For the record, I really am still genuinely undecided. My assessment is that Chris is the better strategist and Nick is the better communicator. Nick will win my vote if he can convince me he has some idea about how the party must organise and Chris will win my vote if he can overcome his seemingly poor reputation within certain parts of the media. The latter is important because certain journalists really do seem to have their knives out for him and viscerally dislike him in a way that could be quite damaging. Having seen what they did to Ming, that is currently toppermost on my mind.
Nick Clegg’s speech yesterday was interesting. Unlike Huhne, he made a point of paying tribute to Ming at the start. Unlike Huhne, he laid into Ming’s tenure. Despite crediting Ming for giving the party a clear sense of direction and purpose, he goes on to say that:
For two years now, the Liberal Democrats have been caught up in internal self-analysis. We cannot go on testing the patience of the British people.
I’m not sure these two conflicting statements make any sense together. Without the boring old navel-gazing that Clegg deplores, we would not have the sense of direction and purpose that he praises. And it was Ming, as Chair of the party’s policy, who oversaw that introspection, so it is he, by association, that Clegg is blaming for the party’s shortcomings. To paraphrase another Shakespeare play, is that a dagger I see before me?
The bottom line is that a bit of self-analysis was sorely needed after the 2005 General Election. The last Lib Dem General Election campaign was the least inward-looking we had ever fought; it was did the least to “stand up for the liberal instincts of the British people.”
I suspect that Clegg knows this. Rather, I suspect this is a pitch for that school of activist who has no time for the party’s policy development and prefers, to use Simon Titley’s words, “mindless activism“. This is a way of pushing people’s buttons, of posititioning himself as the blokey, action guy as opposed to the unforgiveably cerebral Huhne. Clearly Team Clegg have been reading The Political Brain during their summer holidays.
Fair play to them. It is something that Huhne can’t afford to be blind to. He needs to find a way of neutering this particular line of attack, and quickly. But by the same token, Clegg needs to be careful not to let himself become a prisoner of his own rhetoric. Despite our democratic structures, the research shows (my research in fact, hem hem), that the Liberal Democrats are in fact the least introspective of the three main parties. It hasn’t gained us electoral pre-eminence. There is virtue in a degree of introspection: I would argue that the “meeting the challenge” project launched by Charles Kennedy (and it is all too notable that I know it as the “meeting the challenge” project, not the allegedly “Trust in People: Make Britain free, fair and green“), has still not managed to give us anything like the sort of coherence that we need. As I wrote on Monday, until our long term aspirations are a closer fit with our short term commitments, we will continue to look opportunistic (because that is exactly what we are being). Nick can flutter his eyelashes at the media as much as he likes, but they’ll continue to give us a hard time if they continue to perceive us as little more than a bunch of chancers. In short, he is in danger of adopting a strategy that will neutralise his greatest single selling point.