The Millennium Elephant has been trying to organise a bloggers’ hustings for the leadership candidates and he kindly invited his two Daddies (Richard and Alex), Mary Reid, Paul Walter, Jonny Wright, Jonathan Calder, Stephen Tall and myself to take part (the link is that all of us were either shortlisted for the Lib Dem Blog of the Year 2007 awards, won one of the subcategories or won the big prize in 2006).
Anyway, today we interviewed Chris Huhne (sadly Jonathan and Stephen couldn’t make it, but hopefully next time) and I think the general view was that a worthwhile time was had by all. Without further ado I will report what was asked, how Chris answered, and my own view on his response.
Daddy Richard kicked off by asking Chris what he would be doing to get the party back in the 20s in the opinion polls.
Apart from a quick joke about the two candidates having a jobshare on the basis that our polls have actually gone up during the interregnum period, Chris very quickly declared a specific target, that of us beating our high watermark in the 1983 general election – 23 per cent – and indeed to aim for a vote in excess of 25 per cent.
The way he proposed doing this was as follows: the win the air war and being “sharp elbowed” in terms of getting the liberal view heard. He paid tribute to both David Laws today and more generally the “phenomenal” Norman Baker in terms of being able to set the media agenda by finding specific stories which resonate more widely.
But more fundamentally, he also outlined an approach that would have the party organising with a view to, over the course of two Parliaments, building up enough support and seats in the Commons so that it will be “impossible to form a government without the Lib Dems being part of that government”. He was vague on exactly how many seats we would need for such a situation to arise – he mentioned 150 but only in passing as it was a figure that he said that Nick Clegg has cited. His idea is to set that target and then develop, in effect, a business plan, establishing what those target seats should be, what they would need, and focusing the party on delivering that.
He also said that in his view the party’s “air war” needed to be much more professional about defining our key messages and being strict about repeating them again and again. Those messages would have to be rigourously market researched.
On money, and specifically how to pay for all this, he was somewhat vague beyond saying that he was confident we could raise it.
He contrasted his approach with the existing “incrementalist” approach by the party which is opportunistic, focused on byelections and target seats but ultimately is based on “hoping for the best”.
Throughout the answer to this question, Chris drew on his experience as a journalist. His final point was to emphasise the importance of imagery; “a picture is worth a thousand words”. He related his experience in 2005 of proposing to the Parliamentary Party that as an act of solidarity to Maya Evans, they should repeat he “crime” and read out the names of the UK soldiers who had been killed in Iraq. “Wiser heads” he said prevailed, but he argued that such actions would symbolise our opposition to specific illiberal pieces of legislation.
My view: I was very impressed with his answer here, which was specific and motivating as an activist. He did a very good job at selling to us his experience as a journalist and what that would bring to his role as leader.
I’m a little concerned about the party getting too specific in terms of numbers of target seats. We certainly can’t win them all and there is a danger in being too transparent. But his strategy does have the clear advantage of giving the targeting strategy a direction of travel and answers my previous complaint that we seem to be set on a goal of forming a government which will take us the best part of a century to reach on current performance. The aim to specifically go out to create a balanced Parliament is a compelling one, but it is one that would suggest mainly focusing on Labour-held seats.
Following on from Chris’s exhortation that we distill our campaigning down to a core message, Jonny Wright then asked Chris to complete the following sentence: “I should vote Liberal Democrat because…”
Chris’s answer was that the party stood for “a fairer society and a greener society where power is handed back to the communities around Britain.”
In terms of fairness, he defined that as “not being just about equality of opportunity,” suggesting that childhood poverty needed to be a priority.
On “green” he said he was proud of getting the party to sign up to the policy of a zero carbon Britain. He was keen to point out that according to Ipsos-MORI, the party has increased its lead over the other parties on this issue by 6 percentage points under his tenure as environment spokesperson. He said that he believed that “at some point” “the scales are going to fall from the public’s eyes on this issue” and it will leap up the political agenda (“like the Iraq moment”). Having a leader who is fully committed to this agenda would therefore be an advantage. In making this case he cited the examples of Australia and Canada where a bad drought and a mild winter have had a major effect on voting patterns and that PM John Howard – who opposed Kyoto – is now set to make Australia the first country in the world to ban the incandescent lightbulb.
My view: That’s certainly a list of priorities, but I’m not convinced that it is quite a core message for us on its own. His argument about there being a moment when the public will suddenly wake up to the importance of climate change as an issue may well be true, but it is a risk; it wasn’t clear what he was suggesting we should do in the meantime to ensure that this doesn’t become a damaging issue for us. Fundamentally, I don’t think he has satisfactorily answered Nick Clegg’s concerns which I believe are valid.
In terms of the polling evidence he cites, it is of course true. Up to a point. The flaw is that the 2006 data is from 31 August – 6 September while the 2007 data is from 20-26 September. The latter was immediately after the Lib Dem conference in which the environment was made a central issue. Nonetheless, it does undermine the Nicholas Blincoe argument that David Cameron is popularly regarded as the UK’s greenest politician and that this reflects badly on Huhne (incidently, I couldn’t resist looking at the equivalent law and order polling figures. According to these, the party has slipped 3 points under Clegg which when you consider this was also based on polling figures at the end of our party conference is not exactly stunning. Well, you started it Nick).
On equality, people will be unsurprised to learn that I approve of his position, but I have another article to write on that subject so I won’t go into it here. The localism agenda I also agree with.
It does leave one wondering where the freedom agenda lies however. If this is to be left off from our list of core priorities, and that we are to focus far more on our core priorities at the expense of other issues (including internationalism, Chris made explicit), where is the opening to do our tearing up of ID cards and protests about the DNA database? In retrospect this is a topic we should have probed him further on.
Paul Walter pressed Chris on his reputation as being the less punchy of the two candidates and of, to use his memorable phrase “more sotto voce and approving of phrases like sotto voce“. As Paul pointed out, Chris’ first question when arriving and seeing Millennium Elephant was to ask where is emmanuensis was, a word so obscure that it defeats all the dictionaries I have to hand (including a two volume Oxford shorter) and even Google struggles to find more than two dozen references. The top result, it has to be pointed out, are the minutes of the Pembroke College Winnie the Pooh society (actually, it could be that the correct spelling is immanuensis, but that only gets four results – still at least they are about gods and not Pooh).
Chris’ answer was simply to “look at the Ipsos-MORI polling data”. He further pointed out that not only has David Cameron been concentrating on the environment as an issue but David Milliband, widely regarded as one of Labour’s greatest communicators, was also Environment Secretary until relatively recently and yet Huhne has managed to hold his own against both of them.
My view: I find Chris’ cerebral approach quite refreshing, and I also recall the Newsnight / Frank Luntz programme in the run up to the 2005 General Election which showed that Vince Cable polled incredibly well for the similar reason that he comes across as a big brain who knows what he’s talking about. The immanuensis/emmanuensis thing is a bit of a red herring as he didn’t even raise it in the interview itself.
With all that said, I still worry that he isn’t empathic enough. It still want to hear more from him about individuals daily lives. As leader he will need to reach that one step further and that means being both a big brain and someone with the common touch.
Mary Reid asked what should Liberal Democrat-run councils do that is distinctively Liberal Democrat.
Chris started by contrasting the Lib Dem approach to localism and Labour’s: the Lib Dems were interested in devolving control while Labour are only interested in devolving management responsibilities. He emphasised that the alienation people feel about politics at the moment is not just about the quality of public services but because people need someone they know, from their locality who is their way into the political process and who is in a position to make a difference.
He also critiqued the way the party has forgotten the real philosophy behind community politics; that it has become an election campaign tool rather than a way of empowering people from the bottom up. He called on the party to go back to the ideas of people such as Bernard Greaves and others in the 70s and start empowering people once again.
From this he developed his arguments on public service provision, arguing for an emphasis on localism. His argument against market based solutions seemed to be not so much an objection to such solutions per se, but the idea that such policies should be wheeled out at a national level. Rather than risking what he calls a “nationwide balls up” he is calling for a system that allows for local experimentation.
My view: The way Chris expressed his position on public service reform here was better than the rather dogmatic way his manifesto came across. Of course, not having a single nationwide system in place will restrict the ability to deliver certain policies (I certainly think that health insurance proposals fall foul of this), but at least he is taking less of a “public-control good, market-based bad” approach.
On the other points I can merely agree. I am encouraged by his critique of the way the party has forgotten the meaning of community politics.
I’m not convinced he actually answered the question though.
The Monarchy Question
Alex Wilcock asked, in essence, that given that Chris is in favour of so much democratisation, what is his position on abolishing the monarchy.
Chris’ answer was that he doesn’t believe in “fighting battles that aren’t really going to change things.” He argued that as radicals we should choose our fights carefully and that getting dragged into the monarchy debate would confuse the issue. To round things off, he said that he thought that the institution of a constitutional monarch has many advantages. In short, he’s against it.
My view: I’m an apathetic republican. I’m opposed a monarch in principle, but I can think of so many other issues I’d rather concentrate on before considering the issue to be even a low priority.
What’s the point of leadership?
Alex also asked Chris to outline what he believed the purpose of a leader to be.
Chris began by emphasising his experience in managing a team both as a journalist and in working in the city (apparently economists are easier to manage than journalists). He said that in his experience a leader must have an honest assessment of his/her strengths and weaknesses and to build an appropriate team around them.
Fundamentally however, a leader must be able to represent the party well and convey the idea that they are someone that the public is likely to be comfortable with having to lead the country. Naming no names, he suggested that some of the party’s previous leaders, while likeable, did not convey that image.
Finally, he emphasised that the leader should be able to convey the idea that she/he would be a good pair of hands to entrust the economy with, quoting Bill Clinton.
My view: a difficult question to answer, but I think he did quite well. Good on emphasising experience and his other selling points, which is fair enough.
…at this point I’m going to take a short break, ‘cos summarising all this stuff is doing my head in. My question is yet to come, as are everyone else’s second bite of the cherry and last but not least my final conclusion. More on this tomorrow!