Daily Archives: 1 November 2007

Advice to Lib Dem Bloggers re Trident: shut up!

It is now almost a week since Steelgate. In that time, the Lib Dem blogosphere has been obsessed with the topic of Trident.

It was a bad political miscalculation of Chris Huhne’s to make such a big deal of it over the weekend. Almost certainly, his intention was to make the announcement before his manifesto launch so that it wouldn’t overshadow his manifesto. Well, it has.

People can agree or disagree with his stance: I certainly think that Clegg has now made a creditable rebuttal. But if this election ends up being remembered as the Trident election, the party is going to end up looking bloody stupid.

I know it is impossible to ask people to stop thinking about bright purple gorillas with yellow polkadots, and almost certainly just as futile to suggest that people might want to discuss something other than Trident for a bit, but please try.

Justice for Aston!

As we all know, no Labour candidate is ever guilty of anything and Labour stands by them, even if they admit to making homophobic smears in court (“but I technically didn’t call ‘im a nonce, guv!“). So I wonder what they will make of this.

Actually, I already know that. The official Labour response at the end of the film dismissed the whole thing out of hand on the basis that it was cooked up by the political opponents and depended on the account of a drug addict. So no denial there then.

Hat tip: John Hemming.

Is J.K. finding it hard to let go?

Can anyone spot the inconsistency between the following two statements?

There will be just seven volumes of The Tales of Beedle the Bard and they will not be published.

One copy will be auctioned to raise money for her charity, The Children’s Voice, and the author will give away the rest of them.

She said the books were a “wonderful way” to say goodbye to Potter.

And:

JK Rowling and the makers of the Harry Potter films, Warner Bros, are suing a US publisher over its plans to release a book version of a popular website dedicated to the boy wizard.

The legal action claims that RDR Books will infringe on Rowling’s intellectual property rights if it publishes the 400-page Harry Potter Lexicon.

It adds that this would interfere with her plans to write her own definitive Harry Potter encyclopaedia.

Chris Huhne’s manifesto: the verdict

I thought I’d give Huhne’s manifesto the same treatment that I gave Clegg’s speech last week.

Once again, I’ll give each main section marks out of five for how much the section is in the party’s comfort zone, how much it is reaching out beyond our traditional supporter base and how much I personally agree with it. I realise the first two are tests which Nick Clegg first set, but they are valid ones.

Changing the system, not just the Government

Huhne starts off by talking about the electoral system, a matter close to Liberal Democrats’ hearts but not neccesarily the wider public. To be fair, it is the first matter of substance that Clegg referred to in his speech last week as well.

Not much I can add here. Obviously I agree with the policy. I’m not sure this is how I would articulate it, particularly if I had one eye on the wider public. I would want to emphasise the importance of choice and competition, not simply fairness.

Comfort rating: PR, nuff said. 5/5
Reaching out rating: he doesn’t mention “PR” explicitly, at least. 2/5
Personal rating: just to be picky, I’d have phrased it differently and find “fairness” a bit woolly. 4/5

Giving back power to people and communities

This is a radical vision of decentralisation which I think both the party and the public like the sound of. When Lib Dems talk of localism, we mean it, and this is a particularly well articulated section.

Comfort rating: localism is an easy sell internally. 5/5
Reaching out rating: well trod turf, but it is a message which I think is resonating increasingly. 4/5
Personal rating: sounds good to me. 5/5

Fixed term parliaments

This section is actually about more than that. Rather, it is a summary of issues relating to Parliament. I think fixed term parliaments resonate more widely at the moment because of the phoney election debacle, but that is quickly fading. The stuff that is of wider interest I think is the stuff about gender balance in the Lords, not because it will set the world on fire but because I think it shows an interest in how the party looks, which is important.

Comfort rating: some might shuffle their feet about gender balance in the elected Lords. 3/5.
Reaching out rating: some stuff of interest, but mostly the public won’t care about this section. The gender balance stuff gets a point for its long term boost to the party’s image though. 3/5.
Personal rating: if this gender balance stuff is a combination of existing party practice (the “one third” rule), training and mentoring and pro-activity, then great. 4/5.

The people’s veto

Yay! A constitutional reform which is not only truly democratic but is likely to resonate with the average Sun reader. Personally, as readers may have gathered, I’d go further, but a veto system such as this would be a powerful tool and would ensure that all laws had the assent – passive or otherwise – of the people.

Huhne doesn’t mention treaties here (can you say “Lisbon”?), but surely he wouldn’t make them exempt?

Comfort rating: I suspect many people in the party may be uncomfortable about this, but this limited form of participatory democracy will probably win them round in the end. 3/5
Reaching out rating: The public would love this. 5/5
Personal rating: I’d go further, but this is great progress. 5/5

A Freedom Bill to give back liberties

A Freedom Bill? That sounds a bit like a Nick Clegg idea! And Clegg was right – it is indicative of quite how scared he is of his own shadow that he didn’t mention it in his launch.

Is it good politics? Well, it is a great way to communicate our values – symbolism with substance attached. On the other hand it risks having us presented as the middle class liberati. On balance though, I think the consistency would be its own reward and would find its own audience. Not everyone will agree, but significant numbers on both the left and right will.

Comfort rating: can’t see the party having an issue with it. 5/5
Reaching out rating: it will find its own audience. 3/5 (I nearly gave it a 4)
Personal rating: sounds great to me. 5/5

Stopping money politics

This section is all very well as far as it goes, but is a little light on detail. What, for example, does Huhne propose to do about party funding? In fairness to him, he was probably simply being responsible given the Hayden Phillips talks and was not in a position to write his manifesto on the basis that they would collapse the day before.

On corruption, this section is stronger. The Saudi issue is good politics for us and Vince Cable has played it very well this week (maybe we should keep him…).

Comfort rating: not many people vote for corruption. 5/5
Reaching out rating: doesn’t exactly set the world on fire, but there is at least sympathy for our position. 3/5
Personal rating: would want more detail on party funding, notwithstanding the practicalities. 3/5

Markets in public services, or local control?

This section is very interesting. In short it is an argument for localism and against marketisation of public services. In doing so, he actually goes further than I would, dismissing school vouchers for example which is a policy which I have some sympathy for.

He does at least articulate a clear case however. You can agree with him or not, but you can’t accuse him of mincing his words in the way that Clegg was doing last week. This is a line that Steve Webb would have no difficulty with and David Laws would hate, but at least it is a line. I’ve been arguing for consistency in our policy, and this is certainly consistent.

On the down side, is it an issue which will resonate with the public? I think they are for localism, but this section doesn’t address how we will deal with the inevitable complaints about “postcode lotteries” and the like. While the internal conflict is certainly over the extent to which economic liberalism and social liberalism should hold sway in the public services debate, I think the wider public have other priorities that this section does not address.

Comfort rating: it’s broadly existing party policy, but a lot of people will be uncomfortable about going down on one side to such an extent. 2/5
Reaching out rating: this isn’t the debate the public particularly cares about, but at least it is a clear policy. 2/5
Personal rating: I broadly go along with it, but I think there are different balances to strike in health and education policies. 4/5

Solving the housing crisis

This is one of the issues I took Clegg to task for not mentioning last week. I still maintain that you can’t be serious about addressing social mobility without saying something about housing. So, full marks to Huhne for addressing precisely that, and indirectly my other issue – intergenerational equity.

Once again, Huhne here gives us a well argued case for the limits and strengths of council housing. He isn’t being prescriptive here but shows a depth of knowledge. He sits on the fence here to a certain extent, but it is certainly true that it is largely an issue that should be decided locally.

I’m not sure he satisfactorily addresses how he intends us to build 3 million homes over 10 years. There is no easy answer of course (unless you propose bankrupting the state by insisting the government should build every last one of them), but a bit more detail here – and less detail on the public services section – would have been welcome.

Comfort zone: he doesn’t mention anything like building on greenbelt land. 5/5
Reaching out zone: to both the young and the working class, this is one of the biggest issues. He should have made it more central in my view, and linked it to other issues such as immigration, but the fact that he mentioned it at all puts him light years ahead of his opponent. 4/5
Personal rating: he doesn’t mention anything truly radical that might interest me such as contemplating some building on the greenbelt. 3/5

No to Trident

I’ve already banged on about this enough.

Comfort rating: plays well with a certain cleavage but seems to have already backfired to an extent. 3/5
Reaching out rating: I just don’t see many people joining the throng. 1/5
Personal rating: good policy, wrong politics. 3/5

Rebalancing our foreign policy

Again, Iraq War aside, I can’t help but think this will largely leave the average person in the street cold. We’ve acquired a good reputation with regards to foreign policy in the past, but most of the people who support us on this issue have already come over to us. There is some anti-American sentiment out there, but there’s more anti-European sentiment.

None of which is to say that there is much here I would take issue with, although I’m curious why it mentions the English-speaking Commonwealth and not just the Commonwealth; are there not ties there which if anything will grow in importance over the next few decades? He deserves points for bravery for even mentioning the Euro, and has a clear answer for why joining is an option but certainly not yet.

In terms of low politics, it is also interesting that he appears to position himself as broadly more Euro-sceptic than Clegg, who was rather fulsome in his praise for the EU.

Comfort rating: some feathers might be ruffled by being rude about the EU and mentioning the Euro, but nothing to get in a lather over. 4/5
Reaching out rating: very mild Euro-scepticism and anti-Americanism reaches out of a certain extent, but this won’t get them talking at the Dog and Duck. 2/5
Personal rating: broadly fine but uninspired. 4/5

Fairness: a core belief for social liberals

Here Huhne firmly nails his colours to the mast and outs himself as a social liberal. Good. We have a real contest now as Clegg is clearly on the economic wing.

There is a lot here I can’t imagine Clegg saying, based on his speech last week. If I had a rather larger ego than I do, I might even think that this section was tailor-made to get my attention:

It is not enough to speak of equality of opportunity, aspiration and level playing fields. If ‘meritocracy’ means that individuals will receive the rewards their abilities and work deserve, it produces a very unattractive society in which complacently successful people constantly look down on their less able fellow citizens, whom they firmly believe to deserve less. We need more than that.

In truth, I suspect this section has rather more to do with Duncan Brack than it has to do with me.

For me, this is the most important section in the whole document. It is about our core beliefs and reclaiming equality at a time when so many Lib Dems seem keen to drop it as a priority altogether. It is clarity such as this section that recharges my political batteries and convinces me there is actually a point.

Comfort rating: actually, I think that much of this will cause the wider party difficulty. This is a debate we haven’t had in years and it is time we did so. 2/5
Reaching out rating: Will this resonate in the posh suburbs of Kensington? No. Will it resonate in the down-at-heel streets of Manchester where I cut my political teeth? Absolutely. 4/5
Personal rating: I need to hear this sort of thing from my leader, not bloodless exhortations for ‘meritocracy’. 5/5

Tall poppies and tall stories

I believe this is the section which opponents of Huhne may wish to caricature as ‘hammering the rich’. He doesn’t use that phrase, but if I have a criticism it is that he does very little to disabuse people of that notion.

There is an important issue to address in terms of company directors awarding themselves outrageous pay bonuses, but we need to be careful to avoid appearing to play the politics of jealousy. The language here could be more balanced and emollient.

That says, the underlying theme – that we should be concerned more about taxing wealth than incomes – is one of my pet hobby horses. Huhne is cagey about land value taxation but is warm about it in principle. In all honesty, that’s as good as I’m likely to get in this election.

Comfort rating: perhaps a little too much emphasis on bashing high earners. 4/5
Reaching out rating: we need to think about how we might sell this. The stuff about high earners will resonate with a few, but not enough. 2/5
Personal rating: as good as I’m going to get. 4/5

Talking straight on crime

An impeccably liberal approach, but not one that is likely to dispel any caricatures about woolly liberals sadly. It isn’t woolly – it is well argued and succinct – but for many acknowledging home truths such as the fact that fear of crime in this country is disproportionate to the level of actual crime will lead to them simply dismissing the whole argument.

This section presents to me a dilemma. I don’t disagree with any of it, but I know it is a hard sell. Huhne doesn’t give us much of an idea of how he plans to sell all this either.

How do we get this balance right? I have to admit I think Clegg does it better. Sometimes it is just a matter of not saying certain things that don’t need to be said. We can’t afford to alienate people; we have to talk in a language they understand.

Comfort rating: will ruffle quite a few feathers actually – Lib Dems can be quite reactionary at times. 3/5
Reaching out rating: I’d love it if people listened to common sense on crime, but they broadly don’t. We need to communicate this better. 1/5
Personal rating: I can’t deny it doesn’t appeal to me personally. 5/5

Sustainability: challenging on the environment

There’s a lot here that doesn’t need to be said. You’ve already won the argument Chris. Once again though, he doesn’t address how we engage with the public on this issue in a language they understand. Clegg’s critique that when we talk about green taxes, most people just hear ‘taxes’ is correct. Huhne needs to address that point. Calling for further cuts in the basic rate of income tax does that to an extent, but it doesn’t address Clegg’s other point about people being able to see their sacrifices making a difference.

In this respect, I would actually argue that Huhne is currently weaker than Clegg on the environment. Not because he’s wrong on policy but that he is wrong on emphasis. The next battle is on selling this policy, not simply entrenching it. Huhne needs to engage with that fact.

Comfort rating: broadly established party policy. 5/5
Reaching out rating: communication counts. 1/5
Personal rating: fine as far as it goes but barely moves us forward from 2 years ago. 3/5

Our party can win

Thus far, and point me to where if I’m wrong, but Clegg has barely addressed the issue of party organisation. Huhne therefore deserves credit for including this section.

The emphasis on local party development is important as is the emphasis on diversity. His approach on mentoring and training is welcome.

His point about constitutional change being a prerequisite to partnership government is vital. It addresses the Oaten lament that coalition is an issue that the party hasn’t been talking about enough but doesn’t get us distracted in self-defeating speculation about horse-trading.

Finally, the final paragraph succinctly sums up what the party is about. This is a strong section.

Comfort rating: the party will find little to disagree with here. Making it happen though is another matter. 5/5
Reaching out rating: a strong, better trained and more diverse-looking party across the country would inevitably reach out to more people. Simple, but true. 4/5
Personal rating: Again, my concern is making it happen. An uncharitable 3/5 (because I’ve been here before).

TOTAL COMFORT RATING: 59/75
TOTAL REACHING OUT RATING: 41/75
TOTAL PERSONAL RATING: 60/75

You can’t compare like with like with these scores and Clegg’s in my earlier article. Overall, in my view there is more meat here for the general public to grapple with than was in Clegg’s speech last week. There is also more for the party faithful to potentially object to. Interestingly, although I really liked certain bits, as an overall package I found myself less comfortable with it than with Clegg.

Huhne is clearly taking risks, and he should be congratulated for that. He has brought substance to a debate which until now has been distinctly wanting for it. On a number of issues however, he simply doesn’t seem to appreciate the communication issue. On the environment, on crime and on taxation it isn’t that he is wrong on detail, but that he hasn’t worked enough on communicating the message. This is at least a much bigger concern of Nick Clegg’s.

But on consistency, he wins hands down. You can’t fault him for not being prepared to answer difficult questions. This is an issue my scoring system doesn’t measure, yet it is important. Developing a clear Liberal Democrat identity is crucial. It gives us a brand – not something that 100% of the population will agree with, but something which a substantial minority certainly will. Longer term, such consistency will help us bridge the gap between the 10% of the public who identify as a big-el-Lib big-dee-Dem and the 50% of the public who identify as a small-el-liberal. It is not something that Clegg has begun to grapple with thus far, nor can he if he is afraid to reach out beyond existing party policy.

On balance then, this is definitely a stronger package than what I’ve seen from Clegg so far. It is however a package for long term growth – to what extent that is a luxury we can currently afford is not something I have formed a firm view on yet. It certainly isn’t the killing blow that Huhne needs to deliver to defeat his rival. Perhaps I should wait however until Clegg produces a comparable document.