Tag Archives: charles-kennedy

Is Charles Kennedy organising a Liberal Democrat putsch?

Independent political commentator John Rentoul does a neat line in pricking the balloon of journalistic and political hyperbole with his “questions to which the answer is no” series, so it is curious that he has managed to come up with an absurd, over the top conspiracy theory almost entirely devoid of fact today. Writing about Charles Kennedy’s article in the Observer on Sunday in which he poured cold water over the Lib Dem-Conservative coalition, Rentoul speculated:

What was he up to, eh? I can’t help thinking that he thinks he still has a chance of returning to the leadership of the party, the position out of which he believes he was cheated by Sir Menzies Campbell and his bag-carrier, Nick Clegg. Kennedy seems to be positioning himself to lead a Lib Dem rump out of the coalition government when things turn sticky in a few years’ time.

Ooh, maybe. Except for a couple of things:

1) If Kennedy is planning a comeback, somehow he has failed to spend any time ingratiating himself to the party membership. Since resigning as leader, his presence at party conferences has not been particularly high profile. Neither has he made much effort to ingratiate himself in the media (sitting on the This Week sofa for a month notwithstanding). He hasn’t exactly been working the rubber chicken circuit.

2) The general response that I have witnessed to the Kennedy article on Sunday amongst the membership has been one of irritation. It is one thing to oppose the agreement and take a principled stand. I have enormous respect for people who have put their head above the parapet in this way, such as Linda Jack (maybe we should make her leader if it all goes wrong?). It is quite another to express some concerns, sit on one’s hands during the crucial vote itself, write an innuendo-laden article in a national newspaper and then fail to even turn up to the party’s special conference to make your case.

It is entirely possible this coalition will go tits up and the Lib Dems will find themselves adrift. However, one thing that none of us can deny is that we all share responsibility for the decision to enter government. If we do find ourselves looking to find a new leader in a few years time, it is unlikely to go to someone who has simply carped from the sidelines.

15 February 2003: five years (and 11 days) later

Charles Kennedy and Lynne Featherstone at the 15 Feb 2003 anti-war demo (credit: Lynne Featherstone)A combination of Valentine’s Day, a business trip and subsequent workload conspired to prevent me from writing about my experiences of the 2003 anti-war demo, but I’m taking the trouble to do so now. This is partly to provide people to an archive of the old website I set up for the day, which five years on is something of an historical archive. But it is also because, missing the anniversary aside, I believe there is something to learn from the experience.

Basically, I learnt three important things from the demo and its aftermath. The first lesson I learnt, which you will be able to vouch for, is that I really needed to learn how to design websites properly. My attempt at a website was frankly laughable – the entire thing is written in HTML (no CSS) and I had to resort to crude third party sites just to set up a working form. As I was manually inputting each pledge I received, I ended up getting swamped; the list on the website was dwarfed by the number of pledges and messages of goodwill I ended up receiving and not having the time to include. A few years later and I’m still learning, but I have at least got my head around CSS and PHP (just about), even if I’m still stubbornly appalling at planning my projects.

Secondly, I could no longer ignore the fact that the hard left is riven with dangerous arseholes who you should at all times be wary of working with. On anything. To be fair, I had broadly got this message during my university days, but my participation in the Leamington Spa Stop the War group rather reinforced this notion.

At university I learned that if you stood in a student union election against a member of the hard left and won, you were likely to get your head kicked in. I also learned about what I’ve come to learn is affectionately known as TIGMOO. Basically, if you are part of this great, glorious, socialist-labour movement you are One Of Us (even if we hate your guts), while if you aren’t you are The Enemy (even if we agree with 90% of what you say). Not so much my enemy’s enemy is my friend as my enemy is my friend as long as he can recite a couple of verses from the Internationale. Oh, the hours I wasted attempting to negotiate joint working relationships with SWPers and AWLers on issues such as tuition fees only to discover they had cooked something up behind our backs with the Labour Club which enabled both Labour and their hard left comrades to save face (even if it meant a stalemate). But I digress.

My working relationship with the Leam lot was actually quite good in the run up to the march itself. I spent a lot of my Saturdays helping to run the stall outside Woollies and a lot of my Sundays attending organising meetings. It was all good.

The problems started when the war began. In short, it emerged that a number of my comrades could not have been happier that it had happened (anyone else remember the banner greeting people as they arrived at Hyde Park on 15/2 confidently predicting that this was the beginning of the rise of the proletariat? In your dreams). At a time when the rest of us were contemplating defeat, they had got a second wind. It was all talk of demos, shutting down the town centre and vandalising the rail lines. Revolution was in the air bruvvas! Those of us who thought it would be more appropriate to hold vigils rather than demos were laughed out of the community centre.

The final straw for me, not surprisingly, was when it was “decided” that the Leam Stop the War Coalition would be supporting the Socialist Alliance in the local elections. So much for coalition (this is why I can only laugh hollowly at Alex Harrowell’s suggestion that we should offer the SWP uncritical solidarity in a stand against the “Right”. As if the SWP would do the same for anyone else!).

But thirdly, the most important thing I learned from the demo was the craven desire for what it regards as respectability of much of the Lib Dem establishment. Read the motion that Susan Kramer and I proposed to the Federal Executive and got passed nem con. To our surprise, Charles Kennedy backed the motion. Then the trouble started. If dealing with the SWP was difficult, getting our own party to implement an executive order was downright impossible!

Senior figures in the party did everything they could to stop any aspect of this motion from being implemented. They point blank refused to put anything up on the party website, hence my own ham-fisted attempt. They wouldn’t link to my site, with Chris Rennard suddenly coming up with a policy that official party website only linked to websites run by party Specified Associate Organisations. 24 hours later, I got the then LDYS Chair to agree to “publish” the website, rendering that particular “policy” meaningless.

Eventually, after weeks of lobbying (and I should make it clear here that it is Donnachadh McCarthy who deserves all the credit here; I merely skulked around in the background), and with less than a week to go before the demo itself, Kennedy was asked a direct question by David Frost on live television and, bottling it, turned volte face and said he would be “very happy” to go on it. Suddenly we got our link on the front page of the party website, publicity in Lib Dem News (which until that point had been relegated to the letters pages) and the full weight of the party’s campaigns and press departments behind us.

Yet even then Kennedy remained obsessed with having it both ways. Notoriously, his Hyde Park speech argued meekly that he was “not persuaded” of the case for war and demanding that Parliament be allowed a vote (it was; the troops went in). But the biggest single joke of the day had to be the row over placards. On the one hand, I have to admit to being vaguely amused by Donnachadh’s green piety by insisting that we should have generic “Lib Dems say no” placards on the basis that they could be reused by activists for local demonstrations on a variety of subjects (an Iain Paisley revival meeting for instance). But that paled into insignificance compared to the desperately weak “official” campaigns department placards they were insistent must surround Kennedy at all times with the oh-so-unambivalent slogan “give peace a chance!” (John Lennon has a lot to answer for for his particular brand of faux-radicalism).

The fact that, even at such a late stage, we were having such mind-numbingly daft arguments demonstrated quite how uncomfortable the party establishment was with going on this march at all. If we hadn’t dragged them, kicking and screaming, they would never have gone near it. Yet for all that, it was the symbolism of Kennedy joining the march that mattered – even his compromised speech and even more compromised policy motion at the subsequent spring conference (in which they insisted on wording that confusingly seemed to suggest that our opposition to the war would end the moment a British troop set foot on Iraqi soil) didn’t stop the party’s rise in the polls. For a brief period and not for either the first or last time, the Lib Dems truly spoke on behalf of the majority of the nation.

Does all this still matter? After all, it’s all water under the bridge now. Speaking personally, it goes to the heart of the ongoing debate waging over the party’s identity. Reading Ming Campbell’s rather self-justifying account of Kennedy’s drink problem in the Mail yesterday, I was struck by how many chances they gave the man to acquit himself despite the fact that he consistently let them – us – down. I’m afraid I have to agree with Anthony Barnett – just think of the progress we would have made in 2005 if Kennedy had either sorted himself out or been given the heave-ho much earlier (who would have replaced him is a moot point – it certainly wouldn’t have been Campbell who was still recovering from cancer at the time).

I wonder what all this pressure to keep up appearances had on Kennedy’s then-PPS Mark Oaten, and how his personal downfall is related. I hear Lib Dems continue to insist the party is in the all-clear over the Michael Brown donation and boggle (we may yet not have to pay up, but the law is quite ambiguous and the investigation continues). I welcome the anti-establishment stance Nick Clegg has adopted over ID cards, only to see that undone by his uber-establishment stance on the Lisbon Treaty (as for his line on Michael Martin, the stuff about air miles etc. is broadly irrelevant; the fact that Martin has consistently been behind attempts to block transparency and reform should be enough to prevent Clegg dismissing it all as a “witch hunt”).

I recall the cold shoulder I received, again back in 2003, when I formally complained to then Chief Whip Andrew Stunell about Paul Marsden‘s comments in the Times bragging about how researchers are desperate to climb his greasy poll, and I wonder. Marsden isn’t the first Lib Dem MP to get caught out diddling the help (although thankfully he’s the only one to write poems on the subject) I’ve heard about during the years either. If a senior Lib Dem official was ever found to be, say, a kiddie fiddler, would we take action? At what point does an individual’s personal conduct become so unacceptable that they are forced out? My concern is that the party’s collective neurotic obsession with respectability too often leads us down some very dark alleys.

As a party we have always been, and for the forseeable future will continue to be, permanently at five minutes to midnight. I’m not convinced the meekness in our approach has done much in the past to rectify this situation. Over the past couple of years we have reaped what we sowed by not dealing with issues when they arose. Clegg ought to be taking copious notes. I like to think he won’t make the same mistakes as the past, and despite my own misgivings the fact remains that the Lisbon Treaty is an issue which the public stubbornly refuses to take an interest in. But we need a few more brave stances and a bit less nuance.

A final word on Donnachadh McCarthy. The Iraq demo was the beginning of the end of Donnachadh’s time in the Liberal Democrats. Despite the fact that I think he made some shocking mistakes (if he had kept his powder dry following the march instead of demanding recriminations he would have found himself in an incredibly strong position – indeed his lack of any sense of timing always was his greatest weakness), he really was appallingly treated and bullied by the top ranks in the party. He seems to be much better off without the party than the party is without him. It is deeply sad that ultimately we seem incapable of keeping someone like that within our own ranks; whatever you may have thought of him there are far worse people who happily remain party members.

EXCLUSIVE: Team Kennedy backs Huhne (updated)

Originally posted: 19 October 2007, 10.27am.

Thus far, it has looked like Nick Clegg has been getting it all his own way with regard to getting public support from the party establishment. The support of Steve Webb and Paddy Ashdown are, for differing reasons, clearly coups.

But he hasn’t entirely had it his own way. I understand that both Anna Werrin and Dick Newby – the key figures of the Charles Kennedy leadership team – have joined Chris Huhne’s campaign. Is this tacit endorsement of the former leader himself? Both have remained close to him.

UPDATE: Late news here, but Candy Piercy, who ran Charles Kennedy’s leadership campaign in 1999, has also joined Team Huhne.

Ben Ramm doesn’t speak for me

I feel the need to point this fact out because whenever a journalist wants a rentaquote to be rude about the party leader, they not only trot out Ben Ramm but they insist that he publishes “a magazine for Liberal Democrat activists“.

If he does, he keeps quite quiet about it. The Liberal is a literary magazine which occasionally has dalliances with politics but is more concerned with poetry. All fine and dandy (with emphasis on the dandy), but the truth is it is largely ignored by Lib Dem activists. The closest we have to a magazine for Lib Dem activists is Liberator, and they don’t speak for me either.

Ramm of course, knows all this. Far from it being explained away as simple journalist laziness, his ubiquity in articles about the Lib Dems’ woes is down to an editorial policy of deliberately using journalists’ ignorance about the magazine’s standing in the party with a view to gaining free advertising. He isn’t interested, and never has been, in advancing the Lib Dem project. Everything he has ever written about the party is simply polemic. He has only ever seen the party as a tool for self-promotion. That’s his prerogative; but its my prerogative to point this out whenever he pops up again.

We should remember that Ben Ramm organised a campaign to get rid of Charles Kennedy. He did this by making extremely exaggerated claims about the level of support his online petition had received from party activists, again using the veneer of the magazine as a “voice of activists” to lend it some credibility.

Now, regardless of whether you love or loathe Ming Campbell, no-one can deny that the way his predecessor was dispatched was, to say the least, unfortunate and that the subsequent election for leader was necessarily more rushed than it should have been. That was why many of us were keen to keep our powder dry until later in 2006 (and why I seem to recall turning down Ramm’s request to run his anti-Kennedy petition site).

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of all this therefore – and now I appreciate the enormity of the Kennedy problem which was not wholly apparent to those of us outside of the Westminster bubble at the time – one thing Ben Ramm can’t do is absolve himself of any responsibility for the coronation of Ming Campbell. Even a shred of mea culpa would be nice, but that would appear too much to ask.

None of this would annoy me if The Liberal was genuinely committed to making a meaningful contribution to the debate surrounding the development of the party, but it manifestly isn’t. Indeed, in this Independent quote he appears more concerned with approvingly pushing David Cameron’s stock phrases (“a broken society” et al) than anything else.

Matthew Taylor (the Lib Dem one) is off

This is a bit of a shock, although perhaps a bit understandable given his recent fatherhood. Matthew’s career showed a lot of early promise but he somehow never fulfilled it. Being stripped of his position as Chair of the Parliamentary Party in 2005 must have been a bit of a blow and Mark Oaten’s experiece may have made him think twice about continuing a Parliamentary career.

But the fact remains that a whole political generation is either leaving Parliament or has been otherwise compromised in the past twelve months. Of course there is Oaten and Charles Kennedy, but Paul Keetch announced his resignation a couple of months ago and Richard Allen left before the last election. Oh, and then there is whatever the hell is going on with Lembit. That leaves quite a few MPs aged between 40 and 50, but only Nick Clegg (who turned 40 last week) and David Laws are generally regarded as “rising stars”.

It may well be that the “rising star” label itself is a poisoned chalice, if you will permit me to mix my metaphors for a minute. Anyone found with one about their person seems doomed to failure.