Monthly Archives: July 2006

Let Ming Be Merciless

Ming Campbell drawn by Steve Bell (copyright Steve Bell)Jonathan Calder has been dispensing advice to Ming Campbell via the Guardian today under the West Wing inspired headline Let Ming Be Ming. Personally, I have a more crude bit of advice: acquire a brass neck.

My analysis of the last three months is that there are lots of signs of progress. The party has done more internet-based campaigning in the past three months than it had done in the three months running up to the general election for example, with lots more in the works. There is a sense emerging that the front bench is raising its game, with some of our best talent (I’m thinking specifically of Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne here) acquiring a respectable profile of their own that we never saw under Kennedy.

But every time Ming makes progress, he seems to look over his shoulder nervously and wimp out at the last minute. Tim Razzall got shoved off as CCC Chair, yet the party spin doctors are falling over themselves to reassure people that he remains a key advisor for Ming. So much for the bold new direction. Ditto when Ed Davey was announced as his replacement – suddenly we’re told that the old guard needn’t worry because Chris Rennard will be “General Election chair” – a role previously performed by, and thought to be the main role of, um, the CCC Chair.

Ming is about to announce a tax policy paper which reads as if it accepts the case for the party to adopt some kind of property tax – and preferably LVT – yet doesn’t include any such concrete proposal in the executive summary and motion. It makes the case for lower income taxes, yet eclipsing its proposed 2p in the pound tax cut with the introduction of a 4p in the pount local income tax increase.

Even when difficult decisions have to be made, Ming’s leadership thus far has been characterised with an urge to softsoap the losing side, or not make a clear decision at all. This, more than anything else, is keeping the “caretaker” narrative on the media’s agenda.

I’m not going to call for that hoary old cliche a “Clause 4 moment” – I’m not saying he should pick fights for the sake of it – but where decisions need to be made, they must be forthright and with clarity. You can bet the media will report that, because there will be a lot of pissed off people around as a consequence. But that is precisely what Ming’s leadership needs right now. Better to have a lot of people denouncing him for going in the wrong direction, than a lot of listless foot-shuffling waiting for a bit of drama to happen.

I should add that I write as one of those potentially pissed off people.

Mori Boost

Mike Smithson rightly dismisses today’s Mori poll as an accurate reflection of voter intention.  Indeed, I have always dismissed Mori polls for the same reasons.

But there is one small note of optimisim.  Because Mori only looks at those “certain to vote” it does suggest a slight hardening of the Lib Dem vote, which is notoriously soft (the main reason why Mori normally underestimates our voter share).  That is good news because a hardening base provides us with a bridgehead from which to target more voters.

Whether this proves to be a trend rather than a blip, and whether the party can muster the sort of activity to maximise this (recruitment, developing our supporter networks) both remain to be seen.  And as the bulk of this polling was conducted before the poor headlines we have suffered over the past few days, no-one should be holding their breath, at least not yet.

Peter Black: where’s the beef?

I’m a little torn regarding Peter Black’s recent outburst about Ming Campbell’s leadership. I share many of Peter’s concerns and support his right to air them, but I question why he chose the nuclear option of seeking to turn them all into a question of leadership.

Take the tax policy for example. I too agree that what I’ve seen so far is muddled and unfocussed. But for that, I blame the tax commission. I’m also quite sanguine about Ming discussing some of it in public at this late stage – it is dangerous to write policy in a vacuum. And let’s not forget that it was Charles Kennedy – not Ming – who started talking to the papers about what was going to be in the paper – as far back as November.

The problem with pinning all of this on the leader is that your meaningful criticisms get lost in the noise about personality clashes. It becomes a test of Ming’s “strength” to dismiss everything you have to say. The substance gets lost.

Indeed, many of these problems predate Ming’s leadership. These criticisms amount to little more than bemoaning the fact that Ming hasn’t introduced change fast enough. Wouldn’t it be more effective to instead consider who or what is preventing those changes from taking place, and to challenge Ming to sort them out, rather than placing all the responsibility on him? One aspect of the diffuse way in which power is spread by the Liberal Democrat constitution is that playing “pin the blame on the leader” can become an exercise in denying your own – and our collective – responsibility.

Generally, attacking the leader is something you should reserve unless you are serious about ousting him/her. It isn’t clear if that is Peter’s intent, but it is certainly clear that a lot of such noise has been coming from his fellow Simon Hughes supporters and of course Simon Hughes himself. Yet Hughes was humiliated in the leadership contest, coming third behind an MP who had only entered the Commons for the first time 8 months before. However tempting the conspiracy theory may be, it must be barking: Hughes has had two attempts at leader and is in no position to mount a challenge either now or after the general election.

Since it is vocal Hughes supporters making all the running though, it does behoove me to point out that, as President, Hughes shares responsibility for many of the things that Black is so critical of. Hughes is up for re-election this autumn, not Campbell, and it is his record we should be currently turning our attention to. If there are problems at the top of the party, this is our chance to fix them in a much more productive manner than lobbing brickbats at Ming.

Daley tripe

Iain Dale continues his decline to cheap partisan gossip broker – to think the man once had Parliamentary pretensions.

His latest broadside on the Lib Dems to backfire spectacularly is his decision to attack Lib Dem News for publishing a pro-Hamas letter, conveniently ignoring the fact that the same page included 2 pro-Israel and 2 relatively balanced letters. His defence is that he didn’t read the original source, which is essentially the same thing as saying he couldn’t be arsed to check his sources.

He also claims that “I don’t actually see LibDem News each week as I gather only LibDem members can subscribe”. Dale remember is a bookseller. In his old Westminster bookshop (the one that was “forced” to shut down due to the Congestion Charge only to mysteriously reopen six months later under a different name, and remains open to this day), I regularly remember seeing copies of LDN for sale. He thus knows that it is available to anyone to subscribe to – indeed until relatively recently you could order it from your newsagent. To plead ignorance on a matter that it is business to know, stretches credibility.

He also reads – and occasionally comments – on this blog. That being the case he will be aware of my own outspoken criticisms of Chris Davies. Specifically, he should be aware of the letter I wrote Lib Dem News some weeks ago. They didn’t publish it, but as I said at the time I didn’t mind because they published several that made similar points.

What annoys me most about all this is that Dale thinks it is appropriate to make cheap points like this on an issue as serious as the current situation in the Middle East, and yet seeks to claim the moral highground each and every time. It is tawdry, nasty little politics and should be singled out as such.

Both Dale and Guido get phenomenally high hitcounts for their websites and are keen to go on about how important this makes them. If the limit of your ambition is to spread political gossip then that is indeed a real achievement. But aiming to become the blogosphere’s answer to Marina Snyde is a little, well, hollow isn’t it?

At least Guido is aware of what he is and doesn’t have pretensions to be something more. Dale is right on one thing though: Paul Corney is a berk.

The English Question: I agree with a Tory shocker!

Prospect has an excellent quartet of articles on the subject of the “English Question” this month.  The four authors have very different perspectives, but they all agree that breaking up the union would be bad and the Tory’s “English Votes on English Matters” proposal is no solution.

Malcolm Rifkind’s proposal for an English Grand Committee, for me, is an excellent fudge and one that Lib Dems ought to very much be pushing for.  It allows a degree of nuance that EVoEM does not, which in turn means that Parliament will be the ultimate arbiters and not the courts.

Chris Huhne is right as well to point out that PR would be a very important mitigating factor.  For me, both proposals would complement each other very well.

To summarise, my (continually evolving) approach to the problem would be:

  • A sustained agenda for radical devolution to local authorities;
  • Proportional representation to remove the exaggerated problems caused by FPTP;
  • Rifkind-style English Grand Committee;
  • A Spanish-style constitutional settlement allowing any geographical part of the UK (including England, but also including parts of England) to call for further devolution and autonomy, handled through a citizen’s initiative system.

This is an area that liberal unionists should be taking a keen interest in: so far the nationalists, including the Tories, have been doing all the running.  The Lib Dems desperately need a position instead of burying their heads in the sand.

Constitutions and the choke factor

My boss has written a nice post about the last episodes of the West Wing last night, linking it with the House of Lords Constitution Committee’s report this week on Royal prerogative.

For me, the “choke” moment of the two episodes was the bit when Bartlet gave Charlie his copy of the US Constitution. But then it got me thinking: not only do we not have a document with similar meaning in the UK, but for our government such rules are problems to be got around, not sacred limitations of their power.

Both America and the US Constitution have their faults, and the iconic status many Americans grant the Constitution occasionally strikes one as bizarre. I would certainly take issue with the way some treat it as if it were written on tablets of stone – constitutions have to be able to slowly evolve over time. But I take far more issue with those, including its current non-fictional president, who act as if it is a legalistic buffet that you can pick and choose from to suit your agenda.

In the UK, we desperately need a written constitution; the last five years of repeated assaults by Labour on our civil liberties prove that. But going hand in hand, we need a culture that values constitutional documents.

Yet the nearest thing we have to a constitutional document, the Human Rights Act, is continually under attack. We are told we have a “human rights culture” – the truth is we have anything but. A human rights culture is a culture in which people instinctively understand what rights are, not one in which the police claim the HRA forces them to give perps Kentucky Fried Chicken on demand.

The problem is, for constitutions to have that sort of ownership or resonance – for them to be able to convey that West Wing “choke factor – they tend to be borne of war or revolution, neither of which are things liberal democrats (small-l, small-d) should wish on the country. The real problem with the HRA is that it was drafted by ministers and civil servants while the rest of us were shut out. It should have been drawn up in a more open fashion and should have been ratified by a referendum – back in 1999 Labour could have easily won such a thing. If we are to have a written constitution, it has to be written by the people, for the people, and nothing less than a Citizen’s Convention will do.

Radio HOOF

I launched this website a couple on months ago on The Big Issue – a radio programme on Resonance FM.

They’ve just added a couple of excerpts of the programme on their website for your listening pleasure (I’m on all the ones dated 24 May).

One thing that occurred to me relistening to these things.  My initial idea for this website was to have an accompanying forum, but I closed it down because it was being bombarded with porn and I realised there were other forums out there through which I could spread the word (e.g. PricedOut).  Should I bring it back?  What other good ways should I be spreading the word?