Tag Archives: peoples-veto

even less EXCLUSIVE: Chris Huhne talks to Quaequam Blog! (part 2)

I meant to get this finished on Wednesday but I went to a meeting at the Telegraph offices to hear the usual suspects talk about political blogging instead – yet again I was the only Lib Dem in the village. The only one who didn’t seem enamoured with the Power Of The Blog was Alex Hilton who did a good presentation about what a blog through the medium of handing out newspapers in which he basically said that the best bloggers are infectious.

Oh, and before I get any more comments, blog posts or emails, I do now know what the word amanuensis means now. Sheesh! Is my face red. But I digress.

Overcoming the media narrative

My turn at last. After asking a cheeky question about whether herding politicians was closer to herding economists or journalists (answer: I haven’t been given the job yet; ask me after I’ve been elected!), I got onto more weighty matters. Journalists tell stories and the story they seem to have already decided upon if Chris gets elected is of those perfidious Liberal Democrats, having been given a golden opportunity to elect a great messiah in the form of Nick Clegg, out of their perversity instead opted for a greying economist who is unable to communicate. This isn’t my view, but it certainly seems to be the story that certain journalists seem intent on telling, and having seen Ming Campbell try and fail to escape the media preconceptions I’m concerned that Chris won’t be able to either.

Chris’ response was to point out that journalism has an “inbuilt balancing mechanism” – if a lot of people take one point of view then a lot of others will turn around and rubbish it. He cited Jackie Ashley’s column this week arguing against “pretty boys” leading political parties.

He went on to talk about Tony Blair, a politician who was always very good at presentation but incapable at delivery. By contrast, he suggested that what the public want is a party that is more about substance than style and who they can rely upon to deliver.

Alex Wilcock intervened and asked another supplemental, suggesting that another part of the media’s narrative about Chris is that he is rich, a former journalist and a politician from Brussels and this is at odds with his exhortation for the party to be anti-establishment.

Chris’ answer was to state that being anti-establishment (anti-establishmentarian?) is a frame of mind. Being establishment means ultimately being concerned more about running things and not rocking the boat. Looking at it from a business perspective, he argued, all successful businessmen are in one sense “anti-establisment” – Bill Gates taking on IBM being a good example.

Being anti-establishment is ultimately being about wanting change; the Lib Dems must be the little boy who points out that the Emperor has no clothes.

My view: he answered Alex’s question better than mine, and subsequently to a large degree addressed by concerns. He spoke with passion and articulately. Frankly this was the answer I wanted to hear and although I remain concerned that in the short term the party would be pillioried in the press for electing Chris and thus making the “wrong” decision, he has the wherewithal to address that swiftly and effectively.

The Tax Question

Richard asked the simple question: is it time we started saying it’s time to start cutting taxes?

Chris certainly agreed that the time has come to state that taxes should not increase further, and that as things moved on the case for tax cuts may increase. But ultimately, he asserted, this issue is more counter-productive than any other.

The debate which has been waged between Labour and the Tories over tax and spend over the last forty years has been set against a background in which taxation has by and large hovered at around 40%, give or take a bit.

The real debate, Chris argued, is about accountability rather than the level of taxation; that means decentralisation. And it is on this issue that the Lib Dems stand head and shoulders above the other two parties.

My response: a good, clear, succinct answer that turns the question around back onto firm Lib Dem turf. This was clearly a question that Chris has been asked a lot!

Drugs Policy

Jonny asked what, in practical terms, Chris would spell out a Lib Dem policy on drugs.

Chris answered that drugs policy should be based on scientific advice and that the present categorisation system should be reformed. Secondly, he said that we must take a more medical view on people addicted to hard drugs and that they should be able to access treatment rather than being forced to steal. Ultimately however, he didn’t go down the libertarian line of legalising all drugs although he respected that as a legitimate position to take, on the basis that he feels that drug users do fail the “harm principle” – tearing apart families and communities.

Jonny intervened, pointing out that although Chris was saying that policy should be based on medical advice, that would mean politicians following the advice not individuals themselves; how does that square with a commitment to decentralisation? Chris’ response was to reiterate that drug use can harm others, to which Jonny pointed out that the same could be said of alcohol.

Chris’ answer to that was to point out that alcohol has become socially accepted, for better or worse, in the way that the use of other drugs has not. He conceded that we need to rethink our approach to alcohol and ensure that people are aware of the dangers, particularly since the price of alcohol has been dropping as a percentage of real income (an issue that cannot easily be addressed due to how easy it is to avoid excise duties these days), but that ultimately it must be dealt with seperately from other drugs.

My view: a very wishy-washy answer I’m afraid. Didn’t address the issue of cannabis and other soft drugs at all. His justification for treating alcohol differently was completely at odds to his previous statement about basing drugs policy solely on scientific evidence. I’m afraid he didn’t appear to have thought through this answer at all.

Still, if he’d called for ecstasy to be legalised you can bet it would have been splashed all over the newspapers by now. From what I’ve seen, Nick Clegg’s answer would have been no different. This is a third rail issue and until it loses some of its poison (to mix a metaphor), politicians in their position will be wary of engaging with the issue in a meaningful manner. At least his monarchy answer was more robust however.

The EU Reform Treaty

Paul Walter asked whether, assuming the Lib Dems’ proposal for a referendum on EU membership was defeated in the House of Commons, the party should vote against the Conservative amendment calling for a referendum on the Reform Treaty.

Chris’ answer was yes. His argument is that because the UK has been so successful in negotiating opt-outs for itself, blocking the treaty now – and thus depriving the other member states of a treaty they support – would be “totally dishonest”. But he restated the Ming Campbell line of a referendum on EU membership on the basis that this would a ex post facto way of ratifying the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty which had a profoundly greater impact on British sovereignty.

He went on to point out that the party that has real problems over Europe is the Conservatives. David Cameron knows that he daren’t be drawn on the subject of whether he would call a referendum after Lisbon had been ratified because he knows he would either have to go down the messy route of renegotiation or support a referendum on EU membership which will split the Conservative Party top to bottom.

Alex intervened again at the point asking Chris whether he would support a referendum if a million people signed a petition calling for a referendum on the Reform Treaty given Chris’ support for a People’s Veto.

After a digression about the People’s Veto itself (preaching to the choir on this one), Chris’ answer was that if the People’s Veto was in place then such a referendum would have to happen but that his personal position remains to hold a referendum on the wider issue of membership.

My view: While I’ve argued extensively on this blog against this position (although I’m ultimately really not that fussed about the policy for holding a referendum on EU membership), I have to admit that Chris has a really strong argument here. If Ming had given a robust answer like this back in September, there would have been much less fallout. Once again I’m drawn to the fact that on a number of issues Chris has a clearly thought out, consistent answer. I might not wholly go along with it, but I can’t dismiss it. He could even change my mind. That’s a powerful skill.

Raising the Profile of Local Government

Mary asked what Chris would do to raise the profile of local government, particularly within the party.

Chris’ answer was simple: give them more power and control over public services.

He emphasised the number of Lib Dem group leaders that were supporting his campaign, suggesting that they did so because they respected his commitment to local government. He pledged to promote the party’s success in local government and pointed out that the party needed a strong local base to get MPs elected.

My view: not much new or of substance here.

The Elephant Question

Finally Richard asked whether the Bird of Liberty should be replaced by the elephant. After a bit of waffle, Chris answered by asking how the “Elephant of Liberty” managed to become such a preeminent part of the Liberal Democrats when his relatives in the United States are associated with the forces of darkness.

My view: a good ad lib there.

OVERALL: What mainly impressed me was the comprehensiveness and clarity of most of Chris’ answers. He managed to keep the waffle and evasiveness down to a minimum. I didn’t like his drugs answer but that is even less of a decisive factor for me than Trident. By contrast the way he handled the monarchy question and the question about the EU referendum was astute and to the point.

The most significant factor for me about this interview is that it massively reduced my fears about what would happen if we elected the candidate of whom the media did not approve. For all his criticisms for being too cerebral and lacking the popular touch, Chris demonstrated an ability to sell himself in a warm and passionate manner. Voting for him feels like a much less risky thing to do after this interview than it did beforehand.

I regret that we didn’t ask him about the wisdom of making Trident such a central issue, about Nick Clegg’s valid criticisms about the way we approach the environment and about how we can convince the public about the Lib Dem approach to law and order. Hopefully there is still time to have these issues addressed.

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.