Tag Archives: Menzies-Campbell

A kick in the Gorbals

If MPs do vote to committing themselves to declare it whenever they employ family members, surely this would be effectively a vote of no confidence in Michael Martin? After all, this will pre-empt his own longer term inquiry.

It should be remembered that David Maclean’s Freedom from Information Bill, which with the Labour and Conservative front benches’ initial passive assent very nearly became an act last year, came out of proposals by the Speaker Committee. If these proposals had been passed, the fallout from the Conway affair would have been worse by several degrees. Meanwhile, Maclean is part of the review being conducted by Martin – it doesn’t bode well.

As with Prescott, a lot of the criticisms of Michael Martin smacks of snobbery. Regardless of his accent however, he is a part of an establishment that is clinging desperately to the idea of Parliament being an aloof club. In short, he is emblematic of many of the problems we face in politics today.

As an alternative, how about… Ming Campbell?

Meanwhile, under the category of “MPs do love to take the piss sometimes”, here’s a heartwarming tale of a prodigal son being welcomed back into the fold (hat tip: Duncan Borrowman).

EXCLUSIVE: Splitting and spinning

The ongoing farces within the Labour and Tory camps about their respective Ealing Southall candidate selections are quite eye-watering.

First we hear allegations (still undenied, as far as I’ve been able to see) that Tony Lit only approached the Tories to be their candidate after the Lib Dems rejected him. Shortly after that, a disgruntled Conservative Vice Chair defects. Then we hear that not only is Labour abandoning its all-women shortlist (as I’ve blogged before, Labour uses the option of all-women shortlists as a tool to get cronies selected and non-cronies blocked) but has blocked a viable local female candidate. And now it turns out that their selected candidate is being accused of running a dirty tricks campaign. And that’s just in four days!

The other interesting thing to emerge is that Grant Shapps appears to think that the way to win elections is not to get on with the hard work of campaigning (their FIRST campaign day is still in three days time, remember!), but to embark on some kind of dirty protest, smearing his opponents left, right and centre. One small flaw in his plan: very few Ealing Southall residents actually read Iain Dale’s blog. It is notable that his allegations don’t appear to be attracting any wider attention. The one thing he appears to have achieved is to make me think of Tom Watson as less of a shit in comparison. Significant though that may be, it is hardly much of a boost to the Tory campaign.

As a side point, it is notable at how worried the Tories clearly are about the Lib Dems at the moment. A good example yesterday was Iain Dale’s attack on Ming’s performance on PMQs. A blatant attempt to unspin what was generally considered to be a good performance, it has left him looking quite silly. It’s notable, for example, at how relatively unconcerned he was about Cameron’s performance. His obsession is trying to put Ming in as bad a light as possible gets the better of him too often. It’s just such a shame that so many people within the Lib Dems seem to think it is objective analysis.

On a slightly more serious note, one thing I’ve begun to notice is that the political blogosphere is starting to get more shrill, just as it was in the run up to the 2005 General Election campaign. I admit to being partially responsible for this – I have a party to defend like anyone else (and things like that poster lottery smear really warrant rebuttal). But it does leave me wondering whether this blog is sustainable and whether discretion will force me eventually to stop, just as I did in 2004-5. Hmmm…

…oh, and yes, the “EXCLUSIVE” is satirical again. Sorry.

Not whispering but shouting

As readers will be aware, in my view the “Ming must go” debate in the blogosphere is a distraction being lead by armchair generals who are either unwilling or unable to conceive of what they are really calling for (i.e. self-immolation for the party for the second time in 18 months, with the option for another one if the next leader doesn’t meet Iain Dale’s their exacting demands). However, if Ming thinks there is a whispering campaign against him, he is quite wrong.

In fact, the perception I get is that the Parliamentary Party has remained loyal to their leader (another problem the MMG brigade fail to recognise). The calls for him to go are being shouted on the blogosphere. Calling for people to come out and say what they think is redundant – that is exactly what they are doing. The potential these people have to cause problems for the party has been underestimated; this must be the third time that blog posts have been leading to newspaper headlines.

My advice to Ming is that he should invite the main ringleaders to his office for a full and frank discussion. They should be free to report back on their blogs on whatever they feel like. If they are unwilling to attend the meeting, the honourable course would be to keep schtum (and whingeing about bad backs isn’t a good enough excuse). These Lib Dem bloggers demand to be taken seriously, so let’s treat them seriously, but with that comes an expectation that it is time to behave responsibly.

By all means slag off the leader – I do – but loudly wishing he hadn’t been elected without a meaningful idea of what the alternative should be is just silly. Come on Ming, call their bluff.

Shuffling in the shadows

There have been not one, but two, shadow cabinet reshuffles since I last blogged. I’m beginning to make the dead tree press look positively on the pulse.

First, the Conservative one. I can’t decide if Cameron has simply decided to copy everything Gordon Brown says, or if he has given up the ghost and has decided to let the headbangers in the party take over, a la William Hague circa 2000.

In terms of the Brown theory, we have Cameron bringing in “outside talent” in the form of Pauline Neville-Jones and Sayeeda Warsi, both of whom are to be ennobled (I thought all parties were committed to making such casual patronage a thing of the past? Clearly that is so March). But as my fellow bloggers have pointed out, appointing a Slobo apologist and a rabid homophobe to your front bench doesn’t exactly encapsulate the modern, liberal minded Conservativism that Cameron has claimed to personify.

So perhaps my latter theory, that Cameron is morphing into Hague in midst of his downward spiral, is more accurate. Here there appears to be quite a lot of evidence as well. Demoting David Willetts, who after all did nothing wrong apart from repeat the established party line, is a pathetic sop to the loony brigade, almost as cringingly embarrassing as his hasty references to “Grammar streaming” (it still makes me laugh even now) a couple of weeks ago. Giving in to them like this won’t make them grateful, it will just encourage them to push him further to the right. I’ve been saying for months now that the real story about the Conservative Party is that Cameron doesn’t really lead it: this is yet more tangible proof.

Campbell’s reshuffle is less dramatic (read: less gimmicky), mainly because the Lib Dem Shadow Cabinet was unbroke to begin with. It would be more concerning if people such as Vince Cable, Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne HAD been shuffled out of their present roles.

A few things concern me though. First of all, Wales. That it was long past time for Lembit to move on is a given, but why replace him with Roger Williams? A great mind Roger may well be, but a dynamic spokesperson for the party he is not. The Welsh Party desperately needs to start looking younger, more dynamic and more distinctive. It has had two lousy months and with the Plaid-Labour coalition now a done deal it desperately needs to develop a new approach to make it stand out apart from the hegemonic new coalition government and a buoyant Conservative Official Opposition. Is Roger the man to do this? I think not.

I have to admit to being completely perplexed about why Jenny Willott has been overlooked by Ming yet again. She’s talented, intelligent and sensible and yet neither Ming nor his predecessor have thus far given her even a whiff of an interesting portfolio.

To make matters worse, Ming has chosen to reduce the gender balance of his shadow cabinet by sacking Jo Swinson. One of the party’s spokespeople for the Celtic fringe has been treading water for years and has just spent the last eight months making himself and his party a laughing stock, while the other has diligently done her job, made no gaffes, and has earned the party a number of the right sort of headlines. The latter has been given the boot, while the former has been promoted. Can anyone explain this to me?

Ming’s treatment of Jenny and Jo, combined with his effective demotion of Sarah Teather has lead to the new front bench looking considerably more male – and considerably older (lest we forget Stephen William’s sacking) – than the old one. If this had been because of their personal failings, I would not be complaining, but I doubt anyone seriously believes that is the case. It is curious that Ming has chosen to make a young woman his scapegoat for flagging poll ratings and concluded that what the front bench needs most to renew itself is more graying men.

A potential silver lining though: surely if Lembit is now the trades spokes, he must stand down as Welsh leader? Turning twin-headed monster of Opik and German into a tri-headed one would be ludicrous. Assuming he does, and an AM other than German throws their hat into the ring, we might even find ourselves with a single leader in Wales at last. We can but hope.

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.

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.

Getting off the treadmill

Rob Fenwick asks “is Ming Campbell the Liberal Democrats’ IDS?” Well, based on his performance on Newsnight this evening, the answer to that is most certainly not, and asking the question is to miss the real problem.

IDS was a no-mark that the Tories elected in an act of self-immolation. Ming was a respected and established front-bencher that the party turned to as a safe pair of hands.

Ming’s problem has been the development of a self-reinforcing narrative of the kind that the media love because it means they can trot out the same story time and again. It’s like the question “when did you last beat your wife?” – the implication is that the interviewee is a wife-beater and there is nothing the interviewee can do except attempt to get the interviewer to ask something else. Whenever Ming succeeds in moving on from the old/old-fashioned/lacks passion question, he is very effective, but sooner or later we’re stuck with the “aren’t you too old?” question for no better reason than the fact that that is what everyone else is asking.

It is very similar to the problem that Blair faces. The endless questions about when he is going to go are entirely vacuous and fail to inform the political debate. But they get asked because the media regards the fact that the media is asking the question as a reason for asking the question.

So far, Cameron has avoided being battered by his own Question. He’s currently too new, too unformed. But it would be foolish indeed to assume he won’t end up on the receiving end of the same treatment.

One of two things will happen: either Ming will successfully move on from The Question, or he will eventually be consumed by it. Slowly but surely I think he’s going the right way about moving forward but it isn’t easy. But it is up to the Lib Dem grassroots to not get distracted and to look at the substance. The real challenges for Ming are whether he delivers an effective policy agenda at our autumn conference and whether he can start to prove he is modernising our campaign strategy. If we were foolish to ditch Ming because of The Question we would almost certainly make the situation worse. Two regicides in as many years? Is that remotely a good idea?

The whole nonsense of all this for me is summed up by the fact that people criticise Ming for both lacking passion and not being Charles Kennedy. Charles had his strengths, but coming across as passionate was never even remotely one of them. The same people who are now criticising Ming for lacking passion and the party for ditching Charles were calling for Charles’ head less than 12 months ago because he seemed to be sleepwalking from one crisis to the next.

The real challenge for Ming is to develop a narrative that superimposes itself over the one he’s been lumbered with. The Lib Dems are very poor at this sort of thing; Ming needs to break the mold.

Willy waving over 50p

It looks like we are set for a “war” in the autumn over the Lib Dem Tax Commission’s proposals to drop the party’s commitment to a 50p supertax. The Federal Policy Committee are insisting that removing it should only be an “option” for the party to vote on, while Ming is staking his leadership on getting the policy scrapped – a risky move given the mindset of some Lib Dems to embarrass the leadership whenever possible.

This whole thing does seem completely unneccesary. The motion could be amended if there is a strong movement to keep the policy – the FPC doesn’t have to keep it in as an option. By the same token, Ming’s intervention means that the debate will no longer be about the issue, but about his leadership. This is not a way to make good policy.

I’m reminded of the debate a few years ago over the party’s Public Services policy paper. The Party’s front bench and campaigns department lined themselves up behind a policy to scrap National Insurance and replace it with a hypothecated health tax (which “by coincidence” would raise roughly the same amount of money as the amount we were spending annually on health at the time). Lots of senior figures in the party lined up to stake their reputations on the policy, leaving just a few of us to vote against it. In the event, once calmer heads had prevailed, the party establishment came to the same conclusion as the rest of us – it was a bloody stupid policy that didn’t really solve anything – and it was quietly dropped.

I can’t help but think the FPC are picking the wrong fight over the Tax Commission. As I’ve written previously, the real problem in their proposals (at least as far as the reports about it – including Ming’s own speech last month – are concerned) are that they have a massive property tax-shaped hole in them. That means we are set to go into the next general election with two of our flagship policies being to drop the basic rate of income tax by 2p in the pound AND to introduce a local income tax of roughly 3.5p in the pound.

As far as anyone’s wallet is concerned that is an income tax increase of 1.5p. It is a virtual invitation for the other parties to tear into us for being confused and misleading. I suspect that after the current round of debate has been resolved, calmer heads will again prevail and we will quietly modify this policy. But all that means is that the debate we have this autumn will be completely meaningless.

If the FPC were doing their job, they would be throwing this back in the Tax Commission’s faces. Instead they’re playing chicken with supertax. Pardon me if I don’t sound impressed.