Monday, September 11, 2006


Should Simon Hughes Be Re-elected?


This Autumn there seem two big topics of conversation among Liberal Democrat bloggers on our party’s direction: the slightly random choice of ‘a 50p tax rate or not’, and the Party Presidency. Simon Hughes was elected two years ago, and for the first time in fourteen years, it appears the incumbent President will be challenged when nominations close on September 27th. It’s a major test for Simon, and also perhaps for the Lib Dem blogosphere, where Simon appears to have minuscule support in polls and not a single public backer. How much does blogging reflect the wider party?

The President of the Liberal Democrats is elected by all member-ballot to be “the principal public representative of the Party” and to chair the party’s Federal Executive, in effect deputy leader of the party in the country while the MPs elect a Deputy for the party in Parliament. I wish Simon Hughes had made a success of it, but I don’t believe he has. While he’s intermittently shot off ideas, some good, some bad, he seems to have had little concept of how to put most of them into practice, and this job is about organisation, not just soundbites. He’s an outstanding, even inspirational constituency MP, but he doesn’t seem to have put in the same sort of work as President.

Poor old Simon. Back in the mid-’90s, he was honorary President of the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students. For various reasons, he was pretty bad at it (so was I, when I unwisely found myself in the same post a few years later. But I’m not foolish enough to stand for President of the wider party). His predecessor had done two terms and been re-elected unopposed, but when Simon stood for re-election he faced the ignominy of having to beat ‘Re-Open Nominations’ on the ballot paper, and only doing so by a whisker. At the time, I was accused of running a RON campaign against him, one of those rumours I was never able to trace the start of. I’d actually taken him to one side a couple of months earlier and warned him of the ways in which he was winding people up, but no-one else from LDYS was around at that particular time to witness it and, when it came to the vote, I both voted for Simon and urged others to do so. Stealthy plotting isn’t really my style so, after the odd comment in the last couple of months on others’ blogs, I’m saying outright on mine that this time, Simon should not be re-elected, though despite the feeling on the blogs I suspect almost anyone who takes him on (should he decide to run again) faces a tough fight.

I’m very fond of Simon and, on form, he does a more inspiring speech than any one of the other candidates I’ve seen on offer (and yes, though Simon’s speeches are very variable, at his best he can even be better than the two previous Leaders being touted for the job). Unfortunately, there’s more to the Party Presidency than that. He’s famously not well-organised, which may not be the best qualification for being the head of the Party organisation, and seems to have tried to over-compensate for that by throwing his weight around and taking a number of arbitrary actions with little regard for the Party Constitution; the most notable, perhaps, was creating all his Deputy Presidents, a fine bunch of people but not really a group for one man to make up on the spot.

However, the main reason I have to argue against Simon’s re-election to this job is that he made very clear what his aim in the job was – to double Liberal Democrat membership. During his two-year term, membership has in fact marginally declined; that’s certainly not Simon’s fault, but making a grand promise but having absolutely no idea how to put it into effect and doing nothing to try and achieve it once in office is entirely Simon’s responsibility. If someone stands for re-election, they should be tested on the standards of their previous manifesto. I don’t believe people should be able to say any old rubbish to get elected and face no comeback, so Simon’s pledge has come back to bite him. As a result, I’m looking for a candidate who gives the impression of knowing what they’re doing.

Who would I back? Well, that’s the problem. Impossible to say, until I know who’s standing and what their programme is. It’s not good enough just to say Simon’s not earned re-election; someone hugely inspiring might be touted but, if I know what they’re promising is a load of nonsense, why dump Simon in their favour?

Assuming candidates emerge who have a clue, with the Leader and Deputy Leader both authoritative, incisive, older men seen as on the Lib Dem ‘right’, I’ll take a lot of convincing to go for, say, someone over 60 and male. Surely we can manage a diversity of ideas as well as of at least age or gender (ideally both) at the top of the party? So, instinctively, I’d prefer to back a woman candidate, again depending on what they have to say. There are at least two or three being suggested that I might well support, depending on which poll’s choice of options you buy, and I could happily back one of the men, too. Let’s hope we do get a real choice.

I still haven't heard of a candidate. But I'm sure she would be an improvement. :-)
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