Tag Archives: strategy

Suzanne Moore and ever decreasing circles

Suzanne-Moore-006I’ve been pondering over whether to write a post about identity politics-centred twitterstorms for a while now, but each time I get close to doing so, I back off. The reason? A fear of getting engulfed in the same maelstrom that I’d be commenting on. That in itself is probably a good reason to write, but I think I should start off with a number of disclaimers.

Firstly, this blog is primarily a means by which I seek to order my own thoughts. I welcome other people’s constructive feedback because that, in turn this helps to further order my thoughts. If people agree or are inspired by what I say that’s tremendous. What it most certainly is not is an attempt to lecture people or hector them. If you are tempted to verbally assault me for anything I write here, please consider for a moment that it may just be that we disagree (or that you don’t like what I have to say) rather than assume I am being condescending or trying to silence you. I am certainly not attempting to speak for anyone other than myself.

Secondly, my knowledge of gender studies is almost certainly defective although I do my best to look up and understand unfamiliar terms. If I get any concepts wrong here (in fact, I’ve ended up largely trying to avoid them to make this article as accessible as possible), then I’m sorry and would be happy to make a correction if you point them out.

Thirdly, I’m writing this as someone who has been a political campaigner for 18 years (Has it really been 18 years?) and in the spirit of support for cultural and economic equality for everyone regardless of their identity or background. I hope that anyone who reads this will find it interesting and useful. In all likelihood, it won’t be. Either way, please read it with that in mind rather than view it automatically with suspicion as something written by a white, middle aged, middle class, southern English man in an exclusive, long term heterosexual relationship.

Why all the disclaimers and nervousness? Because some of the people involved in this storm are people I have tremendous respect and admiration for, and I really don’t want to fall out with them. At the same time, it feels as if the battle lines have been drawn in this debate and people seem to get pigeonholed (or indeed pigeonhole themselves) on one side of the debate or the other within seconds. Rational or not, it does feel somewhat as if the odd wrong word here or there is liable to blow up in my face. From reading Stella Duffy’s article on the Suzanne Moore row, it would appear that it isn’t just white middle class men who have this anxiety.

I genuinely can’t decide whether it is to queer feminists’ credit or detriment that I’m as concerned as I am about blundering into this debate as I am in a way that I wouldn’t think twice about in pretty much any other subject (I blog on all subjects these days much less than I do, but that has more to do with a fear of repeating myself than actually offending anyone). People being mindful of the language they use is a good thing; sclerosis caused by a fear about unintentionally offending people is not. Disagreeing in public with someone you like – especially if that person is experiencing a crisis to a greater or lesser extent – is much harder than disagreeing with someone you don’t.

It’s further complicated by my indecision about to what extent I actually disagree or who I disagree with. When considering the recent rows between, for example, Caitlin Moran and her critics over the last few weeks, there have been numerous times when I’ve switched sides as a new fact here or there emerged.

Finally there is the fact that I’m not perfect, and indeed my own views are evolving. My interest in feminism over the past decade, and especially over the last five years, has increased enormously partly as I’ve changed and partly as what I perceived as a rather sterile debate has revived itself. Would I blunder into the “female political blogosphere” debate quite as cackhandedly and insensitively as I did five years ago? One of the problems with having views which are emergent, is that you are rarely confident of them, especially when there are things you are on the record of having written in the recent past which you are not entirely proud of.

Anyway, enough introspection and onto the main purpose of this article. I can’t really improve on Stavvers’ analysis of the Suzanne Moore row (at least as of Friday; it has moved on since then). For me though, the most depressing moment was when I saw Graham Linehan tweet this:


Needs finessing, but a new logo for Twitter?  on Twitpic
I know a lot of people dismissed Linehan’s views a long time ago as just another member of the privileged elite closing ranks, but I was genuinely surprised to see someone who considers himself to be on the left making such a crass intervention; this isn’t so much Jeremy Clarkson-lite as Jeremy Clarkson. Even as an adolescent in the 80s in a boys school for whom women were an alien species, Millie Tant seemed like a particular low point for Viz. The jokes seemed to be just a little bit too obvious; the target just a tiny bit too easy; the strip just a teensy bit too defensive. The implication of Linehan’s tweet was that we are going back to a point in which feminism and mainstream culture simply had nothing to say to each other and that he, as part of the mainstream, was putting as much distance between it and himself as possible.

Suzanne Moore’s wounds this week were entirely self inflicted. Her response to her critics was to give them both barrels and ended up escalating the argument from a small matter of poor taste and judgement to becoming grossly offensive in a matter of minutes. What I hope her most fervent critics have noticed however is that an awful lot of sensible, rational supporters of equality ended up taking her side. In most cases, that was a kneejerk reaction having failed to bother reading the debate, let alone what Moore herself actually said (today’s revulsion by many of the same people to the Julie Burchill article in which she does little more than repeat the thrust of Moore’s argument suggests that), but who can say they don’t depend on heuristics when it comes to taking side in a debate?

It seems to me that there’s a perception problem here that somehow needs to get tackled. The problem is, we seem to be experiencing a case of ever decreasing circles here. As Stavvers writes:

Privileged person nakedly articulates something privileged or wrong or harmful. It pisses off those who are harmed by it–or those who know just how harmful such naked articulations of privilege can be. We express this. We are told not to be angry, or rude, to be rational and logical. It is all derailed. The privileged person fails to learn, change, grow, be better. They act as though they are the victim of some unreasonable mob, never giving a second’s thought to why people are angry.

I understand and share Stavvers’ and others’ frustration at this. Where (I think) I disagree with her is that the answer is to plough on, getting steadily angrier, until the “revolution” arrives (ironically of course, Suzanne Moore’s article which started this latest cycle was also in defence of anger).

Notwithstanding the fact that Burchill may have indirectly helped matters by laying her transphobia bare for all to see in her defence of Moore, I don’t see this circle and widening gulf ending well for the queer feminists. The greater danger is a return to the situation in the 90s in which feminists, when they occasionally emerged blinking into the spotlight of mainstream attention at all, had nothing more to say other than that the fight had been won by a mixture of Thatcherism, Madonna and the Spice Girls. It’s been quite refreshing to see women of the generation after mine take ownership of feminism in the way that women (let alone men) of my generation largely did not. At the moment, I worry that this trend may be on the verge of reversing.

None of this is intended to let the commentariat off the hook. The target of much of this ire recently has been Caitlin Moran. Helen Lewis wrote a blog a couple of weeks ago which went through many of the Caitlin Moran controversies. I found it genuinely enlightening, and it presents a much more sympathetic figure in Moran than her critics tend to present. But if the defenders of Moore were guilty of letting their prejudices about her critics blind them to what she actually wrote, and this is a problem queer feminists must tackle, then the same can be said of Moran. She’s got herself into a rut, with people who ought to be her champions hating her. And it’s happened because she lets her temper and weakness for a cheap gag and playing to the audience get the better of her too often. She’s allowed herself to become surrounded by a group of likeminded writers who, like her, have gone from fearing the mob to actively baiting it. And in doing so, all too often she betrays the values she espouses.

Is rapprochement really too much to ask for? Is the gulf between these two sides really so great? It is terribly fashionable to say that the left likes its infighting, but I’m not sure that actually applies to more than a minority; most people just find it all rather alienating.

For the commentariat, the demands are pretty simple: have a bit of care for your language and don’t make a minority group which faces prejudice and oppression the butt of a cheap laugh, no matter how “accessible” that makes you as a writer (I don’t believe this anyway; in what way would Suzanne Moore’s article have been undermined if she’s replaced “Brazilian transsexual” with “supermodel”? If anything it would have made it more accessible). If you lose your temper on Twitter, like Moran did when she ill-advisedly told someone she “literally couldn’t give a shit about” women of colour, then expect a storm. As a public figure, you can’t complain when it leads to a load of abuse any more than any politician could do so if they made a gaffe.

And there’s the rub. Because what a lot of this row feels like to me is a group of people who are incredibly uncomfortable with the slow dawning realisation that social media, a thing they hitherto embraced as a great leveller, is leading to increased scrutiny and thus accountability that they assumed would only happen to “them” – the politicians, bankers and business people who they perceived as alien and thus the problem. It must be a horrible feeling to suddenly realise you are perceived in much the same way as the people you yourself consider to be the establishment.

As someone who, in a previous lifetime, was a relatively high profile Liberal Democrat blogger and activist, that level of scrutiny and, yes, abuse, is something I take for granted (admittedly, at a lower level). Yes, it is often difficult to deal with and you wouldn’t be human if you always dealt with it with that perfect blend of diplomacy, tact and humour that is often necessary. But however unfair much of it is, it’s a fact of life.

It is worth noting that when politicians get abuse on social media they don’t, as a rule, attempt to smear all their critics with the same brush when responding to it. A few exceptions exist, notably people like Nadine Dorries. Here then is a hint, journalists: if you invite comparisons to Nadine Dorries, you are doing it wrong. Unlike Nadine Dorries however, all too often they get away with it; their supporters simply swallow it as fact when of course it isn’t. That’s a repository of good will which is being abused. Optimistically, I’d like to think that the commentariat will simply calm down after a few years as it learns to take the rough with the smooth of social media. There is however a chance that they will simply continue to close ranks. I doubt this will do newspaper sales many favours (accountability of journalism is also a theme of the Leveson report and thus received a similarly over the top and defensive response from journalists, but I think I’ll leave that hanging for now).

For queer feminists, the challenge is somewhat more amorphous, not least of all because it is a more amorphous grouping. The fact is that there are a lot of people out there who will happily jump on anyone they disagree with on Twitter and start issuing the death threats and piling on the abuse. James Ball triumphantly spent this afternoon retweeting a number of the ones he received for making some mildly satirical comments.

I find the vogue on Twitter to express a desire to “kill” or “set on fire” anyone you happen to disagree with rather odd. It’s tempting to dismiss it on the basis that the individuals concerned can’t really mean it, are being satirical and that the correct interpretation is that it is simply shorthand for an expression is strident disagreement, but I think there’s probably a bit more to it than that (I also wonder, at the risk of sounding patronising, whether it is a cultural issue and that the generation who spent their adolescence using the internet simply developed a different grammar and cultural norms which us oldies can’t interpret). Either way I somehow doubt that, on a psychological level, having 20 people superficially threaten to kill you does anyone any good in terms of developing an open mind about their threateners’ opinions.

I’m not going to go down a cul-de-sac about whether right-minded people have a moral obligation to condemn the threats; I don’t think that particularly gets anyone anywhere. What I do question however is whether the rhetoric of self-righteous anger is particularly helpful. No injustice was ever resolved without at least one person being angry enough to do something about it; that’s pretty redundant. But I question that anger itself should be celebrated in the way that both Moore and Stavvers were suggesting.

A lot of the time the expression of anger is a just massive suck on energy. But it’s actually worse than that. As a tool, the expression of anger has only ever been effective when it has hit the right target and when there have been other tools at people’s disposal to back it up. The poll tax riots worked – but only because there was a political opposition to Thatcher which reaped the benefits politically. 2010’s student protests failed because there was no other channel with which to direct the rage; ironically, the Tories did a fantastic job at getting that rage deflected on the Lib Dems and using it against them during the AV referendum (and by doing so, ensuring that the political system remains as unresponsive as ever). Anger without being connected to anything is simply the verbal and/or political equivalent of letting off a machine gun in a crowded street and hoping it will hit the right target.

I’m reminded of the Guy Aitchison / Jeremy Gilbert dialogue in the book Regeneration (which I failed to review last year), in which Guy’s explanation of the protest movement’s strategy depressingly resembled the Underpants Gnomes’ business strategy in South Park. To be fair, this confusion between tactics and strategy is hardly a problem unique to the radical left (in the Lib Dems’ case, you can replace “anger” with “Focus leaflet” and reach pretty much the same conclusion – although admittedly all those leaflets have proven themselves to be far more effective than riots), but it is a massively under-appreciated one amongst lefties (of course, there isn’t a perfect overlap between queer feminists and the radical left, but there is hopefully sufficient crossover for it to give people pause for thought).

Suffice to say, by all means hold on to your anger – you need it and it will keep you going. But if you aren’t combining every protest and attack with a concerted effort to build bridges and alliances, all you will succeed in doing is alienating people who should be your allies and burning yourself out. Don’t let your anger end up blinding you into carving up the world into some Manichean divide of light and dark, or the light will just look increasingly dim. And don’t confuse genuine anger with casual irritation, which is all an emotionally stunted individual needs to start issuing death threats on Twitter. They aren’t angry; they’re just nasty.

But the other area in which people could improve matters is in communications. Gender studies is the only field I’ve come across in which a criticism over the use of inaccessible language is quite so frequently inferred to be an attack on the field itself. To be fair, cis- is a useful piece of shorthand as long as everyone is on the same page, but if you’re trying to convince someone who hasn’t come across the term that you aren’t being deliberately obscurantist, it simply isn’t helpful. “Intersectionality” is arguably even worse. Again, it isn’t the meaning of the term that I would take issue with (although the term does appear to have drifted from referring to an area of study to referring to an agenda), just the way the term seems to be so frequently held aloft like some kind of talisman. I’ve lost count of the number of tweets I’ve read over the last year that go along the lines of “I just don’t understand why people can oppose intersectionality”. If each time someone wrote something like that they replaced the i-word with something like “awareness that all women face discrimination and the importance of solidarity” (that can certainly be improved upon, but it’s less than 140 chars), an awful lot of progress would have been made. At its heart, this row is rooted in people being defensive in their use of language; a bit of give and take seems necessary on both sides. If your aim is to bring people on the fence over to your side, then speaking in terms they don’t find alienating is a basic step. I’m genuinely confused why this appears to have become such a shibboleth.

I hope that, as tempers start to cool, people on both sides of the divide might attempt to reach out to the other side. If they don’t, then it will simply be an opportunity wasted.

UPDATE: There was an observation I meant to make in this post about the double standard when it comes to “twitterstorms” but I forgot. It was simply an observation that some of the same people who I observed dismissing the idea that abuse on Twitter could effectively silence a feminist writer then went on to defend Suzanne Moore against those selfsame awful feminists. An example is Hayley Campbell here and here, although Hayley is by no means alone. I wanted to include this point not to single people out but to observe quite how tribal this whole debate has become.

UPDATE 2: A few links which I found interesting:

Lib Dems, welfare and the art of negotiation

Nick Clegg signing the NUS anti-tuition fees pledge.As former, disgruntled party members go, I think it is fair to say that I’ve been remarkably discreet and reasonable. I’m not a huge believer in trashing my former colleagues (and still, in many cases, current friends) in some vanity exercise designed to justify my resignation ex post facto, and tend to distrust the judgement of people who feel the need to endlessly do so. Aside from a couple of blog posts, I’ve generally kept pretty schtum, and have very little time for those who denounce the Lib Dems as having sold out and failed to achieve anything in government, as if the position they were put into wasn’t fiendishly difficult or that the alternative – a Tory majority government – would be somehow better. Generally speaking, while I think they are getting the big picture pretty badly wrong, on a daily basis the Lib Dems are making a very real difference in government.

You can tell there’s a but coming, can’t you?

But, then. Tuesday. What, the actual, fuck? Just for the sake of argument, let’s completely ignore the human cost of yesterday’s vote on benefits. Let’s just focus on the politics. Back in September, flushed with his (non) apology about his handling of the tuition fees debacle going viral on YouTube, Nick Clegg issued an ultimatum: “For me, it is very simple. You can’t have more cuts without more wealth taxes.

Well, aside from some tweaking to the pension rules, he didn’t get any wealth taxes this autumn. But you know what? The cuts are happening anyway. So much for “it is very simple”.

Unless, apparently, you are Stephen Tall: “It’s the kind of compromise that happens within a Coalition government.” Well, er, no. The “compromise” was that the Tories would get a cut in benefits and the Lib Dems would get a wealth tax. Spinning retrospectively that all that has happened was Cameron and Clegg split the difference is delusional. What actually happened is that Clegg made an opening gambit, Osborne called his bluff, Clegg blinked, and got a pity concession so he could at least pretend to have saved some face. Carry out your threats or don’t make them; you won’t get a second chance.

Putting benefits at the centre of a horsetrading negotiation is one thing. Failing to carry out threats is quite another. You can argue that the Lib Dems have conceded too much in this coalition, but tuition fees aside, they haven’t actually done that bad a job of over-reaching or making pledges they weren’t prepared to stand by. Clegg, to his credit, has carried out his threat to block boundary changes in exchange for the Tories’ betrayal over House of Lords reform (although the fact that the zombie boundary review lives on within the pages of the Mid Term Review speaks volumes about the weak leadership of both Cameron and Clegg). Things were looking up. Today’s capitulation however can’t be put down to naivety. What it suggests is that for Clegg there ultimately is no bottom line and no point at which he is prepared to walk away. What it tells Osborne is that he can merrily keep salami slicing the welfare bill, and the Lib Dem response will be the Stephen Tall “genius” move of “splitting the difference” each time. It would be comedy gold if it didn’t affect the lives of so many vulnerable people.

Speaking of comedy gold, it should not be forgotten that the Lib Dems communications department would very much like its parliamentary party to keep pushing the line that “The Conservatives can’t be trusted to build a fair society.” Based on today’s performance, it is manifest that that assertion is not true. Of course you can trust the Conservatives. They have an agenda and they doggedly stick to it. They might not want a fair society (although by their standards, and many voters’, they do), but they can damn well be trusted. That consistency counts for an awful lot in the electorate’s eyes.

It is Clegg, and all those who go along with him, who can’t be trusted. From a communications point of view, flip-flopping in this way is more damaging to the Lib Dem brand than any number of backbench MPs going off message. The Lib Dems’ communications problem isn’t non-entities saying the wrong thing; Clegg himself is the living embodiment of the Lib Dems’ fundamental communications problem. Focusing on anything else is just displacement activity.

Oh, and a final thing. I really don’t understand why it is that so many Lib Dems are so up in arms about Ken Clarke’s secret courts legislation, with talk of special conferences and all out war coming my way from numerous sources, while the best welfare gets is a shrug of the shoulders. It isn’t that I don’t think civil liberties are worth standing up for; it’s the lack of a sense of proportion. Enabling the government to hold secret trials, at most, might affect thousands of people. Benefit cuts stand to affect millions.

Even if you agree with these cuts, from a civil liberties perspective, surely last year’s legal aid cuts were more onerous than the secret courts? I just don’t understand why so many seem prepared to die in the ditch over a principle that affects a tiny minority, while don’t appear capable of doing anything more than shrug their shoulders over cuts which affect a whole segment of society. Again, it appears dangerously to resemble displacement activity; the wider cuts are too hard and too vast, so it is easier to focus on small measures and exaggerate their importance (see also: this utter preoccupation with Labour hypocrisy and opportunism as if that somehow justifies anything whatsoever).

90% of the criticism of the Lib Dems is at best unfair, at worse downright mendacious. But what I saw on Tuesday was a party that has ceased to have any kind of strategic nouse or moral compass whatsoever; that will doom them more than anything.

The Littlewood Effect… twelve months later

Mark Littlewood has articles on Liberal Vision and The Telegraph reminding us of his pamphlet The Cameron Effect last year.

That’s fair enough. It’s equally fair enough for me to point you in the direction of my rebuttal of that pamphlet.

What has changed in the previous twelve months? Mark is right to say that one thing that hasn’t, frustratingly, is the opinion polls. Nonetheless that is to ignore the fact that they went up for the local elections in June (and down for the European Elections). We have every reason to expect those figures to pick up as we head towards 2010 all else being equal. In fact, I think we have a lot of reason to be confident that things will pick up quite well during an election campaign. Clegg has finally moved on from his “calamitous” period and Vince Cable continues to get good press.

Does that mean that I am prepared to revise my prediction that the Lib Dems will finish the election with roughly the same number of MPs that it started with? No. I don’t see any evidence of a breakthrough this time around. But equally, I continue to regard Liberal Vision’s pessimism as misplaced.

Mark, it has to be said, has subtly shifted his position. Last year the focus was all on tax cuts; this year he has replaced this with more ambiguous language about “winning over those who are flirting with David Cameron’s Tories.” But the people switching to the Tories this time are not the ones clamouring for the Tories to adopt a small government, low tax agenda; indeed they are coming to the Tories precisely because they don’t think that is what Cameron is offering (they may be in for a surprise considering what the new Tory intake looks like). Ultimately, I don’t follow the argument that this is some kind of zero sum game between the Lib Dems choosing between soft Labour and soft Tory voters at all. Instead it is a mad scrabble for floating voters who are up for grabs by any party.

Mark may not have got his wish of the party adopting a position of overall tax cuts, but he should be consoled that the party is in favour of reducing taxes for low and middle income owners and that the party is united behind this position. This isn’t a policy aimed at the left or right (although the right may quibble with the tax increases we propose to impose to pay for them); it has far wider appeal than that.

Talk of tax cuts right now would almost certainly scare people right now and be scarcely economically justifiable; Mark knows this. So the question is, what buttons should we be pressing that would appeal uniquely to people currently in the welcoming arms of David Cameron? Should we be bolder in our talk about spending cuts than Vince Cable has been this week at a time when all Osborne can offer us is flummery and his characteristic whingeing? It is hard to believe that would make us especially popular.

The main thing that has changed is that the economic situation has got a lot worse. That’s bad news for those of us who would like to see greater investment in specific areas and bad news for those who would like to see overall tax cuts. I suspect the all out hostilities over the heart and soul of the Liberal Democrats will have to wait for at least another conference, something which is good news for the hedges outside the Bournemouth Conference Centre.

STOP PRESS: Nick Clegg ends Lib Dem equidistance

With his Demos pamphlet published today, it has to be said that Nick Clegg has ruled out any chance of doing a deal with the Conservatives in the event of a hung parliament following the next election. That isn’t quite the same thing as saying he has ruled in a deal with Labour but it does look as if our latest flirtation with equidistance has come to an end.

In The Liberal Moment, Nick Clegg makes it clear that while he sees progressive liberals (the tradition of which he squarely places the Liberal Democrats within) as enemies of conservativism, he places Labour within the wider progressive movement – and thus our rivals. Far from sidling up to Labour however, the pamphlet is a denunciation of the modern Labour Party and a declaration that Labour’s time has now past. Just as Labour eclipsed the Liberals in the early 20th century it is now the task of Liberal Democrats to in turn eclipse them in the 21st. Indeed, much of this pamphlet might have been written by Mark Anthony: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones” pretty much sums it up.

Broadly, I agree with him – at least in sentiment. As I wrote last month, I do wonder if “progressive” is a term that means anything to the non-politico. To the extent that I would consider myself to be a progressive – and for want of a better term, I do – I’m not sure I go along with Clegg’s definition:

At the core of progressive thought is the idea that we are on a journey forward to a better, and especially more socially just, society; it’s a political ideology that stems from a restless, optimistic ambition for change and transformation.

I agree with the second clause but not the first. Like Richard Dawkins, whose God Delusion I have thus far failed to write my review of (tsk! tsk!) Clegg seems to have signed up to the quaint enlightenment notion that progress is somehow inevitable. I disagree and consider that idea to be fraught with problems; if we assume that we are trundling along the road to progress then there is a danger that we tend to assume that each staging post is a step along the way. If we are on a journey, then it needs to be emphasised that we very much need to be in the driving seat and alert to every bump in the road (I think that metaphor has been safely tortured to death now, don’t you?). Indeed it is that lack of critical faculties that Labour can be blamed for; blindly following the “greater good” regardless of the cost.

If we are serious about replacing Labour then we need to resolve three things: funding, strategy and thought. When it comes to funding, it doesn’t matter how dead the Labour parrot is the unions will have the muscle to prop it up for years to come. How do the Lib Dems compete? The last time the Liberals were in the ascendency, party funding was a form of cheerful corruption, as the hereditary peers created by Lloyd George can testify. These days that simply isn’t an option.

Secondly, strategy. We aren’t going to ever replace Labour via an election strategy focused on target seats. It will take us decades, during which time Labour will surely regroup. Yet what is Lib Dem strategy except targeting? This isn’t a question we especially need to answer now, but we do need to have a significantly different game plan in place by the next-but-one general election if we are really serious about this.

Thirdly, thinking. There is an odd paradox when it comes to the Lib Dems and policy. On the one hand we undeniably have tended to be ahead of the curve when it comes to a range of issues, be they Iraq, the environment, democratic reform and now the economy. On the other hand, frankly, that policy comes across all too often as slapdash and poorly joined together. The party’s policy making process is more democratic than our rivals’, yet the party as a whole discusses policy least of all. Quoting Lord Wallace, Chris White wrote on Next Left last week that

He said, in effect, that when he joined the Liberals in the 1950s/60s (?), the party was great at talking about its philosophy but hopeless at campaigning. But now the situation was the reverse.

I for one find this incuriosity about policy within the Lib Dems extremely frustrating. It matters because I don’t believe things like “narratives” and core values can be handed down from on high; they have to be absorbed. Somehow we repeatedly fail to have the debates we need to have; each year we get excited about a specific policy here and there but in terms of broad priorities we thrash very little out.

Partly I feel our policy development process is at fault; it isn’t the democracy that’s the problem but rather its inflexibility. It’s extremely resolution heavy and deliberation light. But the other major weakness we have compared to Labour and the Tories are a lack of think tanks out there producing helpful research and original thinking. Both the other parties have a host of different organisations beavering away at this; the Lib Dems have the Centre Forum.

Ultimately, I don’t think the Lib Dems can hope to replace Labour until we start thinking of ourselves more widely than just a political party and build around ourselves a liberal movement. Labour and the Tories both have these; by contrast we have a liberal diaspora squatting inside the other parties. The decline of Labour and (inevitable?) failure of Cameron to fulfil his promise of liberal conservativism may help us change this, but at the centre the party needs to be ready for it.

It’s a worthy ambition, Nick. Now make it happen.

UPDATE: other responses from Anthony Barnett, Graeme Cooke, Costigan Quist.

The trouble with “Rennardism” (clue: it isn’t the leaflets)

I find myself in danger of ending up on the wrong side of an important debate. I’ve written before about how Chris Rennard’s departure as Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrats is a chance for the party to rethink how it campaigns and last week speculated whether our heavy dependence on “ground” campaigning makes it harder for us to find a more diverse selection of candidates. I hope however people don’t think that I agree with the more crass analyses out there suggesting that the party’s problem is that it delivers leaflets.

Irfan Ahmed suggests we can just switch to emails and achieve the same thing for less. Charlotte Gore asserts that “the most attractive candidate to the electorate nearly always wins irrespective of resources.” Stuart Sharpe seeks to prove this with graphs. But I have to say that when it comes to winning tactics, I’d much rather have Costigan Quist, Stephen Tall and especially Neil Fawcett running my campaign.

Regarding Stuart Sharpe’s “proof,” one is compelled to ask: where is your control group? Of course there isn’t one, nor is there likely to be one since no party would risk the political cost of sitting out a by-election just to satisfy this little theory. There are several factors at play in how a political party does in an election. The number of leaflets delivered is just one of them. But to assume that all you need to do is look at a) where the parties where doing according to public opinion, b) how many leaflets each party delivered and c) the result and extrapolate the marginal effectiveness of delivering a leaflet is simply laughable.

To quote a cliche, Coca-Cola spends literally billions on advertising each year yet doesn’t noticeably increase its market share. Is that billions of dollars wasted? No, it is the price they pay to retain their current market share. In Norwich North, the Lib Dems had several factors pointing against them: the Tories were in a strong second place locally and doing extremely well against Labour in national opinion polls; anti-politics feeling is at an all time high yet and the beneficiaries of that were always going to be predominantly UKIP and the Greens; the Lib Dems’ base in the city was concentrated in the south and thus all local resources up until that point (with the exception of the Broadlands bits) had been concentrated elsewhere; both locally and nationally, the party is established and no longer a repository of protest votes. Despite all that, I can honestly say the we did remarkably well. There was no anti-Labour squeeze to speak of and the Lib Dem vote held up remarkably well despite all those Tory squeeze leaflets.

Now, that doesn’t mean I’m completely uncritical. I remain of the opinion that branding Rupert Read an “extremist” was counter-productive as well as unethical, despite the fact that the more I read about the man the less I like. I do question whether the result was really worth what it cost to achieve it (notwithstanding Neil’s sound points about training and development); the main reason the party invested as much as it did in the campaign was that Broadlands and Norwich South are much stronger prospects and a bad result would have harmed the momentum in both of those seats. This preoccupation with the Greens, too, seemed to be more about their comparative strength in Norwich South: if they had leapfrogged us in the North it would have been a story that Read and his comrades could have used to split the vote in the South and keep Charles Clarke in power. Now they have a bad process story of their own to contend with. Whether that local advantage was worth the substantial national investment is a moot point but one which, frankly, I’m not in a terribly strong position to draw any real conclusion about.

By contrast, the idea that we won Leicester South, Brent East, Romsey, Dunfermline and Fife West and all those other past victories (never mind all those other close second places) due to the relative merits of our respective candidates is, with no insult whatsoever intended to the candidates themselves, completely laughable. They weren’t won by leaflets alone either, but the leafleting was a sine qua non.

No. If you really believe that the problem with “Rennardism” is rooted in our on the ground tactics, you are profoundly missing the point. Far from it, in my view the problem is that this form of campaigning is too successful and has become an end in itself. The problem is that the party has become far too comfortable in making these little gains here and there and more or less abandoned anything like a strategic vision – for either the party or the country – altogether.

There’s plenty of “vision” in the party’s pre-manifesto, published this week, but the launch of this was an interesting case in point. Just like last year’s Make It Happen, the launch was not terribly well handled, with Nick Clegg making some ill-advised comments and local parties and candidates left ill-prepared to deal with any enquiries about the new initiative. As I said earlier in the week, I strongly suspect that the two are inter-related: if someone was spending time working out how local candidates were supposed to be presenting new initiatives like this, they might come to different conclusions about how they are presented nationally.

One of the reasons I suspect the party centrally no longer provides pre-release briefings of major launches like this to candidates is the effective merger of the parliamentary party’s press operation and the federal party’s. Since then, however much better our press work has been (and generally I think it has been), it has been running to serve the front bench agenda and not really focusing on the wider party’s needs at all. During the leadership election, I remember hearing Clegg talk a lot about the need to invest more in a regional media strategy. It hasn’t happened.

The party has become good at producing these professional looking single-issue websites like A Fresh Start for Britain but it isn’t clear what campaign objectives they are supposed to achieve. Where’s the sign up box? Why no interactivity? Why no tools to make it easy for people to disseminate it via social bookmarking, twitter or even email? Why did the PDF version take days to appear and then only in a print-ready 5mb format? The whole thing, along with Take Back Power, screams afterthought and sourcing out.

My time on the party’s Federal Executive was mostly spent fighting trench warfare over things like getting decent funding for the Campaign for Gender Balance. I have no doubt that those battles in turn have delayed any progress we could have made to encourage more BAME candidates. Some things like the decline of Liberal (Democrat) Youth (and Students) (never mind the nonsense that happened earlier this year; the writing has been on the wall for years) required the party to take remedial measures, but those remedial measures never happened – mainly because they would have cost money. Yet I still maintain that all of these would have been sound investments for the party – both financially and in more intangible ways – in the longer term. What they would have cost however was the equivalent of a handful of target seats in the short term and thus were always resisted.

I have my concerns about how the party campaigns on the ground. I do think that the party is relatively complacent about unethical behaviour (although this is exception and not the norm) and I deplore the pettyfogging culture that it engenders. But in terms of what works, the last thing in the world you can criticise Lord Rennard on is his tactical nouse. Distrust anyone who tells you otherwise; they simply don’t get it. It is his strategy we need to move beyond.

UPDATE: Liberal England makes the very sage point that it is “Rennardism” wot won it for the Tories in Norwich North.

Just whose side is Bones on?

That is the question I constantly find myself returning to when I consider the Bones Report. The quandary can best be summed up by the paper’s claim that “across the whole party we have expenditure of £15m, yet only just over 10% of that was campaign expenditure through the main Federal Party budget.” You could be forgiven for thinking that 90% of campaign expenditure is controlled locally and regionally. Is then, the main agenda of Bones to centralise the party still further or democratise that which is already centralised? The answer seems to be a bit of both, but I’m concerned about the practicalities of either of them.

My fundamental problem is that there is nothing, or at least very little, to object to in the Executive Summary and I doubt many people within the party would disagree with it either. It isn’t paranoid to view such soft soaping with suspicion – only good common sense. What it does not answer is how the Commission proposes to do, pretty much anything.

First of all, let’s not kid ourselves that this is the first time the party has attempted to do anything like this. Back in 1998, the party unveiled what it called the “Mid Term Review.” We had a big debate about it at party conference. It included a number of proposals, the one which I most clearly remember being the idea that the party should move towards 4-5 year budgeting over the Parliamentary cycle, rather than the annual process. Proposal adopted but never happened. Many of the proposals I remember seem remarkably similar to these ones.

I’m sure I could quote you at length a whole series of other proposals found in the MTR, but for one problem: I don’t have a copy (or rather, I might have a copy in my parents’ loft but I couldn’t find it last time I looked). Back when I was on the party’s Federal Executive, I asked for a copy only to be told that Cowley Street did not have one either.

Back in 2002, the then Chief Executive Hugh Rickard drew up what was then dubbed a business plan for the party. At the very first FE meeting I attended, this paper was passed (nem con if I recall) by the FE, with the promise that there would be six monthly progress reports to ensure that it was carried out. Six months later, the first one didn’t happen. Eighteen months later, I was brusquely informed that the business plan had been dropped (and that the Mid-Term Review had been quietly dropped as well). Given that the committee as a whole did not object to this analysis, it is fair to say that in effect this did indeed happen, but there was no discussion and, prior to that, no attempt to implement either plan had ever been made.

I relate all this to set the context of this new report. Regardless of the details, within the next six months, the process leading up to the final recommendations of this Commission will have been completed (I’m genuinely confused as to whether or not the Commission’s work has already finished – we have what appears to be a final report yet there is to be a consultation at conference). What happens next is what is important. If the party’s various committees and sub-committees then proceed to carry on regardless then the whole process will have been a massive waste of time, even if a couple of the ideas which are in the final report end up going ahead anyway. It will only have been worthwhile if it results in a plan to which all the various bodies are signed up to, and progress is checked regularly against it.

It is clear that the authors intend for it to work in that way, but do they really understand why it hasn’t worked in that way in the past? Speaking as the individual who was, post-Donnachadh McCarthy, regarded as the chief troublemaker on the FE (a position I never sought but found I had inherited by accident), my recollection was that the party bigwigs were quite happy with the lack of clear delineation between the management and governance functions of the party. This was not because they enjoyed the FE interfering with management (which was always slapped down ruthlessly) but because it allowed them to interfere with the governance side. The unilateral dropping of business plans is one example. The constant refusal to budget for projects which had been agreed by Conference and the FE was another. The people who got singled out and marked as troublemakers on the committee were the people who tended to read their papers. Scrutiny was a dirty word, yet does Bones deal with this?

The lack of a clear plan in the Executive Summary concerns me greatly. Indeed, I question whether the term “Executive Summary” can be fairly used to describe it. It is a 20 page document, which is far too long to be a summary, and yet the number of executable actions within it are extremely small. Some action points are highlighted in bold, some aren’t, so you have to read extremely carefully even to get a gist of what is being proposed. Some sections are so vague as to be essentially meaningless, such as:

We therefore believe that post the general election there needs to be a radical overhaul of resource allocation in the professional party to improve regional impact, the management and development of staff in local parties and to support the capacity development that regions will have to deliver if we are to succeed. Significantly we propose a radical revision of the campaigns activity which will have to double in size if we are to succeed with a split between a central strategic organisation and regional execution activity.

This may mean more central co-ordination of best practice across and within regions and certainly does not imply simply providing more money to regional parties. If we are to provide more money to regions, it must be to those regions where we have the greatest prospect of electoral advancement and where funding can make the greatest difference. This may mean that some regions should not expect so much.

The emphasis is mine. Leaving aside the shocking standard of English, what does “regional impact” mean? And does it mean certain regions getting less money or not? What all these “may”s? If it “certainly does not imply simply providing more money to regional parties” then what does it mean? Spit it out for God’s sake! And this is one of the prescriptive paragraphs!

What this section might mean is that as part of the need for an increased number of target seats across the country, we will need to allocate more resources regionally but that those resources will largely be controlled from the centre. These resources will be focussed on target seats, meaning that some regions will receive more investment while others will receive less. But if that is what it means (and by all means put me out of my misery in the comments below), why spend two paragraphs saying what can be said in two sentences? And why couch it in so many weasel words?

Another great example is this set of proposals in the section on “building a network”. Much of it will sound familiar – be nice to volunteers, build up our supporters’ network, introduce a members’ “package” – none of this is new. The pertinent questions are “how?” and “what?” It wasn’t that long ago that the party decided to scrap its existing package to members (proposed in the MTR) in favour of sending them a couple of all-member issues of Lib Dem News. What does “ways of engaging that are more than just leafleting and donating cash” mean? A couple of examples maybe? Superficially, we already offer a range of extra ways to engage people, such as flocktogether and consult.libdems.org.uk. No one would dream of saying these are perfect, but how would the Bones approach differ?

The executive summary also lacks anything resembling costings or a timetable. This is crucial for its bigger ideas such as the “Leadership Academy.” Two different sources have told me that as part of the detailed plans that we mere mortals are not privy to, the existing candidate approval process is to be replaced by a system by which individuals wanting to be considered as target seat candidates will be expected to attend six weekend training sessions. In principle this is a good idea – replace a system which puts so much focus on experience with a system that develops and assesses the candidates at the same time. Potentially, this could significantly expand the pool from which we draw our candidates.

But how much is this to cost and who is going to pay? Assuming as the paper does that the party is to adopt 200 key seats, we will need 200 individuals to go through this system at a bare minimum (yes, 60 out of 200 of those seats are currently held but you have to allow for a small amount of wastage and individuals who will end up with nothing – in reality the figure is likely to be higher). Are we going to train all 200 up at once over six different weekends? More likely there will have to be multiple weekends – 4 at least. 4 x 6 = 24 weekends which means a heck of a lot of organising and a heck of a lot of trainers. If the party is going to pay for all this it will have to identify resources that currently do not exist, or it is going to have to rely on the participants themselves to foot the bill. Of course, making the prospective candidates pay will rule out a lot of people. Is there going to be a hardship fund? On all these questions the Executive Summary is utterly silent.

It also poses the question, is this really a problem that needs solving? Certainly, a more formalised process would benefit some people, but are there not plenty of people out there who merely require assessment? It is like an company employing drivers and then insisting that all applicants pass their own private driving test irrespective of whether or not they can already drive.

I and others have already gone on endlessly about the plans for a Chief Officers Group and how it is so parliamentarian-heavy. Suffice to say that the one thing that most confuses me about this is why it is intended to be in addition to the existing Campaigns and Communications Committee (which was established to solve the same alleged problem if I recall) rather an in replacement of it. To do so would not require a constitutional change and would meet the spirit of the Commission’s goal of simplifying how we make decisions. Yet only problem with this of course would be that it would force the FE to scrap a committee to which it sends representatives (politically tricky) and would bring into question the role of the Campaigns and Communications Committee Chair and whether it is really needed.

I could go on (for example I could question how the formation of Liberal Youth is “a step in the right direction” when, nice party a few months ago aside, it doesn’t appear to have halted the backwards drift that LDYS was experiencing before it – it’s website doesn’t even mention the new executive, two months after taking office), but I’ll leave it there. Fundamentally, my sincerely advise to my fellow Liberal Democrats is to be deeply sceptical of any “executive report” that:

  • Can’t be summed up in two pages (max);
  • Calls for a simplification of decision-making while simultaneously adds extra layers of bureaucracy.
  • Is so bereft of specifics, costings and timetabling; and (of course)
  • You aren’t allowed to read the full report it apparently summarises.

These are all danger signs and suggest a report that has been written by committee. My sneaking suspicion is that its only lasting legacy will be the COG. And then, in another ten years time, some bright spark will come up with the idea of adding yet another – even more centralised – layer of bureaucracy on top of that.

Clegg’s COG: now that I have your attention…

My CiF piece yesterday has caused a bit of a stir. Paul Walter suspects that may have been my plan all along – the very idea! Meanwhile Tom Papworth orders me to stop “moaning over our organic, Fairtrade, decaf coffees and get on with selling our party to the electorate.” Frankly, that’s not my job any more. I was asked for my opinion and I gave it (also, I don’t drink coffee).

But there is another strand which is emerging from this debate which I am equally dismissive. That is the “I told you so” response. “Ashamed anonymous” accuses me of voting with my head rather than my heart when I supported Clegg in the leadership election, with Jennie seemingly making a similar point.

I remember things differently. I didn’t vote with my head or my heart in the last leadership election. I found the debate very finely balanced with both candidates having clear strengths and weaknesses. As in all things, I ultimately went with my gut (it’s bigger than the other two combined after all). And despite my criticisms yesterday, I haven’t seen anything to question that. But then, I’ve never personally subscribed to the Sun King theory of leadership. I can cope with Clegg’s occasional cock ups because I view it as an aspect of the job.

My CiF article makes two main criticisms: that internal communication has worsened under Clegg and that the idea of a “Chief Officer’s Group” is wrong headed. I suspect that the former would have been improved with Huhne at the helm simply because he is a more experienced manager. But would Huhne have refrained from setting up something like COG? On that I am more doubtful for the simple reason that it is the culmination of something that has been happening within the party for years now.

I would refer the jury to an article I wrote in 2006 entitled “Sleepwalking to Disaster?” (pdf – pp. 10-11). Back then I was already questioning the centralising trend and put the blame squarely on the activist base which has lost its hunger for actively engaging with the running of the party. Ultimately, I continue to put the blame on their shoulders. If the party decides to this autumn, it could overturn this decision. Even if the FE decides not to make this decision the subject of a business motion at conference, conference could still reject the FE report and it could elect a tranche of new FE members with a specific platform to overturn this decision. My experience in the past however has been that committee reports – a far more important (albeit less exciting) part of conference than policy debates – are only attended by a tiny minority of conference reps.

It’s in recognition of the fact that I’m fundamentally out of kilter with the majority of the party that I have found myself taking a backseat from the party in recent years. I suspect there will be a change of mood, but it is 5-10 years ago. I also, sadly, see it happening as a result of a bad election result.

My problem with Clegg is that he has gone native so soon. Two years of centralising didn’t save Ming. In theory, putting the Parliamentary and Cowley Street staff under one wing should have made communications better: if it has, it’s news to me. Tom Papworth is wrong – and scarily, naively complacent – to say that it has always been thus: a couple of years ago we would never have launched a major publication like Make it Happen without providing parliamentary candidates with a rebuttal guide and further briefing material. The problem is, by restricting all decisions to just a closed circle of people, innovation and a desire to improve on the past are some of the first things that die on their arses.

One thing I am genuinely confused about is why COG has been established while the “Campaigns and Communications Committee” continues to exist (as far as I can tell – again, if you are outside of the charmed circle you have no access to information about how things have been changed. But if the CCC doesn’t exist, then it would appear that Ed Davey, as chair of it, no longer has a job). Yet both do ostensibly the same job, even if the COG is somewhat more wideranging. The CCC is only mentioned by name in the party’s constitution, so if the problem was its composition then the FE could have simply changed it.

I don’t believe this centralising tendency is how business works in the modern world, where the value of autonomous cells is increasingly valued. Looking around the world, I also don’t see it as being at the heart of most political success stories in recent years. The parties which are reinvigorating themselves most successfully at the moment are the ones which are embracing social networking and the power of crowds. The most successful parties always have built wider movements around themselves and this idea is at the heart of the Theory and Practice of Community Politics. Yet centrally the Lib Dems are scared of even having a dynamic party around it.

I don’t believe the Bones Commission managed to come up with an inspiring theory of organisation. My evidence for that is that if it did, the party would already be shouting about it. Either way, given the profound changes which have already been agreed, doesn’t it shock people that the wider party still hasn’t been told?

Ultimately, you should always remember one thing: in the annals of history the two most famous people who “temporarily” suspended democracy for the greater good are Oliver Cromwell and Jar Jar Binks. It isn’t a terribly happy list.

Clegg: more walkouts

I’ll lightly skip over Clegg’s call for recall today (I’ve said what I have to say on that topic here) – I happen to question the practicalities but as an act of symbolism it is good politics. Instead I will concentrate on these paragraphs:

Clegg said Westminster should expect to see more protests from him – last week he staged a walkout from the Commons after he was denied his “in or out” vote.

“The kind of anger, noise, direct protest that you have seen from us recently – whether it is my stance on saying that I would prefer to go to court than give my data to a compulsory government ID card database or Vince Cable’s protest against the visit of the Saudi king, or our walkout of the Commons last week – far from seeing less of that, I think you will see more.”

Which is fine, but he should think about the purpose of all this is. The most dispiriting thing about Ed Davey’s walkout last week was his insistence it was a spontaneous thing. So does this mean the Lib Dem strategy is to just be spontaneous? And how does this square with insisting on having archaic debates over whether or not to have a debate?

By all means be anti-establishment, but that is not the same thing as the mindless activism that was on display last week. And it means no more lectures from front benchers about being against opportunism in future, thank you.

The canard of Rennard

Jemima Puddleduck and Mr Fox(sorry – picture simply too good to resist)

What is probably the most important article to appear in Lib Dem News for years was published in last week’s issue. Written by the party’s Chief Executive Chris Rennard, and entitled “Going Beyond Rennard”, the article concerns a debate which has apparently been going round “some of our MPs” about future party strategy and whether the one which has been championed by Chris for the best part of two decades has run out of steam.

What follows is a history lesson in which Chris explains the situation in the 80s when the party establishment didn’t believe in targeting, the subsequent dismal result of 1983 from which “we almost never recovered” and the renaissance led by him in the 90s starting with the 1990 Eastbourne by-election and culminating in the breakthrough success in 1997 when we got a record 46 MPs elected.

The reason for our success? Strict targeting and pushing issues that matter to people. In 1997, lest we forget, we fought the election on CHEESE (Crime, Health, Education, Economy, Sleaze and the Environment).

Chris concludes with the following two paragraphs:

“So what might ‘going beyond Rennard’ mean? A few people might say abandoning what we have learned in our time as Liberal Democrats. But I think that the consensus is based on building on it. If we could make our held seats more secure and more self-sufficient, we can invest in further gains. If we can raise substantially more funds, we can compete in many more areas and many more ways.

“But above all, we have to inspire the country with our vision and recognise that our message must be explained in terms of the tangible benefits of our policies to the people whose votes we seek.”

Why is this article significant? Two main reasons. First of all, this is the first time I for one have heard that there is widespread discussion within the parliamentary party about “going beyond Rennard”. This isn’t like the time when Chris responded (pdf) to an article I wrote (pdf) in Liberator last year. For Chris to write this article in the party newspaper is extraordinary because it suggests that he is feeling somewhat under threat. Whether that threat is real or imaginary remains to be seen. Either way, he feels the need to get his rebuttal in first.

The second significant point is that, if it is true that there are a few people in the party who believe in “abandoning what we have learned,” I’ve yet to meet them. If you ever did meet one, check their sleeves – my bet is they are made of straw.

I write this as someone who has regularly been accused by Chris as one of these flat earthers. Throughout my time on the party’s federal executive and subsequently finance and administration committee, I was constantly informed that I had an agenda to abandon the party’s target seat strategy.

It isn’t something I’ve personally ever advocated. What I have argued, and continue to argue, is that we need to build our capacity as an organisation, that training should be aimed at a much wider circle than it currently is, that certain organisations and projects within the party (the three I’ve most often championed at various times are LDYS, CGB and a more ambitious recruitment strategy) are worth investing in because the party gets more out of them than it puts in, and that ultimately you need to spend to gain. There is a danger in co-ordinating the parties operations as centrally as we do; successful businesses tend to have much less hierarchical models and we need to learn to embrace a more entrepreneurial, “can do” culture that this model oppresses. And yes, it is worth spending a bit less on our target seat operation now* if it increases our capacity in the longer term.

I’ve spelt this out to Chris in meetings until I was blue in the face, and each time been informed that I wanted to abandon targeting. I suspect the unnamed MPs this article is aimed at are in the same boat. What this article proves to me beyond all reasonable doubt is that Chris is still fighting the battles of the 1980s at a time when the rest of us have moved on. And that is a real problem for a party that needs to adapt to an ever changing political environment.

Chris’ genius for campaigning is unsurpassed. More than any other single individual he can rightly claim the credit for our renaissance in the 90s and beyond. He has been the true brains and in many ways the real leader of the party. But he is a tactician, not a strategist. And when someone has been in the position he has been for as long as he has been, there is always a danger of going stale.

If I was looking for signs that Chris is the right Chief Executive for the next phase in the party’s development, this article would not be where I would start.

* by which I have only ever discussed figures south of £100,000 and have always been keen to discuss ways in which that money could come from increased fundraising, eg. specific donor packages where half the money would go to the party and half to an associate organisation, thus locking AOs into a scheme that benefits both them and the target seat fund.

nonEXCLUSIVE: Chris Huhne talks to Quaequam Blog! (part 1)

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.

Party Organisation
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.

Core message

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.

Communication Skills

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.

Local Government

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!