’s…

I take Nick’s point on the lower profile of some of Chris’ supporters, but really, it’s a campaign decision whether you put someone beside you. Take a look at the pictures on Ming’s site and Manifesto and compare them with Chris’ on his tod.

Joe – good point on eco taxes hitting the poor. I’d have included that in fiscal neutrality, but there’s only so much even I can fit into one post! One of the solutions is to pour money into energy conservation precisely for people with poorer means (who tend to be in poorer and less energy-efficient housing), but that’s got to come from somewhere, too. And as you mentioned students and pensioners, two of our biggest spending commitments at the last election – tuition fees and free personal care – came entirely out of the extra £4-5 billion raised through the 50p rate, which is one of my concerns if we drop it.

However, I still think eco-taxes are a necessary part of the changes we absolutely have to make, both for the huge environmental dangers we face in the future and for pollution-related health problems today. Back in 1993, the party was campaigning hard against VAT on domestic fuel; I was Policy Officer for the Lib Dem Youth and Students at the time, and we were very concerned this left us open to attack over green taxes. We were the only section of the party that argued for better eco-taxes at the same time as attacking that particularly badly targeted one: I wrote the petition and slogans for our campaign, ‘Tax Pollution – Not the Poor’, which went down very well. So the case can be made.

I think Chris B is probably right in his analysis of Eastleigh, but to an extent that’s not the point. Yes, I think we’ll hold it, but I worry that Chris H saying “I told you so” with a 5,000 majority the day after the election may not compensate for the damage that an election drip-drip-drip of ‘the Lib Dems are such losers even their Leader’s going down’ could do.

Incidentally, on this glad and glorious post-election morning for Lib Dems, if anyone fancies a visit to Eastleigh to help out with their elections at any point, I’d recommend it. I’ve not been since the by-election in ’94, but it was one of the nicer places to work in and had a quite remarkable bakery. They did ridiculous discounts for multiple buys, so that, say, one cream cake would be 60p, but you’d six for £2, with escalating discounts the more you bought. One morning I strode in and uttered the unusual but satisfying line, “Could I have two hundred doughnuts, please?” Naturally, they were for the campaign HQ rather than personal consumption, but the huge stack of boxes had the advantage of obscuring the rosette that might have put off an opinion pollster on the street. “Oh no,” I remember saying, “I wouldn’t like that Tony Blair as Labour leader. Margaret Beckett’s the one you want, she’ll be very popular.” So take Lib Dem Leader polls with just a pinch of icing sugar. I wonder if that baker’s is still there?
I may go anyway, but if Chris wins the leadership election, I'll certainly be in Eastleigh at some point before the next general election.
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