Coronations are for wimps

It’s very frustrating to be busy at a time when major events you have a personal state in are going on elsewhere. I only heard about Charles’ resignation yesterday by text message and even then it wasn’t clear at first that he’d even resigned.

I haven’t had a chance to read all the various blog entries on the subject, suffice to say that it became clear that the consensus in the blogosphere is that a) we’d reached a point where he had to go and b) it was all terribly sad.

The question is, where do we go from here? The whole debacle has damaged the party in a major way, with the assassin’s cack-handed attempts followed by Charles’ refusal to see the writing on the wall. The Cable 11 should be absolutely ashamed of themselves (I have more time for the other members of the subsequent 25 petitioners who were simply facing up to the inevitable). Their action came at the wrong time – being seen as a panic response to David Cameron – and was done in completely the wrong way – sitting on a signed letter for three weeks. While I’m not suggesting that they should all be demoted, I wouldn’t trust a single one of them with any responsibility over the strategic direction of the party.

The big question at the moment is whether to have an open contest or a coronation. Personally, despite being unenthused by any of the potential contestants, I think the latter would be the worst possible conclusion to this mess. The all-member ballot is the best single way a party has to lance the boil resulting from a nasty act of regicide and the killers certainly shouldn’t be allowed to hand pick their chosen successor. I’m quite sure that if the Tories had had an all member ballot after Thatcher they wouldn’t have spent the following decade-and-a-half floundering; we can’t afford to do the same.

But another lesson that I feel needs to be learnt is that while the parliamentary party has a vital role to play and should be respected, it can’t be trusted to run everything. Despite Charles’ sudden conversion to internal party democracy 4 days ago, it has to be said that his regime was fairly contemptuous of the idea. Despite the veneer of the Meeting the Challenge exercise, two major policy announcements (on tax and pensions) were announced last year without even recourse to the party’s Federal Policy Committee. This, following Charles’ declaration after the May elections to end the party’s system of policy making by conference. The Federal Executive has become an even less meaningful body, with all significant strategic and administrative decisions being taken by a small, partly anonymous, cabal.

That cabal has found itself to be seriously wanting in recent months.

Bizarrely, it isn’t even as simple as the Parliamentary Party taking things over; they largely feel left out as well.

So yes, we need a proper leadership election. But the new leader needs to appreciate the importance of partnership. The party’s formal decision making structures need to be reasserted and their composition needs to be reviewed.

For instance, MPs are excluded from being directly elected onto federal committees, although they are allowed a couple of nominees. This may have made sense 7 years ago when there was much more of a sense of Us versus Them within the party, but it is ludicrous with a large and diverse parliamentary party as we have now.

And if we are to have regime change, it has to be much wider than just the figurehead. The same core team ran the 2005 election campaign as the 2001 election campaign. The wheels were already beginning to look as if they were coming off last year, and yet the signals from the top have been “business as usual”. This isn’t acceptable. It isn’t just leaders who become tired and intolerant of new ideas. We need fresh blood at strategic points across the party who are not afraid to sacrifice even the most sacred of cows.

Finally, could Lembit Opik please shut the fuck up? For all his expressions of deep loyalty to Charles, how come it was widely known that he was backing Mark Oaten prior to Kennedy’s resignation, as confirmed yesterday. This is an extremely cynical attempt to boost his preferred candidate by assuming the moral high ground. I suspect it will win him few friends.


  1. Yes, yes, we need an election. Coronations are for royalty. Even the Vatican has a choice of candidates for the papacy.

    I don’t mind if any of the Cable XI stand – in fact I’d welcome Ed Davey standing (although that doesn’t mean I’d necessarily vote for him) . From Lynne Featherstone’s blog it seems that Davey did the organising for the XXV.

    We need an election , possibly after May, and we need a wide range of candidates. Not just Mr Safe, Mr Right and Mr Left, we need a couple of alternative Rights and Lefts (I’m putting things very simpistically I know) but also one or two outsider “I’m more of an ordinary person than a politician” types in the mould of Penhaligon and indeed Kennedy.

  2. I agree the party has been damaged, but I think your criticisms of the Cable XI are pretty unfair now we know what we know.

    November was a key time, not just because of Cameron, but because Charles had a series of relapses, prompting embarrassing last-minute cancellations of public engagements. What should the MPs have done? Let matters continue as they did? Or have publicly disowned Charles? They were in an impossible position.

    I think those who acted behaved far more responsibly than those who did nothing.

  3. James – take a look at this article and then ask yourself what exactly the MPs could have done?

    They were in an impossible position, having to choose between their loyalty to CK, to the party, and to their integrity. I don;t particularly want to see a coronation either, but the main thing we need to do now is decouple ourselves from the media-set agenda.

  4. What could they have done? a) They could have had this row months ago, just after the General Election, instead of blindly signing Kennedy’s nomination papers. That would have kept their “integrity”. b) They could have held fire for another five months. That would have made more political sense.

    And it needs to be pointed out that all of this would be pretty academic if there was a clear successor. There isn’t, and the contest is likely to be fought between two of yesterday’s men.

  5. James – just after the general election they sought (and received) assurances that the problem was being dealt with. Furthermore, Kennedy clearly didn’t want to go and at any subsequent election he would have won hands down because the facts were not in the public domain.

    It is clear that November’s relapses forced the issue; you’re turning your guns on the wrong person here.

  6. I agree with Tabman on this. If they’d had this row after the general election, most of us would’ve have wondered what the hell was going on. In any case, it seems Charles’s alcoholism is episodic – sober for months, then bad lapses. What would waiting five months have achieved? Would Charles have gone willingly then?

    Shooting the messengers is pointless.

  7. It is never easy to get rid of an incompetent leader, unless he does something drastically wrong (like lose an election). Only force majeure will work.

    Now that the deed has been done, we have to put an immediate stop to the recriminations, elect a new leader and set about winning as many seats as possible in May.

    I don’t accept the ageist suggestion that Ming Campbell is a “yesterday’s man”. He is clearly the best available candidate and has demonstrated his ability to lead when he effectively did “lead” over the Iraq War and other foreign policy issues these last two years. In fact, he makes many of his colleagues look like amateurs.

    We may well have a coronation, and if we do, that is likely to be because neither of the other aspirants can find 7 MPs to sign their nomination papers (Mark Oaten certainly won’t).

    Please don’t adopt a blind faith in the membership. At the 1999 leadership election, votes were cast in proportion to the level of exposure each candidate had had in the media (so Malcolm Bruce, with hardly any declared supporters, did better than Jackie Ballard, with loads). And look at the all-member ballots we had in the SDP. Invariably, well-known media personalities like Polly Toynbee came out on top.

    Ideally, I suggest, we should have a Party President, who is elected by members, and a Parliamentary Leader, who is elected by MPs. Policy would have to be agreed by both the voluntary party and the Parliamentary Party. We cannot have a situation where the members elect someone in whom MPs have no confidence. And there is an outside chance of this now with Simon Hughes.

    Alternatively, we could go the way of the Labour and Conservative Parties, where members appear to have choice, but the decision has already been made by elites and the media manipulates the members to endorse it.

    The comments by Lembit Opik are about the most crass and damaging of the whole affair. Yes, Charles was ousted. Why was he ousted? Because he was not up to the job and stubbornly refused to recognise reality.

    Kennedy’s drink problem is nothing new. It goes back years. I have met Charles in person on one occasion only. That was in 1985 and in the bar of a hotel in Torquay. And yes, he was so blind drunk he was hardly able to utter a word to me.

  8. To be fair, there is one crucial thing that Charles Kennedy did which warrants our everlasting gratitude: he refused to have anything to do with Dr David Owen and his “continuing SDP”.

    If Charles had succumbed to Owen’s bullying, the merger project might have been sunk. All 6 SDP MPs would have taken the route to oblivion with an unreformed Liberal Party picking up the pieces (saved from a Meadowcroft leadership only by the 1987 General Election).

    Charles’s political instincts have usually been right (merger, Lib-Labbery, Iraq). It is his competence and reliability that are at issue.

  9. I’m not going to endlessly go over old coals here, just to say that I think that people are glossing over the degree to which self-interest stayed people’s hands – the matter would have been resolved months ago if people had been more willing to bet their careers, and less the party’s future, on it. Secondly, my point about yesterday’s men was merely to point out that none of the likely candidates come from the generation after Charles, but rather had their political formation in the 80s. And while I have a lot of regard for Menzies Campbell, he got it appallingly, crushingly wrong about the Lib-Lab Project. That was why he didn’t stand in 1999 – he was too close to Ashdown and Blair at the time. It had nothing to do with his health.

  10. Indeed. Ming got it completely wrong about Blair and Lib-Labbery, but so did Paddy Ashdown and quite a few other people who should have known better. Simon Hughes was also an advocate of cuddling up to Labour in the mid 1990s, please note; and I seem to recall that Mark Oaten was a member of the Continuing SDP (for about a week)!

    Lots of people make serious errors of judgment. In Ming’s case, his attitude was tempered by his friendship with John Smith (whom he had met at Glasgow University) and the absence of any serious Labour threat in his own constituency.

    Charles Kennedy saw the light about Lib-Labbery when Labour tried to take his seat. And he was right.

    Beware the media assumption that Simon is the candidate beloved of radical activists. In 1999, many (if not most) members describing themselves as “radical Liberals” supported Jackie Ballard.

    I have a lot of time for Simon (he sacrificed a big majority last May to help London target seats). He is a really nice bloke. But, like many community politicians, he’s a lone wolf. I just can’t imagine him leading a team. And his policy stances tend to be erratic and unpredictable. (I still cringe when I recall him threatening to defect to the Greens.)

    As for Mark Oaten, the “Daily Mail” says he is in favour of conscription (like his old idol, Dr David Owen). Surely not? Maybe they mean some watered down “community service” scheme like Cameron is advocating. If he does want to force people to join the Army, then one wonders what he is doing in the Liberal Democrats.

    The Leadership contest will give all these characters a much-needed opportunity to explain themselves.

  11. I agree entirely that Campbell deserves a second chance, it’s just that a lot of journalists have garbled the past and confused the period of his cancer (2002-4) with the leadership.

    I think you miss the point about Simon Hughes being the activist candidate though. Yes, one can massively over-estimate the importance of this, but let’s not forget that he got around 45% of the final vote in 1999. Kennedy was denied a Cameron-style landslide. When Hughes gets moving he can be very popular with the general membership. As I said above, I’m not saying this because I support him, I’m saying it because I happen to think he has a real chance. The media have downplayed his potential enormously in recent days.

  12. Angus – are you the Angus that in the early 90s worked so hard around Southfields? If so perhaps you remember me, as a student living in Ealing who helped you out when I could. What have you been doing the past few years?

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