Finally, some meat

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At long last, the leadership election is starting bring out real issues, with both Ming Campbell and Chris Huhne starting to develop their policy stalls. Simon Hughes meanwhile is still stuck in willy waving mode.

From what I’ve read, Ming’s policy document is quite impressive. I need to go through it in more detail, but I do like the noises coming from its section on the environment. I think it’s unfair to attempt to compare Huhne’s initial outline of his basic position on environmental taxation with this more nuanced text, but it clearly puts the onus on Huhne to come up with something just as good.

Meanwhile, Huhne has a number of points in his section on leadership which should gladden the heart of plenty of anxious activists. His sections on keeping it local, leading and listening and winning the youth and student vote amount to a firm rebuttal of the centralisation that has been going on under Kennedy and Simon Hughes’ presidency over the past 12 months. I’m sure Andy Mayer will appear now and scream “activistocracy!” at me, but really this is simply good management and effective internal communication. If Campbell doesn’t address these issues, then we would be right to worry, especially given his emphasis on the parliamentary as a team (seemingly at the expense of the rest of us).

Meanwhile, another bizarre row has broken out between the two camps, with a spokesman for Campbell accusing Huhne of “naive populism” for calling for the government to set a date for withdrawing the troops from Iraq. I originally read this story earlier in the day before the Huhne camp had got its rebuttal in, but I too was puzzled as to how Campbell could use such robust language given that Campbell spent much of last year calling on the government to set a date for withdrawal. It does strike one of a bad case of the jitters.

Whatever. The point is, it looks like we’re starting to have a real debate on policy and strategy, which is badly needed. I hope we can all agree to welcome that.

16 thoughts on “Finally, some meat

  1. The Campbell manifesto uses an enormous number of words to say very little of any substance.

    And remind me, weren’t we supposed to be voting for Ming because of his ‘gravitas’ or something?:

    “Sir Menzies is planning to travel to Brussels later this week to show he has the support of more Lib Dem MEPs than Chris Huhne, despite the latter’s six years in Strasbourg.”

    Perhaps Huhne will be off to bonnie Scotland to show he has more MSPs supporting him than Campbell, ‘despite the latter’s 64 years there.’

  2. Tch… I think we all agree that one of Kennedy’s problems was a lack of proper consultation and not taking conference seriously enough. Dom Mathon amongst others is perfectly correct to suggest one of the reasons the Post Office motion went down was there was not enough preparatory work for what was always going to be a contraversial policy. So I’m with you on the need for the parliamentary party to get more involved with consulting the internal electorate when proposing these matters.

    The party’s policy making process though needs to get more invovled with consulting the external electorate, both the membership and the public. The issue with “activistocracy” is the weighting of policy opinion towards the most committed rather than most representative.

    You could set up a new campaign demanding that no policy goes to conference without having been tested for reaction with groups of switch-voters in target seats and current supporters more generally and that reaction must be included with the motion. You could promote one member, one vote on policy with the facility to vote electronically, by telephone, by post rather than having to turn up to twice a year to a conference hall, perhaps scrap the Spring conference to pay for it and instead start running proper policy workshops both online and around the country for the interested including contributions and research from outside the party.

    You could call it Reflecting Britain.

  3. Andy,

    I think we share a lot of common ground here. I agree that the current policy making process is too conference motion-centric and needs to take into account wider views and have a more deliberative nature. More to the point, a lot of people who you like to accuse of “activistocrats” would agree with both of us (in the generality certainly, although I’m sure there is scope for disagreement in the specifics).

    However, many of the people you are quickest to defend against wicked souls like me would not agree. How can, for example, the FPC begin a reform programme for greater membership involvement if the Parliamentary Party keep bouncing them into policy positions with absolutely none of the safeguards you are now calling for?

    And can you honestly say that Sir Menzies Campbell has these sorts of reforms in mind? He’s been rather keen on, ahem, “spokespersonshipocracy” in the past.

  4. Andy & James

    It would be good to try and agree on…what we agree on on this.

    Because the party does need to involve all of its members in the policy process – rather just the noble few who go to conference. And this also means giving the Frontbench a very major role (which they will get if Huhne wins as well).

    I´m not sure why Sam thinks that Ming should not go to Brussels. For the record, I wouldn’t have used the “naive popularism” phrase. But worse words have been used elsewhere – and they were probably qulaified in the original.

  5. James, thanks for that, the bouncing point is well made. I think broadly it’s the same point though, the Post Office motion more than likely lost votes precisely on that perception. What to do about urgent or emergency policies is a difficult point for this position. Maybe a discussion on what can and can’t be done for the next Liberal Drinks?

    On the leadership front all three will find themselves in the situation of wanting or needing to get something through quickly and all three may then run the risk of being accused of bouncing policy. I’m not sure how they handle it will be decisively different at this stage, I suspect reform of the policy-making process is not top of mind.

  6. Ming’s programme is (so far) so much motherhood and apple pie. The proposal for a policy commission on housing – well, didn’t we have one last year? And the year before that?

    Cable is *not* leading the Tax Commission. (A good thing too.)

    Silence on a whole raft of policy issues.

    And the increasing shrillness of the Campbell campaign sounds a note of desperation. They have clearly (more than Simon from what I can see) lost ground to Chris. All a bit childish to carry on the willy-waving.

    Andy, your desire to abolish Federal Conference and party democracy will have to wait for another day. Suffice to say that Meeting the Challenge has done wiell in terms of involving the wider membership – yes we could do more; yes, MPs should have a key role in this. Let’s get that right first.

  7. Re No (1):

    Question: How many Scottish Westminster MPs support Ming Campbell?

    Question: How many Scottish Westminster MPs support Chris Huhne?

  8. If Lib Dem policies should be ‘tested for reaction with groups of switch-voters in target seats’ before being discussed by members, then I suppose those groups should include the same proportion of racists, misogynists, and people with generally illiberal attitudes as the sample population? What if these swing voters don’t like what we say on, for instance, asylum seekers, do we change our policies?

  9. I’m not speaking for Andy here, but I think that qualititive and quantitive polling is valid in the policy making process so long as what is being explored here is the best way to sell a policy, rather than what that policy should actually be.

    The danger of not using such research in the policy making process is that once it ends up in campaigns, the research is done anyway, which can be even worse. The 2005 “top ten reasons” was, to be frank, basically a random collection of policies that polled well. I’d rather we considered such things further up the chain.

    But the main thing I’m personally worried about is the disconnect between the ordinary membership and the policy making process. Meeting the Challenge has been a step forward, but it has been a baby step rather than the bold stride some of us were lobbying for and thus far even those modest reforms are seen as a radical exception rather than the norm.

  10. “Question: How many Scottish Westminster MPs support Ming Campbell?

    Question: How many Scottish Westminster MPs support Chris Huhne?”

    I think the question is actually, in both cases, “How many Scottish Westminster MPs are public supporters”, which is a very different thing. 😉 Declaring first gets you a large bandwagon, but as David Davies found, some people, privately, find better stalls by the end of the contest…

    R.

  11. Easy to say, harder to prove. And if “my willy is bigger than your willy” contests are dumb, then “my willy is secretly bigger than your willy” contests are even dumber. 😛

  12. Peter – I have no problem with Ming going to Brussels.

    My point is that one of the main arguments in favour of Ming is that he has ‘gravitas’, he is ‘above the fray’.

    Yet he is going to Brussels to show that he has more MEP’s supporting him than Chris.

    This is far from ‘gravitas’!

    On a related point – having had both Chris Huhne and Emma Nicholson as my MEPs for six years and seen the contrast between them in their communication with members, media activity and accessibility – I would suggest that the Baronesses’ supportfor Ming Campbell is hardly a persuasive endorsement in these parts.

  13. Sam,

    That’s never been why he’s going to Brussels and whoever said it was silly to say so (assuming they weren’t misreported).

    There are two reasons for the trip:
    1. To make a speech setting forward his views about the Liberal Democrats, Britain and the EU (of which more tomorrow)
    2. To discuss with the MEPs ways to collaborate more closely, including joint campaigning between the two parliamentary parties.

    As someone else who lives in the South East, I will make no comment re: Emma – but what do you make of the other four MEPs backing Ming?

    Martin

  14. Martin – If that isn’t why he is going he could do with sorting out whichever over-enthusiastic members of his team keep saying silly things to the media.

    Of the other four MEPs backing Ming I have mixed views – I do rate the North West pair as campaigners although i think CD has a bit of a tendency to shout his mouth off before thinking sometimes. Graham Watson is clearly a very talented MEP but doesn’t seem to play ball within his own region in terms of integrated campaigning. Andrew Duff I also respect but I would expect him to go with the ‘gravitas’ candidate.

    My general view of campaigning in so far as it relates to the MEPs is that the party does need to get better at involving them in its work and in working out a sensible way to discuss policy issues that affect both EU and Westminster – but the MEPs as a whole aslo have a job to do in terms of making sure they are all integrating their campaigning and utilising their resources to maximum effect for the party.

  15. Sam,

    Re: your first sentence, I agree, and conversations to that effect have been had within the campaign team.

    Also agree with what you say about MEPs and MPs. My sincere hope about this election campaign is that, whoever wins, the process of having an election campaign will drive the party to raise its game in a range of areas.

    Martin

  16. Martin,

    Indeed. There are a number of areas in which we are still structured as if we were still a party of a few random councillors and 20 MPs. All three leadership candidates seem to underatnd that things need to change.

    Sam.

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