Sunday, March 04, 2007


Ming Takes a Risk. And Another.

Liberal Democrat Leaders used to make just one big speech at the close of each Conference. No longer. It’s become usual for the Leader to open each Conference too, with a speech at the opening rally (I chaired one of those a few years ago; I doubt I’d get the gig now!), but this weekend Ming Campbell even led from the front in a policy debate. Staying at home with just the press coverage of all three speeches, though, either Ming or the media were a right old mix. And nul points for raising the spectre of a hung Parliament. “There’s a confusion about the message of the speech” is the message in constant rotation on News 24, and that’s when they’re not talking about coalitions – the topic that regularly used to derail our election campaigns, now apparently knackering our message a whole two or three years out from the next General Election. Whichever ‘senior Lib Dem official’ briefed the journalists (I’ve spoken to one who repeated exactly the same words as the BBC reports and before the BBC ran the story, so I don’t see how it can be made up) that Ming’s keynote speech was setting out our terms for a coalition with Gordon Brown could perhaps benefit the party by jumping from their ‘influential’ post tomorrow and moving to just spouting nonsense in the blogosphere with the rest of us, rather than pretending to speak with any authority and giving the media just the stupid story they always, always want to hear.

I feel very out of the loop for not having been in Harrogate, despite some informative ’phone calls from one of the representatives there in which we were both entertainingly indiscreet, and from a journalist with whom I was rather less so; it’s Richard’s busiest time of the year, so we usually can’t get to the Spring Conferences. I nearly went off alone this time – I’m glad I didn’t in the end, as on Thursday night I managed to turn exceptionally ill, and there’s no way I could have crawled out to travel on Friday. I got out for a bit yesterday but was still more than a bit wobbly, though OK enough to stand outside last night at 11pm with Richard in the chilly air and admire a sinisterly carmine lunar eclipse. Other than that, the advantage of staying at home (if I can call it that), is that instead of being in the thick of it, I could watch how poorly any of it’s reported to the rest of the country.

Conference representatives getting home this evening may well be swearing and throwing things at the screen, but today’s headlines are by no means the nadir of Ming’s coverage. Friday night saw pitifully thin mentions of the ‘We can cut crime’ rally; the press think no-one’s interested in practical solutions, merely in titillating scare stories about how horrible everything’s meant to be. Newsnight did another number on Ming, producing yet another opinion poll instead of talking about anything real, and at the risk of sounding like a heavy-handed prosecutor, this is something on which they have form. Unfortunately, Ming did himself no favours with his appearance on the programme either, beginning with allowing an interview to be shot with him standing alone in a dark, empty Conference hall, looking like the Harrogate Centre ghost. He withstood the barrage of daft questions about a poll showing all three leaders languishing well below their parties’ poll ratings well enough, but missed a number of chances to seize the agenda back. True, he came up with a litany of crime, health, education and the environment at one stage, but didn’t expand on them, and when accused of having no domestic agenda, just kept on defensively refuting ‘questions about his Leadership’ instead of saying, ‘We had a rally tonight in which I proposed real, practical solutions to crime. You haven’t asked me a single question about them. If you really want to know my domestic agenda instead of scoring points, here are five common sense steps the Liberal Democrats would take to cut crime…’ Fortunately, everyone says his contribution to the debate on Trident was superb.

I wish I’d seen Ming’s speech on multilateral mass disarmament, though I’m pretty impressed that he made it at all. The usual Lib Dem reaction to ‘the Leadership’ giving out that Conference is under very stern orders to vote for something they’re not keen on is to switch some people into voting for them out of duty, though with a damaging residue of bitterness, but switch more votes against them because Lib Dems don’t like being pushed around. One of the most effective, if not most accurate, weapons of the ‘keep Trident for twenty years but no longer’ supporters was to say that the Leadership was attempting to bump the party into a position. Whatever you think of the position Ming spoke for, it seems clear that by mucking in with a speech on the same terms as everyone else – and by all accounts a very strong one – he won over critics who’d felt ordered from on high. Putting your argument on the line is far more effective than haughtily making something a ‘test of leadership’. I say “by all accounts” because, despite Richard and I spending much of yesterday tuning in and out of News 24, all their rubbish coverage showed was uncharismatic journalists discussing the speech rather than showing Ming actually speaking. It’s as if news reporters still think they’re televised columnists, and haven’t heard of the exciting new technology that allows them to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’: the phonograph, say, or the magic lantern. Sigh.

His keynote speech is different. I’ve seen quite a few clips from it, and been able to read the whole thing online. The press reports, however, are much less universally positive. So what did I think? Well, I can’t tell you as much about his delivery, but I’ve studied the meat of it. There was a lot I agreed with, some of it fiercely, a few sections I was more wary of, and one line that had me flinching – which isn’t bad, by the standard of my usual response to Leaders’ speeches. Nothing about nationalism, I noticed, despite the run-up to the Scottish and Welsh elections and the fuss over Danny Alexander’s spot-on one-line evocation of the difference between nationalists and Liberals. One thing that looked very good on telly, pioneered at last year’s Autumn Conference, was the way he was joined by all our MPs in a scrum at the end, though I didn’t see enough of the climax to tell if he still raises his arms to call to the storm.

So, was it any good?

Points for his early reference to yesterday’s Trident debate, both reminding Conference that he had the guts to make his case and that it was down to them which case won: it’s true that no other party could have had a debate like it. In the other two parties, it would all have been about the Leader; the Leader’s very participation, ironically, made it about the issues. In the other two parties, there are even more arguments about direction, but they have to be done in code because dissenting voices aren’t given a chance to speak. And in the other two parties, even if an open debate had been permitted by the managers and spin-doctors, it would have had little of the passion because it would have had none of the power – unlike the top-down Labour and Tory parties, it’s the representatives at Liberal Democrat Conferences who make the policy decisions, and if proposals from the Leadership don’t convince people, the policies get changed.

Much of the speech, though, was about not the Liberal Democrats but our opponents. There was an effective side-swipe against the Prime Minister, who he called “finished”:
“You know, a day never passes now without Tony Blair offering us some new gift-wrapped solution. The Prime Minister is hunting for his place in history. He’s like a man in a supermarket with two minutes to go to closing time… This frenzy of activity is designed to obscure a record of failure.”
Shame about the Victoria Beckham jibe, coming soon before the mention of David Cameron’s “youthful indiscretions” (a bit ‘young people today…’), though he’s right to nail the Tory Leader for all his votes in favour of the Iraq war. Similarly, it may be tactically right to remind people of 1997 in order to bring to mind “what’s gone wrong on Tony Blair’s watch,” but it seemed a little smug to provide a summary of the Labour Government’s early, successful achievements by ascribing all of them to the Liberal Democrats. Even though it’s true that for each of his examples the Liberal Democrats came up with the idea long before Labour did, I can’t say we had a lot to do with putting them into practice; it’s just that, after eighteen years of Tory failures, some of the solutions were blazingly obvious even to other parties (and that ‘if the policies are the same, they must be just like us’ fallacy will be back later, too). Ming was much stronger in cataloguing the failures of “The Prime Minister who promised so much, but who has delivered so little”:
“The gap between the rich and the poor is wider now than it was under the Conservatives. Students are saddled with debt. And on the international stage, our Prime Minister and the American President have created an axis of conflict from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. This Labour government has given us twenty-three new bills relating to criminal law since 1997. It has imposed on us some of the most authoritarian peacetime legislation this country has ever seen. More than 3,000 new crimes have been put on the statute book. And yet the fear of crime and anti-social behaviour has not diminished one bit.”
The most controversial section of the speech related that past record to the future, “the prospect of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister”. Yes, our country needs a fresh direction, and Ming was strong on some of the changes that have to be made – on issues where the Liberal Democrats have been clear and consistent across many years. I was pleased to see Ming again consistent in upholding the Rule of Law, just as he did last year, with the Labour Party collapsing into utter contempt for the idea of government bound by the rules it wants everyone else to follow (and thanks to Tristan, by the way, for plugging my recent article expanding on just how wrong the government are).

Then came the key passage. If the government has to change direction, is Gordon Brown capable of doing it? Well, Ming’s initial reasoning sounded spot-on that the answer is an obvious ‘No’, but it’s worth seeing what he went on to say:
“This Chancellor of the Exchequer has had more control over the direction of government policy than any Chancellor in living memory. This man, who has written the cheques since 1997, has had unparalleled influence within Whitehall. Why on Earth should we believe that Britain will be better governed if he moves from No 11 Downing Street to No. 10? Why should we believe that more of the same is what Britain needs? …Does he have the courage to take Britain in a new direction?
I’ve got five tests for Gordon Brown.
“First, end Labour’s authoritarian attack on civil liberties
“Second, grasp the challenge posed by climate change… Make the green tax switch so that we tax pollution more and earnings less…
“Third, break open the poverty trap… And I want to ask Gordon Brown how can it be fair that in 21st century Britain six out ten children in Glasgow – the city where I was born – live in poverty?
“…My fourth test, trust the people… Since 1997 Labour has accumulated power, when it ought to have dispersed it. Take localism seriously and free local communities from the shackles of Whitehall…
“And fifth, Britain’s foreign policy should not be set in Washington. What do we know about Iraq? That the President made the decisions, the Prime Minister argued the case, the Chancellor signed the cheques and the Tories voted it through…
“So, these are the five tests for Mr Brown if he is going to make the change of direction that Britain needs. And if he meets these five tests he will have changed direction. He will have changed direction, and embraced liberal democracy.
“Are the Conservatives up to this same challenge? Of course not.”
Here we have the core of the speech; that’s evident from reading it, from reading the press release, and of course from hearing reports of that infamous press briefing. So what did it mean? Well, I’ll come to some of that later, but as far as the speech itself goes, the bulk of this section is just right. All five issues Ming set out are crucial ones. On all five, the Liberal Democrats are clear and consistent, with robust, practical policies to make a difference. On all five, the Labour government’s record is poor – with Mr Brown himself taking the main responsibility for two of them. And on all five, the Tories are all over the place, with no clear policy while they consider reinventing themselves – though, to be fair, you can say that about anything. So, a sensible, memorable list on which to campaign. And you know I think Ming’s hit the nail on the head with why Mr Brown seems ludicrously unqualified to be the ‘change’ candidate. Yet this is also the section where Ming came up with some arguments I was more wary of, and that one line that had me flinching.

You see, though Ming’s five tests are excellent – and a canny little lampoon of Gordon’s esoteric tests designed to kick the euro into touch – the punchline went sour. I was wary of the dismissal of the Conservatives. Now, I loathe the Tories as much as much as the next person, but in context, there was simply no logical reason for it. What was Ming saying, exactly? Yes, it’s true that the Tories are all photo-opportunities, sound-bites and gimmicks, without a practical policy to their name. Yet… ‘The Tories are in flux and don’t know whether they’re coming or going, so they’re obviously never going to meet my tests and aren’t even worthy of consideration. Gordon Brown and Labour, on the other hand, have a long and solid record of being absolutely dead against every issue on which I’ve set a test. So it’s entirely possible he might meet them after all.’ Am I the only chap who feels this contrast hasn’t entirely been thought through? But then comes ‘the flinch’. What happens if Mr Brown passes all the tests? “He will have… embraced liberal democracy.” No, Ming, no. I’m afraid on that, you’re quite wrong. Leaving aside ‘what happens if he changes the direction in a way that’s equally unappealing?’ – I’ll assume that Mr Brown isn’t going to abandon a Washington-set foreign policy for one decided in Tehran, for example – Ming would appear to have fallen for one of the oldest fallacies in politics, one I’ve written about before.

It is a fallacy to think that, just because a party adopts the obvious set of policies to correct the most egregious mistakes a long-running government has made doesn’t mean they embrace the philosophy of a party that got to the same policies long ago because they reckoned it was the right thing to do. One’s a reaction to something that’s become unpopular; the other’s acting out of principle. Adopting a set of policies usually means that, er, you have adopted a set of policies, not that you have adopted a philosophy, even if the immediate effect looks the same – but having a clue as to what a political party believes in, the philosophy that informs its day-to-day decisions, is vital to whether you think that party’s any cop. Why does that matter? Well, for the first five minutes, as you tick off the obvious things on your ‘to-do’ list, these two imaginary parties might not look any different. But let them run off on their own, and they’ll go in quite different directions. And even if Gordon Brown changes a few of his policies – and I have my doubts about all five – he’ll still be no Liberal. Labour came to power sharing many of the policies that the Liberal Democrats had developed as correctives to the failings of the Tories. We know this, because Ming boasted of it earlier in his speech. But then, without the rudder of actually believing in anything, what did they end up doing once they’d done the good bits in the first five minutes? ‘A new police-time-wasting law every single day and invading Iraq… Yeah, they’ll get some good headlines for another five minutes, they’ll do.’

So, even without the different spins on the strategic aim of Ming’s five tests, I have a problem with the conclusion to draw from them if Ming believed Mr Brown could ever pass them (and that’s a big ‘if’). On the bright side, though, after that Ming set out a much more convincing case for what the Liberal Democrats would actually do, and why. Of course the Liberal Democrats argued for higher taxation for public services in the ’90s, because the Tories had stripped public services to the bone. “And now taxes have gone up and some investment has been made” – but much of the money’s been wasted. Instead of raising more money, the Liberal Democrats will spend it better, cutting silly things that the government shouldn’t be spending the money on in the first place. I know there’s a spending review being conducted at the moment, with every lead Lib Dem spokesperson told to find things in ‘their’ department that the government should do less, or less expensively, or not at all. The aim is to save £15 billion for our own spending priorities – what, something like 2% of the total the government spends? And, after all, if an opposition party doesn’t want to be at least 2% different to the government, what are they there for? A related practical example of this sort of thinking comes in the ‘Green Tax Switch’, outlined again by Ming to shift the basis of tax away from people to pollution:
“By increasing green taxes we can change the behaviour of polluters at a time when action to combat climate change has never been more needed. And by increasing green taxes and abolishing generous tax subsidies that benefit the rich, we can afford to cut taxes for lower and middle income families. And remember what that means: by abolishing the 10 pence starting rate, by cutting the basic rate from 22 pence to 20, and by raising the top rate threshold from £38,000 to £50,000, we will cut the national income tax bill of 28 million people. More than two million of the poorest tax payers will come out of national income tax altogether. Don’t whisper it softly – shout it out loudly – Liberal Democrats would cut national income tax for those who need it most.”
Good stuff, though I would have phrased one clause there differently: saying we’d ‘abolish’ the 10p starting rate of income tax can sound like we’d just do away with that rate and have everyone who currently get some of their earnings taxed at just 10p taxed at the standard rate instead. That’s completely the opposite of what the policy actually means: we’d raise everyone’s tax allowances, so instead of paying 10p in the pound at the bottom end, you’d get to keep every penny up to that level. It’s what the following sentence is about, though that’s several clauses later, so it isn’t obvious – a key part of the boost to low- and middle-earners (individuals, as well as families). And Ming made a strong appeal for more votes, more seats and more influence, in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and in councils across Britain, not because we assume people’s support but because we work for it:
“Governing is an honour. And it’s an honour that we should never take for granted.
“I’m not content to lead a party whose sole purpose is opposition. Our clear direction must be government.
“We want to govern, not because we think we were born to it like the Conservatives.
“We want to govern, not because we want to control people’s lives like Labour.
“We want to govern to give power back to the people.
“And our ambition is to create a different kind of government.
“A government elected by a system where every vote counts.
“A government that frees people to make their own choices.
“A government that’s compassionate and dedicated to the people it serves.
“A government that safeguards the environment for the next generation.”
And what about this ‘hung Parliament’ spin?

All Liberal Democrat Leaders face the torture that, if they finally manage to get some press attention, the only question anyone wants to ask is ‘So, are you really a Tory or a Labourite?’ when we are, in fact, Liberal Democrats. Finding an answer to ‘the hung Parliament question’ is a strategic necessity if we’re ever able to get across why people should vote for us, rather than jump to one of the two authoritarian, illiberal parties. No Leader has yet gone with my preferred answer of setting out why they have much more in common with each other than us, and suggesting they get into bed with each other instead. When Paddy Ashdown was Leader, he had at one point a little circle of advisors nicknamed ‘the Bungee Group’; he would jump off the bridge with another thrilling new wheeze, and they would pull him back. I suspect the elastic snapped in the mid-’90s when he became so excited at the prospect of Mr Blair. When Charles Kennedy was Leader, he took a much simpler, more straightforward line on coalitions: a firm no. I have to admit, that position was much more to my taste – ‘they’re both bastards, so we should stay clear and vote on the issues’. Besides, all this talk of potential hung Parliaments becomes an even more obvious waste of time when the morning after election day comes and, shock, horror, just as usual there is one party with a majority and all those silly questions were irrelevant. Of course, it still comes up, and it came up last year, too (as much as four years out from the next General Election. That may be a record), during the Lib Dem Leadership election. And true, none of the three candidates were anything like as emphatic as Charles’ position, and all three left open the possibility of a coalition if the most stringent circumstances were met, even if Ming (having learnt from our 1987 and 1992 election campaigns in particular being distracted into nothing but questions over ‘Would you back Labour, or would you back the Conservatives?’) tried to block off discussion by announcing that he simply wouldn’t answer the question. I may sound critical, but long-term readers may have noticed this is the first time I’ve not shimmied round the question on here, too; I’ve just not drawn attention to myself by announcing it.

So, has Ming Campbell developed his own position yet? If so, was it telegraphed in today’s speech? And if it was, what is it, and is it any good? That’s a lot of ‘ifs’, and there is no obvious cast-iron answer. There is, however, a mass of conflicting evidence in the news today. Ming’s speech; the anonymous spin; Ed Davey rebutting the spin… On the face of it, turning the coverage of Ming’s speech into ‘what we’d do in a hung Parliament that hasn’t happened yet and isn’t likely to if we don’t set out what’s different about us’, then saying the answer is ‘we’d support a discredited, rejected Labour Government’, then turning the story into ‘Lib Dems in confusion’ – well, it’s not a brilliant strategy, is it? I think that’s something on which Liberal Democrats of all views on ‘the hung Parliament question’ (not just those who, like me, think ‘I just wish everyone would shut up about it’) can agree. Loath as I am to jump on a scapegoat, the ‘senior official’ who briefed various journalists, whoever they were, it’s not been their most scintillating day, has it?

Consider for a moment the sheer improbability that Gordon Brown would fail to act on any of those five vital areas when he finally becomes Prime Minster, then be happy to do u-turns on every one of them after a General Election. He’s really not a man who seems like he goes for a bit of give and take, or listens to other views even when he’s up against it. Surely Ming was saying that it’s now or never for Mr Brown, and that if he doesn’t deliver serious change on each of these policies well before the General Election, everyone will know he still presides over just the same freedom-crushing, air-polluting, poor-persecuting, over-centralising, war-mongering illiberal government that he’s already been running for much of for the last decade while daily fuming under his current boss.

You might expect, incidentally, that I’d be furious that proportional representation would not be “a deal maker or a deal breaker”. In the past, I’ve been one of those people who’s argued over manifestos when they just say “proportional representation” instead of spelling out a system that is proportional, keeps to natural communities and enables voters to choose between candidates of the same party – no system in particular, you understand – but really, after the disaster of us starting to talk about bloody coalitions several years before we even get into the election, this is very small beer. It’s not in Ming’s list of five tests we’d big up in the press? Yawn. Well, of course not. I think it’s vital that election results should roughly reflect how people actually voted rather than a government having absolute power on the support of just one-third of voters, though, luckily, they’re such headless chickens at the moment that they’re scared to boss us all about as much as usual – though it’s not necessarily as brilliant news for us as a party as we hope (we haven’t yet shown we know how to campaign under most PR systems, ironically) – but everyone else thinks we just want it out of self-interest. Even more damningly, it’s something that sends 99% of people to sleep. So for some years now, we’ve campaigned on our policies for issues that other people are interested in, not those only we’re interested in. What’s the matter? Aren’t we ignored enough? Besides, I could even make a case that it’s some Machiavellian piece of spin. Of course we’re likely to push proportional representation in any putative, far-off, hypothetical negotiations; but saying it isn’t makes us sound like we care more about things that people actually care about. Which, in fact, we do. Besides, if the spin was right – big ‘if’ – and this was all signalling a willingness to contemplate a coalition with Labour, then not all the pushing would have to come from the Liberal Democrat side. They’ve lost their majority, and they’re terrified the Tories will get in for another eighteen years if there’s a second election? Just like in the ’90s, that fear will suddenly see a rash of converts to proportional representation in Labour ranks, having stayed conveniently silent during times of humungous majorities (and, to make the whole spin that bit more ridiculous, Ming did call for electoral reform twice in his speech anyway. I quote one of them above).

I said “if the spin was right – big ‘if’ – and this was all signalling a willingness to contemplate a coalition with Labour,” but you could look at it from another direction. On the face of it, it looks like Ming has ruled out a post-election agreement with the Tories, but set stern criteria before a post-election agreement with Labour could be considered. But what if you look at the detail, and reckon that what he said about the Tories was ‘There’s no way to judge them when they stand for nothing, and I’d have to set tests on every single subject known to humanity – don’t bother coming back until you have a policy’. What happens if the protean Tory shape settles into a more congenial one? Could a door have been left open to ask the question again? And if that’s the case, was Ming leaving a more clearly visible door open for Labour, or slamming one shut? That may depend on what you think the answer to Ming’s five questions is. You might guess that Ming’s description of Mr Brown as “more of the same” is a clue. If you think Ming was setting out not a list of possibilities, but a withering rain of indictments showing why it is self-evidently impossible for Gordon Brown to change, then that seems almost as likely. It’s even parodying Mr Brown’s own five made-up tests that were designed to allow him to announce Britain had to stay out of the euro come what may, because he could always find something that had failed – a set of five things that are never going to happen, you might call it. And if Mr Brown carries on in his previous form then, come the election, people still checking against this speech (which is unlikely, to be fair) will conclude, ‘Not a chance’.

Or he may not have been talking coalitions at all, because that would be stupid.

So after all this, what do we know for certain? I think we know that Ming has decided to stop doing his best work behind the scenes, and – as he says – to lead from the front, and to be seen to be doing so. Whether his speech was in code, and what the code meant, is still open for debate; so perhaps he’s not as bold as he could have been, but it’s still a big step up. And I’m impressed. I may not necessarily agree with him on more issues after his speeches, but he’s not been afraid to say some things that I or any other party member might disagree with. That’s really what Leaders are for, and he’s won quite a bit of respect for standing up and making his case (or perhaps, as far as a hung Parliament goes, starting to prepare the ground for his case). Any Leader has to be encouraged to play to their stengths. This weekend, Ming didn’t pull back into his bunker and let it be known that he’d sulk if he didn’t get his way: he put a bit of stick about. That’s exactly what I said he should do when he stood for the job last year, and I think it’s what most people who voted for him expected him to do. I didn’t always expect to like it, but I’m certain it’s the approach that suits Ming best. He should do more of it – and though sometimes I’ll be critical of the detail, it’s the right direction to be noticed.

So, Ming, well done for taking a risk and leading from the front. The risk on Trident has already paid off handsomely for you. The risk of spending the next few years talking about what we do in a hung Parliament? That may be more of a long shot. Carry on taking more risks, though – that’s what you’re there for.

If you’d like a change from the innocent and crystal-clear world of politics, tune in to Channel 4 tomorrow at 12.40 in the afternoon for something dark and sleazy. Where the Sidewalk Ends is a compelling film noir about a gangster’s son turned cop turned near-vigilante, with a particularly great scene involving what you might call his death-wish. It re-uses one of my favourite pieces of noir music, the splendidly sleazy tune from I Wake Up Screaming (another favourite film noir with a threatening cop), and there’s fun to be had with names: Where the Sidewalk Ends stars Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, whose genders may not be the ones you assume on seeing those monikers, and fans of black and white British drama may enjoy the compromised policeman being called ‘Dixon’.

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Great piece Alex.........agree with your analysis on the whole. Yes Ming must take risks, he may upset some of us even more, but like you, I was pleased to hear what he had to say as it also gives us all a wider platform for debate on both the issues we agree with and those we don't.
I agree, particularly about taking risks. What Ming seems to have figured out that his predecessors failed to realise is that those set piece conference debates actually help to define the party.

The accusation that the Lib Dems want to be all things to all people rings hollow when we're the only party brave enough to have stormy, principled debates on important issues at our conferences that actually count for something.
I think it’s what most people who voted for him expected him to do.

This one at least...
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