Neil Stockley has written a great article on the Meeting the Challenge website about developing the Lib Dems’ narrative. He makes a lot of important points and I would urge everyone to study it.
This brings me back to my earlier post about narrative, and the point that the party’s narrative will be largely dependent on the new leader’s narrative. And here, I start to worry.
Because, let’s face it here, regardless of the activist vote, all the evidence suggests that Ming is currently way out ahead when it comes to the armchair vote. All this blogging and arranging hustings and press conferences is all pretty marginal. I remember the 1999 ballot and being genuinely surprised at quite how badly Jackie Ballard, David Rendel and Malcolm Bruce did – pretty much everyone I knew was supporting one or the other of these candidates. I’m not suggesting for one minute that Chris Huhne is going to do as badly as that and the longer the campaign goes on the more ground he seems to be making, but it is clear that the wider membership is a tough nut to crack.
One of the worst case scenarios is that Ming wins, but ends up looking like damaged goods. At the moment, that looks like a very likely scenario. The last week has been full of silliness aimed directly at Chris Huhne from Ming’s camp: that stuff about him being naive for basically agreeing with Ming’s position on pulling troops out of Iraq, willy waving nonsense about Ming going to Brussels to “prove” he is popular among MEPs and that cack-handed attempt at character assassination in the Times this morning.
The latter, my own investigations suggest, didn’t come from the Campbell campaign itself, but from a rogue supporter who I hope is currently being roasted over the coals for being so stupid. But the incident speaks volumes, not about Ming’s campaign strategy but his lack of it. The result has been that the agendas of his “supporters” have been more prominent than his own.
From where I’m standing, the psychology within the Ming camp is all wrong. I personally know of two people who, before Christmas (when I was seriously considering throwing my weight behind Campbell) were utterly scathing about him. Indeed, those individuals persuaded me that backing Ming would be a bad idea. Both of them are now prominent Ming supporters. Jonathan Calder hits the nail on the head:
The picture that is emerging is of a group of young MPs who see Ming Campbell as a short-term leader who will fight only one election, leaving them free to thrash the leadership amongst themselves in three or four years time. It is reminiscent of a dealers’ ring at an auction.
So when Nick Clegg comes onto this blog and goes on about how loyal Ming’s team of supporters are, I’m afraid I’m not convinced. Indeed, I think a number of them need being taken down a peg or two.
The problem is, this is turning into the narrative of the whole campaign. All this emphasis on young talent and a “bridge to the future” – the last thing we want is for Ming to finish this campaign indelibly marked as a caretaker leader, yet so many people in his camp seem to be determined to address this.
It isn’t all bad. Ming’s internet strategy, as masterminded by Martin Tod, has been very effective. None of this silliness is finding itself on his website. Again, as I said before, there is a real product to be sold with Ming: a winner, a statesman, a fighter. The problem is, in the grand scheme of things, what individuals are saying to the media is a lot more important than what is on a website. The noises off who kept mouthing off during the dying embers of the Kennedy leadership seem to be incapable of keeping their big mouths shut. If this is going on now, there is absolutely no reason to think it won’t continue after the new leader has been elected.
If Ming wins – and it is by no means looking certain now – then he would be well advised to embrace his leadership rivals. In the long term, I suspect they will prove to be more loyal than a lot of his lieutenants.
Returning to Jonathan Calder again, he makes an excellent case for why Huhne deserves everyone’s support:
One reason I am supporting Chris Huhne is precisely that he has shown leadership qualities. He has grasped what the party needs and that there is an opportunity open to him and seized the day.
We need a leader who is willing to grasp the nettle. What we don’t want is lots of courtiers doing the grasping for him. Ming can no longer afford to indulge them – it is becoming a deadly serious question of leadership.