Tag Archives: ros scott

On asking too many questions…

I spent most of the Lib Dem conference in a cold fury, venting off to journalists, on Comment is Free and on twitter throughout. It is therefore surprising to find that the one thing I’ve had the most stick for is simply encouraging people to ask for a bit of information.

Throughout the week I had a number of party staff and faceless bureaucrats express to my face or indirectly how furious they are at the fact that I managed to get a number of people – my thanks to Jennie Rigg, Jo Christie-Smith and Gareth Epps – to ask a series of questions to the Federal Executive (not being a voting conference rep, I couldn’t ask them myself). There were, to be fair, quite a few. When I approached people to ask them I sent them a brainstorm of possible questions and was expecting people to ask one or two each: I certainly didn’t expect them all to be submitted (not that I’m complaining).

That all of them were submitted suggests that I wasn’t the only person who read the FE report with grave concern. Last year, with great aplomb, the FE published the findings of the “Bones Commission” – a strategic review of how the party is organised. At the time we were assured that this wouldn’t go the same way as all the other strategic reviews in the past and end up gathering dust on a shelf, and indeed it hasn’t, but if you go through the reports to conference this year you will not find a single reference to it.

What has happened is that the party’s internal structures have been totally reorganised, with the “Chief Officers’ Group” sitting at the centre of a spiders’ web of new boards and existing committees. What was unveiled as a means to cut down on bureaucracy, on the face of it, looks like nothing but, yet the FE report included just a couple of lines on the restructure. And there are other proposals from the Bones Commission, such as the plans for a “Leadership Academy” which have apparently vanished without trace.

The purpose of all these questions were to establish a clearer picture about how the party has been restructured, how this is working in practice, and to establish the status of the other major proposals. In a different party with a healthier democratic culture, such questions would be welcomed as an opportunity to correct an oversight. Instead, one senior staffer came up to me spitting about he had “just wasted a week answering your questions,” and I have had about 3 or 4 seperate conversations about how X or Y is furious with me (X or Y not being the President herself incidently, as I have also been told repeatedly).

I’m not naming names because I’ve got no interest to turn this into any more of a silly argument than it is. But the culture at the top really does need to change.

Six years ago, when I was on the party’s Federal Executive, the level of accountability of the party’s Treasurer consisted of him occasionally turning up to meetings and telling us everything was going well, and the Chief Executive shouting down anyone who started asking any pointed questions about how the party was fundraising. 18 months later, the Treasurer resigned under mysterious circumstances and shortly afterwards the party started accepting donations from Michael Brown. It looks as if the party will now escape having to pay any of the Brown money back, but it is a lucky escape for what was an avoidable cock up. Would extra scrutiny have stopped the party from accepting this donation? We’ll never know, but I think there is a certainly an argument that it might have forced them to think through their procedures better and give it more careful thought.

Either way, if you can’t explain clearly how the party’s decision making structures work, then there’s probably something wrong with that. By all means shoot the messenger, but it doesn’t change that fact.

Who will be the next Welsh Lib Dem Leader?

I’ve written another Comment is Free article on this very subject:

Make no mistake: this election is no shoo-in for either candidate. They are both extremely strong contenders. At its heart, it has become quickly apparent that this election, more than any other in recent years, is going to be about what the Liberal Democrats are for. This isn’t merely a question of policy; it is a question about where the party strikes the balance between gaining power to change things and standing firm in its beliefs with a view to inspiring the electorate. There is real merit in both points of view and it is a question that, with a hung parliament still a possibility, the Lib Dems may yet end up have to answer at a UK level.

Ros Scott: it wos the internet wot won it

I was rather irritated this morning to read this article on the Guardian website which, apart from ignoring whole aspects of the internet campaigning (about which I may blog later, but may not), included this sentence:

A more colourful Lib Dem, Lembit Opik, has been using Facebook in his bid for the party leadership.

Even leaving aside the fact that Lembit was standing for president, not leader, to even think of writing that sentence exposes you as a hack journalist who doesn’t really know what he is talking about. Because in this election, as with the Obama triumph, Facebook was a mere sideshow. The interesting stuff was what was happening elsewhere.

Lembit was not the Lib Dems’ answer to Barack Obama; in terms of campaigning style, Ros was. To go from nowhere to 72% of the vote is a victory earned only by reaching out to the grassroots and achieving what Obama achieved: killer word of mouth. In the final stages, Lembit liked to present himself as the anti-establishment candidate but as a Vice President, former front bencher and former Welsh leader, he was anything but: he was our Hillary. Ros only became the establishment’s chosen one because she had demonstrated skills during the campaign that the party’s establishment valued.

But it isn’t really fair to call Ros our Obama. No disrespect to her, but that comparison does not flatter her. But she may yet turn out to be our Howard Dean. Dean, if you recall, was briefly the grassroots-de-jeur during the 2004 primaries. He didn’t win, but he did go one to become the Chair of the Democratic National Congress, roughly equivalent to our own President. His understanding of Politics 2.0 was crucial to Obama’s success (not to mention 2006’s midterms); we can only hope that Ros will prove to be as much of a visionary in her new post.

This is the first Lib Dem election where the internet has played a crucial role in deciding the result, although it came pretty close in last year’s leadership contest. The world of political campaigning has changed; we need to respond to it.

Lemby’s answers: the final salvo

One of the things about blogging that a lot of people just don’t seem to get is that the act has a tendency of heightening the author’s personality. I’ve probably written this before but a colleague of mine likes to relate how a Lib Dem activist came up to him once and said “You know James Graham? He’s a very angry man!” which didn’t accord with my colleague’s image of me as a cool, collected and reasonable person at all (what? Don’t laugh!). A lot of people who come across as quite extreme, uncompromising people are pussy cats in reality (in one of two cases I really hope that’s true anyway). It is therapeutic – a way of getting your frustrations out without leaving casualties.

What’s more, this heightening can act a tool for self-analysis at times. One such example of this is this blog’s continual return to the subject of Lembit Opik’s candidacy for President specifically and the work of the Lib Dem Federal Executive more generally.

The calm, collected person I am day-to-day knows this election doesn’t matter especially, has put his three years on the FE – an experience remarkably similar to headbutting a brick wall (imagine sticking with it for 17 years? Sheesh!) – behind him and believes that the real reforms that party needs to take will only ever happen by innovators and entrepreneurs working on the outside and influencing the party positively, not by getting elected onto an effing talking shop.

My reason for supporting Ros Scott is entirely related to that: I am content with the fact that of the three candidates she is promising the least. What she represents is not someone who is itching to leap onto the levers of power and to start “sorting things out” but rather someone who understands soft power, the power of narrative in political campaigning and the potential of new media. In some ways a victim of her own success, she is often described as the “establishment” candidate. Yet in a quiet way, she is far more subversive than either of her opponents could dream of being. If either of them had run their campaigns with even a tenth of her panache, I might have had a hard time deciding who to support. As it stands it is a done deal.

But for the angry, Mr Hyde of my personality, that is not enough. I can’t simply be pro-Ros – I have to be anti-Lembit (and to a lesser extent, anti-Chandila). I’ve broadly come to terms with this fact, but even then I felt the need to keep the animal caged for much of last week. I had a paper to write and the constant Lembit ravings in light of his bizarre claims to be a victim of a “conspiracy of mediocrity” were proving to be a distraction. Nonetheless, I’ve written that now and my response to Lembit’s answers to my questions is long overdue.

This has been complicated by Lembit’s extraordinary mea culpa (sort of) at the end of last week. What am I to make of that?

The first thing both this article and Linda Jack’s “tough questions” article raise is this debate over Lembit’s TV appearances. A lot of this is clever framing. By maintaining that 90% of the criticisms aimed at him are about this, and by restricting his participation in the debate to arenas where he can engage on his terms, he can make his opponents look irrational and conservative.

Personally speaking, while I have occasionally found his appearances on these shows grating, they don’t bother me too much. I don’t think they do the party or his personal standing any harm. I just don’t believe they do either of them any good either. If the only “problem” was that he appears on the telly, it wouldn’t be an issue.

No, although I’ve occasionally touched on this aspect of Lembit’s personality, my personal concerns have always been much more fundamental. At the start of the election I asked four key questions. Looking back at them, they aren’t the only questions I might have asked and some are weaker than others, but given the Herculean task in getting Lembit to address even these, I didn’t fancy my chances going any further. If you scroll down to the bottom of Linda’s article you can find these answers though, so here are my responses:

QUESTION: Since Lembit claims to have such great campaigning and communications skills, why have the Liberal Democrats in Wales stagnated in the last two assembly elections (sticking with six AMs in 1999, 2003 and 2007)?

ANSWER: No, the demarcation between the MPs and AMs in terms of leading the various election campaigns has been very clear in Wales since the Assembly was set up. In the Parliamentary General Election for which I WAS responsible as Leader, we doubled our seats from two to four. That was the result of superb local campaigns and I applaud what was achieved. A 100% increase doesn’t really qualify as stagnation, especially when the UK overall increase for the Party was only a fraction of this.

This is by far the weakest answer. If there is a clear demarcation between who leads the various campaigns it is neither spelt out in the Welsh Lib Dems’ manifesto (the pre-Autumn 2008 version of which I was reading this evening), nor does it appear to have worked at all well. Lembit wasn’t the leader of the Parliamentary Party – he was the leader of the whole party. If anyone is responsible for this “demarcation” it is him. And since the result was stagnation in the Assembly while gains were sustained in Parliament, it was clearly the wrong approach. None of this suggests a man who is capable of cutting through the bureaucracy and territorial warfare that a decent president must negotiate. Defending the siloisation of campaigning? At least it’s a first!

Nor can he really claim much credit for our Westminster gains. Cardiff Central was won off the back of the Assembly seat, which Lembit himself denies any responsibility over. Ceredigion was a campaign hard won over many years, the breakthrough being the 2000 by-election. As leader, his influence was far less than the local teams and campaigns professionals on the ground and the national leader and press professionals running the air war. Finally, doubling the number of seats was a fine achievement, but was only achieved in areas where we have been traditionally weaker. We doubled our MPs in the North West from 3 to 6 for instance, but didn’t need a special North West leader to deliver it.

QUESTION: Given the deep problems at the heart of the Kennedy leadership, wasn’t it an error of judgment to stand by him? Loyalty is easy – a nodding dog at the back of a car can do it. Don’t the “rebels” – including Nick Clegg and Vince Cable – deserve credit for taking a difficult decision that Lembit lacked the resolve to take?

Linda completely changes this question to:

Do you think it was an error of judgement to support Charles?

To which Lembit’s answer is:

ANSWER: No. I will never regret supporting Charles Kennedy when he was attacked for his drinking. I do regret to this day the way he was made to resign by the action of colleagues. In my view, we should have worked with him and supported him, especially given his candid and honest statements about it at that time. I judge people by results, and Charles delivered the best results we’d had for 8 decades, and had tremendous popularity. Had Charles been allowed to continue, I believe we could have de-stigmatised the question of alcoholism in the UK. That could have helped millions of people. That was an opportunity missed. Charles remains a great friend to me personally, and he has my loyalty as a colleague to this day.

To a degree this is a matter of view, but obviously I disagree. It was clear to me as far back as 2003 that Charles was no longer in the driving seat in the party – that job was being performed by the Lords Rennard and Razzall. To a real extent the drinking was an irrelevance; it was his resolve to lead that was the problem. While our 2001 campaign won praise, the 2005 one was greeted with cynicism with its 10-point plan and empty policy soundbites. With the right leader with a grander vision in place in 2005 I have no doubt that we would have done significantly better.

As I say, this is ultimately just a question of judgement. Where I think Lembit is in for more criticism is his decision to dredge this issue up at every opportunity. My initial questions were a reaction to Lembit’s manifesto in which he states:

And I’m a loyalist: I stood up for Charles Kennedy as leader right to the end because he didn’t deserve to be treated the way he was.

This isn’t positive campaigning – it is reopening old wounds. Nor is it presidential. And nor is it loyal: as my original question asked, don’t Clegg and Cable deserve credit for taking a difficult stand they believe in, for the good of the party? I handed Lembit an opportunity to make amends here and he rather threw it back in my face.

QUESTION: Why didn’t Lembit stand against Simon Hughes in 2006? Hughes presided over a string of failures, most notoriously watching the party’s membership fall by 10,000 members despite having pledged to treble the membership in two years. Again, doesn’t that suggest a lack of resolve?

ANSWER: Simon beat me for the Presidency in 2004, and I judged that my best contribution would be as Senior Vice President – Simon’s Number 2 basically. We work well together and I felt the right thing to do was to actively sign Simon’s nomination form in 2006 as a vote of confidence in his Presidency and for an effective team. He’s popular, hard working and I think the membership has enjoyed his incumbency a lot. I’m a democrat and I was happy to go along with what feels like a consensus. For me to have stood against him in 2006 would have been both pointless and vain glorious.

Well that’s a shame because had Lembit stood back then I would not only have voted for him but actively supported him. Indeed, it was this decision to not contest which gave me second thoughts about him.

What’s more, in early 2006, Lembit was still announcing an intention to stand. I remember him at the Blackpool conference in 2005, leading the fight against Simon Hughes’ proposals for ethnic minority shortlists. He was very keen to be seen to be opposing Simon then and if he was in awe of Simon’s mastery of the office of President while I was on the FE with the both of them (2004-2005), Lembit kept it pretty well hidden.

QUESTION: Why wasn’t Lembit’s campaign ready in Bournemouth? Frankly, it was a total mess. Ros Scott launched her campaign exactly 12 months before, so it isn’t as if Lembit didn’t know she was serious. Is this the level of professionalism we can expect from him? Don’t actions speak louder than words?

ANSWER: My best friend, David Hamer, died on 6th August 2008 with no warning, aged 46. I’d also had some other very difficult personal news shortly before this. I had to deal with these emotional body blows first. This meant I didn’t have so much stuff organised at the Bournemouth conference. I’d also managed to contract something like bronchitis at the time, which I’m sure was a direct result of the emotional distress I was experiencing. These things happen and you can’t really plan for them. I’m glad I got through it as fast as I did. A lot of people have been hugely supportive over this period. I’m really grateful to have had this support – I can’t put my thanks into words really. Anyway, that’s why I didn’t have so many leaflets and all that at Conference.

That’s all fair enough, but at the risk of sounding like a heartless bastard, there are two problems with this answer:

Firstly, Ros was quite openly campaigning from the start of the Autumn Conference in 2007. It was quite clear how she was planning to play things. Lembit really needed to be getting his act together long before the summer. He didn’t.

Secondly, he did spend a considerable amount of time running his Segway campaign throughout September. Once again, it boils down to priorities.

My own view is that Lembit didn’t prepare adequately because he didn’t take Ros’ campaign seriously. It was pure hubris. Win or lose he has been forced to revise that opinion, which can only be a good thing.

Anyway, that’s my two-penneth. In hindsight, I probably ought to have pushed harder on why Lembit squandered his housing brief at a time when housing hasn’t been as high profile a portfolio in years, but I’ll have to let that one go. The ballots close at the end of the week and I think it’s fair to say I’ve well and truly had my say by now. My personal instinct is that it will be close: Lembit’s profile broadly helps him in an all-member ballot, but the lack of real fizz to the campaign makes it likely that turnout will be low – and that can only help Ros. If you haven’t voted yet, then bear in mind you could really make the difference.

Either way it has been a fascinating campaign. My fervent hope is that it points to a more vibrant style of internal elections to the ones we’ve had in the past and that 2006 will be the last occasion in which the election for Party President is uncontested. We’ll see in 2010!

Grassroots beats astroturfing – official

With apologies for running two Lib Dem presidential election stories in one day – I am trying to cut down – promise!

Remember Lembit claiming he was set to win because he had more members on his Facebook group than the other candidates? Of course, since anyone can join a Facebook group, it turned out that Mark Littlewood for one was only registered so he could get more information, and a large number of other people appeared to simply be members because they were nutty-bonkers students, it didn’t mean very much.

But it is pretty significant when even Lembit’s attempts at astroturfing pale away into insignificance compared to Ros’ attempts at recruiting actual supporters:

If I were running Ros’ campaign, I’d be on the blower to the BBC to insist they do a piece on this, for balance.

Oh, and don’t forget to join my new group.

Why I’ll be voting for Ros Scott

I’ve spent a significant amount of time over the past month or so criticising the other two candidates, but what I haven’t done is write about why I’m voting for Ros.

The shortest and simplest reason is that for the past year I’ve seen her walk the talk. The other two candidates talk a lot about campaigning. Ros has got off her arse, toured the country, developed a brand, shored up supporters, experimented with social media (successfully) and built momentum. A year ago, her chances of beating Lembit were minimal. Rather than settling for second place and a pat on the head, she’s worked her socks off to turn that around.

Now, I supported Lembit in 2004 and I agree with his lot of his supporters that he is one of the best trainers and motivators the party has. But Lembit’s response to this very public onslaught by Ros has been complacency. I wasn’t expecting him to go into full scale campaign mode in October 2007. But when I started my Where’s Lemby…? series of blog posts is was because I fully expected him to have a campaign team ready and waiting to get moving. I thought the blog posts might last a few days, a week at most, and that at best I would be able to leech some of the momentum from his launch. But there was no launch, at least not one to speak off. He just about managed to get a website up and running halfway through conference but even that was appallingly cack-handed.

The role of Federal President has very few powers. What powers it has is soft, not hard; it is not a point-and-click role by any means. Successful presidents need a combination of diplomacy, strategic vision and drive. Of the two presidents I served under on the Federal Executive, Navnit Dholakia had all three of those qualities to a greater or lesser extent, while Simon Hughes completely lacked a sense of strategy (and while I don’t think anyone could get away with accusing the Simon-The-Human-Dynamo of lacking drive, he did give up on his pledge to grow the party’s membership base remarkably quickly). Lembit’s big problem is drive, which explains why despite his seniority in both the FE and the Welsh Party, his liberal instincts, his charisma and his intellect he has never managed to deliver anything even close to what his manifesto proposes in the past. He gets bored too easily. The sad fact is that does not merely make him less effective than he could be, it makes him a positive liability at times.

Having seen Ros both up close and at a distance, it is my judgement that she has all three in spades. But fundamentally, she really wants the job. Lembit really wanted it in 2004 and it showed. The difference between the campaign he ran then and the campaign he is running now is huge.

Dynamism is the single most important quality in political campaigning. Everything else comes second in this election. For that reason I urge everyone to do the party a favour and give Ros Scott your first preference.

What the Big Brother incident says about Lembit’s narrative… and campaign.

Claims that Lembit will be appearing on the next Celebrity Big Brother have now been vigourously denied. But there remain two problems.

The first thing is that the story “rang” true. CBB is pretty much the only celebrity reality TV show Lembit hasn’t appeared on. He’s made much out of his appearances on I’m a Celebrity and Celebrity Apprentice*. And he has of course appeared on a myriad of other chat and panel shows. By contrast, no-one would have believed the story about Ros Scott or indeed pretty much any other MP. That is an image problem which Lembit himself has cultivated. So while it may indeed be “mischief” to invent stories such as this, it is only planting a seed in well cultivated soil.

The second thing is the length of time it took to rebut the story. Indeed, at the time of writing (1.20pm) the denial has yet to appear on his official website. No bloggers were briefed to start the rebuttal process. Why the length of time? Could it be that his campaign team weren’t completely sure the story wasn’t true and wasted the morning trying to track down the candidate? This suggests that a) Team Lembit perceive the same image problem that the rest of us do and b) either the campaigners or the candidate is not really concentrating on the fight.

Issuing a denial on a website is a five minute job. Is it really too much to expect Lembit to sort this out?

UPDATE: * Not forgetting Big Brother’s Little Brother of course**.

** Oops. Didn’t mention the All Star Talent Show, All-Star Mr and Mrs, Celebrity Weakest Link and Celebrity Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

Lembit’s nuclear option

As you will no doubt have read by now, the Sun is claiming that Lembit Opik has agreed to take part in 2009’s Celebrity Big Brother. Thus far, Team Lembit have issued no denial, suggesting it is either true or they are in complete disarray.

A thought though occurs: assuming CBB starts at around the same time as it did in 2007, Lembit’s participation would prevent him from taking part in either his first or second Federal Executive meeting (so much for that much-vaunted high attendence record). I find it awfully hard to believe that intense pressure will not be brought to bear to prevent him from doing that. By contrast, if he doesn’t get elected, then who will be able to prevent him from taking part?

I’m sure Lembit has thought that one through. So a thought occurs: is the choice he is offering us that either he will get elected, knuckle down and take his presidency seriously or he will continue going down the path of establishing himself as a celeb TV fixture. So people are being offered the Hobson’s Choice of either electing him or having him make the party look ridiculous. In other contexts, that looks rather a lot like blackmail.

In some ways though, he is doing us a favour. By raising the stakes in this way he is dramatising a choice the Lib Dems have to make: do you want to be taken seriously or be dismissed as wacky eccentrics? A decisive Ros Scott victory will send a signal that the party is raising its game.

Lembit versus Lembit

Lembit OpikLembit is making a great deal out of the fact that he has more Facebook supporters than Ros Scott, which is fair enough. I’ve never bought into this idea that this election is a shoe-in for Ros Scott. He can also claim a mini-coup in the fact that Mark Littlewood has abandoned ship and is backing Lembit over and above his Liberal Vision colleague Chandila Fernando.

One thing that confuses me about the Lembit Facebook strategy though is how come he has two, apparently official Facebook groups? One has 516 members, the other features an official video. It’s almost as if they launched an official Facebook group but it was less successful than a disparate group of supporters who had managed to get more people to sign up in the same amount of time, so they abanoned ship. With the website change as well, it certainly does seem as if there has been a mini-coup d’etat within Team Opik. But if you have to save your candidate from himself, is he really worth saving?