Odd last day of conference for me as I got to bookend Ming’s speech. I was in the fundraising video they showed at the start, having agreed to be a prop for Greg Stone to talk about the value of online advertising. In retrospect, it looked rather like a Children in Need appeal with a celebrity asking for money to support special needs kids. Not the most glorious start to my new sideline in whoring out my “celebrity” status for the good of the party (which I suspect has already come to an end).
At the other end of the speech, I was interviewed on News 24 for a quick reaction. My reaction then, as now, was one of faintly surprised praise. Ming was good in a number of different ways and his speech was the most rousing I’ve heard a Lib Dem leader give since 1999.
Kennedy certainly had his moments, but always struggled to fill a whole 45 minutes without sagging. Worse, I don’t think he was ever blessed with particularly awe-inspiring speeches – something which he cannot absolve himself of the blame for. This speech was more consistent than Kennedy at his best and while the delivery was little more than competent, the content was much stronger.
Two passages in particular leapt out for me. First of all, Ming declared himself a secularist:
Discrimination and intimidation have no place in a liberal society.
And on the matter of faith, letâ€™s be clear.
A truly liberal society guarantees the freedom of all religions, but it accepts the tyranny of none.
People must be free to live without threat or fear.
To say the things, write the words and live the lives they choose.
Does that offend some people?
Yes, of course.
But the price of freedom is the risk of offence â€“
And, for me, that price is always worth paying.
I like to think even Laurence Boyce would be pleased to hear a Lib Dem party leader say that. He didn’t need to tackle this issue here; he chose to. That suggests a leader with strong liberal instincts. Can you imagine the Conservative or Labour leader saying the same over the next fortnight?
Secondly, he dealt with the interesting area of environmental rights:
And at the foundation of it all a Bill of Rights â€“
A Bill of Rights to reclaim the civil liberties stolen from us by this Labour government.
A Bill of Rights to anchor freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom of association within our law.
And I am prepared to go further still.
Climate change is the greatest challenge facing the world today.
So I want a Bill of Rights that puts the protection of the environment at the very heart of Britainâ€™s constitution:
We should guarantee the right of every citizen to clean water, pure air and unpolluted land.
I hope Ming appreciates the implications of what he has said here, because some of us will hold him to it. This passage effectively outs Ming as a Georgist. If everyone has an equal right to nature, then the privatisation of economic rent would be illegal. The BBC are missing the point when they suggest that it means that people would have a “right” to block new roads or airports. It could never be made to work that way (although environmental rights would of course have to be a consideration); what it would do is entitle people to a fair share of the wealth such projects create.
Frankly, this is radical stuff. We Georgists have contented ourselves to fighting for LVT in taxation policy working groups while the party leader effectively calls for the collection of economic rent to be hardwired into our constitution! Plaudits, Ming, plaudits. I look forward to these ideas being developed.
Finally, he finally realised that politics is personal:
Over the past few months I have travelled throughout this country.
I have had the privilege to meet â€“ in private visits – some of the most extraordinary and courageous people:
People from all walks of life.
I met Jamal – a young musician who wants to go to university but is frustrated and angry at the prospect of being deep in debt.
I learned from him and his friends of the terrible waste of talent and the alienation of so many young people.
I met Anne, a 20 year old woman in prison for drug offences.
Sheâ€™s had little formal education.
Yet sheâ€™s studying to take GCSEs and wants to enrol with the Open University.
I learned from her that if prisoners get proper education and training it will help them to find work on their release.
Thatâ€™s the way to cut reoffending.
I met Jane â€“ a 26 year old former addict, in a shelter for the homeless.
She has beaten her addiction.
She now hopes to get custody of her four young children.
I learned from her how important it is for the homeless to regain their self-respect and to feel that they are in control of their own lives.
I met Michael, a 29 year old British soldier who had suffered terrible injuries in a mortar attack in Iraq.
He was determined to get fit again and rejoin his unit.
I learned from him at first hand what our young men and women are going through in Iraq.
He told me he was lucky â€“ two days before he was hit, one of his best friends had been killed by a single small piece of shrapnel.
Thatâ€™s the price being paid for a war that should never have been.
These are inspiring people:
People with the spirit and determination to beat the odds.
But for every success there are too many stories of shattered dreams and frustrated ambitions.
There are too many forgotten people in Brownâ€™s Britain.
What was interesting about this section in the speech is that it is here that Ming’s oratory came alive. Let’s be honest – he isn’t great at calling up great emotional swoops on demand. But in this section he came across as honest, sincere and respectful of these individuals’ dignity. The thing is, Ming is actually a good narrator. He tells stories well; he pitches policy poorly. Too many of his speeches and his predecessors’ have all been about relating official Rennard Approved(TM) policy bites. Not one of them has been as effective as these three simple human stories.
In my News 24 interview I said that Ming was the turtle to Cameron’s hare: he plods along but gets results while Dave falls apart before reaching the finishing line. Friends have since commented that they think this is a terrible analogy as it makes Ming look undynamic: personally I think it is time we started to concentrate on selling what he is rather than trying to pretend he’s something different. What was effective about this speech is that, broadly speaking, this is precisely what was done.
Next: let’s start selling the party on what it is rather than going around pretending it’s something different. One step at a time, I know.